Daniel Morgan, by Charles Wilson Peale. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Daniel Morgan was a Brigadier General in the War of Independence. An impressive battlefield tactician, his military strategies enabled the Continental Army to deliver crushing defeats in the Battle of Saratoga and the Battle of Cowpens. George Washington, taking note of Morgan’s military skills, placed him in service alongside Generals Nathanael Greene, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold from 1775 to 1781.

Morgan was born in 1736 in New Jersey and left home at a young age with little formal education. He settled on the Virginia frontier and worked as a teamster, which earned him the nickname "Old Wagoner.” Proving himself to be a strategist early on, legend has it that Morgan would leave piles of rocks between his home and the local tavern to throw at anyone who might chase him after a brawl.

In 1756, General Edward Braddock hired Morgan during the French and Indian War to run supplies for the British. Due to rising tensions, a British lieutenant struck Morgan with the flat of his sword for insubordination. Morgan knocked the officer out with one blow. Morgan was court-martialed for striking a superior officer and given the harsh sentence of 500 lashes, a punishment that would kill most men.  He survived, but suffered severe scarring on his back. During the War of Independence, his men would ask Morgan about his intolerable hatred for the British. He would simply remove his shirt and show the scars, often adding that since the drummer miscounted and he only received 499 lashes, “he owed good old King George one more.” 

Morgan suffered another serious injury during the French and Indian War. While carrying a dispatch for a commanding officer from Fort Ashby to Fort Edwards, Indians ambushed him and killed two accompanying soldiers. Morgan barely escaped, but not before a musket ball tore into his neck and passed out through his cheek, dislodging several teeth. The wound left a permanent scar on his cheek. In his entire military career, that was the only battle wound he received.

In 1775, The Virginia House of Burgesses, noting his “courage, conduct and reverence for liberty,” commissioned Morgan to form and command a company of sharpshooters called Morgan’s Riflemen. Morgan and his men were given orders to accompany Generals Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery in the invasion of Quebec City later that year.  During the assault, Montgomery was killed and Benedict Arnold was wounded, forcing Morgan to take command. Of the three units involved in the attack, only Morgan's reached the inner city. As Morgan and others were unaware that Montgomery and Arnold were not in command of their units, a breakdown in the chain of command occurred.  The Continental forces were hemmed in and forced to surrender. Reports of Morgan's performance reached Washington, who already had a special position in mind for his fellow Virginian. [1]

Upon Morgan’s release, Washington recommended him for promotion to Colonel, citing his extraordinary actions at Quebec.  He was given command of a light infantry force of 500 sent to assist in the Saratoga campaign.[2] Suffering from loss of supplies and desertions, General John Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, the turning point of the war. After General Horatio Gates suffered a defeat at Camden, Morgan joined the Southern campaign and was promoted to Brigadier General. General Nathanael Greene, the Commander for the Southern campaign, gave Morgan the job of attacking General Charles Cornwallis’ troops.  When the British learned of this plan, Cornwallis sent the infamous cavalry leader Colonel Banastre Tarleton to track Morgan down. Greene sent a letter to Morgan containing vital intelligence: "Col. Tarleton is said to be on his way to pay you a visit. I doubt not but he will have a decent reception and a proper dismission."[3] Morgan was up to the challenge and eager to engage Tarleton.

The Battle of Cowpens took place at Cowpens, South Carolina in January of 1781.  Morgan knew that Tarleton had a tendency for quick action and devised a plan to invite a premature charge. He divided his men into three lines of soldiers: sharpshooters in the first line, militiamen in the second, and Continental troops in the third. Morgan told the militiamen to fire two volleys, and then retreat to give the appearance of a rout. Morgan’s gambit paid off, and Tarleton took the bait. Tarleton charged his men forward without assessing his opponent’s deployment and his men were soon enveloped. The British troops collapsed, surrendered, or fled, with Tarleton himself escaping. Of Tarleton’s 1076 men, 110 were killed and 830 captured.[4] Although Morgan did not participate in the next battle due to failing health, this tactic was used by Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse later that year. For his victory at Cowpens, Congress awarded Morgan a Gold Medal. Morgan’s strategy at Cowpens, believed to be the tactical masterpiece of the war, is still studied at West Point.

Morgan retired soon after his victory due to back pain, believed to be sciatica. He briefly came out of retirement to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1797 to 1799. He died at his daughter’s home in Winchester, Virginia on July 6, 1802.

                                                      

Tonia Cansler-Merideth

Lone Star College-CyFair

 

 

Notes

[1] George Washington to Colonel Daniel Morgan, 13 June 1777 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), p. 31.

[2] From George Washington to Colonel Daniel Morgan, 16 August 1777 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), p. 641.

[3] Nathanael Greene to Daniel Morgan,  13 January 1781 in Cowpens Papers: Being Correspondence of General Morgan and the Prominent Actors (Charleston, South Carolina: The News and Courier Book Presses, 1881), 19.

[4] Daniel Morgan to Nathanael Greene, 19 January 1781 in Cowpens Papers: Being Correspondence of General Morgan and the Prominent Actors (Charleston, South Carolina: The News and Courier Book Presses, 1881), 25.

 

Bibliography

Higginbotham, Don. Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. New York: Grove Press, 2017.  

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