Daniel Morgan, Rifleman
“Betwixt every peal the awful voice of Morgan is heard, whose gigantic stature and terrible appearance carries dismay among the foe wherever he comes.” That was how a participant described Daniel Morgan during the unsuccessful American attempt to capture Quebec on the last day of 1775. “He seems to be all soul,” another of Morgan’s men said, “and moves as if he did not touch the earth.”
Morgan took command of the battle after a bullet fragment pierced the leg of his superior, Colonel Benedict Arnold. For the next few hours, the fate of North America hung in the balance.
Daniel Morgan was the epitome of the Revolutionary fighter: a frontiersman who achieved his rank and renown through native talent, courage and ferocity. Beginning the war as a captain of riflemen, he ended it as one of the most celebrated of American generals.
Eleven counties in the United States, along with numerous cities and towns, are named in Morgan’s honor, yet little is known about his early life. He sauntered into history at the age of nineteen, without family, without connections, a vagabond on the Great Wagon Road that traced interior Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Settling in the frontier town of Winchester, Virginia, he became a teamster.
Morgan was self-made in what would become the great American tradition. He soon acquired his own wagon and team and hauled goods through the interior. An intensely physical man, six feet tall and brawny, he fought, drank, raced on foot and horseback, hunted, and worked.
Morgan’s introduction to military matters came in 1755 when Major General Edward Braddock led an expedition to clear the French out of the Ohio Country, now western Pennsylvania but then a vast wilderness. The free-spirited Morgan, recruited to drive a wagon, ran afoul of rigid British discipline. He received hundreds of lashes for cold-cocking an officer and wore the scars through his life. He spent the rest of the French & Indian war battling the Indians who preyed on frontier settlers. He narrowly escaped being killed in an ambush, taking a bullet through his neck and cheek.
By the time of the Revolution, Morgan, now forty, had settled down as a yeoman farmer in Virginia. The first military act of the Continental Congress after the fighting at Lexington and Concord was to order the formation of ten rifle companies from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Morgan raised one of these companies and hurried off to Boston.
Why rifles? Congress saw in the long, light, lethal Pennsylvania rifle a secret weapon that might counter the British army’s obvious advantage in experience and materiel. The twists inside the rifle’s barrel gave its bullet a gyroscopic spin that let users hit a target at 240 yards, while the smoothbore musket was accurate to only a third of that distance. As a demonstration, one of Morgan’s men would hold a small target between his knees while his companions shot at it from 60 yards away.
Congress was also enthralled with the riflemen themselves. These frontiersmen – hillbillies, we might call them today – were a breed apart. “You see, sir,” a British officer wrote home after encountering them, “what a wild set of Creatures our English Men grow into when they lose Society.” They were rawboned, strong and exceptionally rugged. They had given up many of the trappings of civilization and learned the ways of Indians. British soldiers soon came to fear these skulking hunters who could kill from afar.
The riflemen were not used to living in a crowded, confined space. They chafed under the weeks of inaction as the stalemate around Boston dragged through the summer. They drank, fought each other and stole from local farms.
In the expedition to Quebec, Washington saw a way to use the riflemen to advantage and at the same time get them out of the camps around Boston. Morgan and his men readily signed on for the march through the Maine wilderness. But supplies ran out, the weather grew icy, and a third of the army turned back against orders. Morgan and his three companies of riflemen acted as trail blazers and helped to keep up morale against the onslaught of the elements.
Success in Quebec, which might have ended the war, came within the Americans’ grasp. But as a blizzard raged that New Year’s eve, the opportunity slipped away. The battle was lost. A large portion of the army, including Morgan, was captured. Hope of an early victory vanished. The war would continue for another eight years.
Morgan spent fifteen months in a Quebec prison before being paroled. Washington, impressed by his “intrepid behavior” on the epic march, recommended that Congress promote him to colonel and put him at the head of a regiment of riflemen. Morgan’s force saw action in New Jersey in June 1777 as British General William Howe feinted toward Philadelphia.
By August of that year, the British invasion from Canada under General John Burgoyne threatened to split the colonies. Washington sent Morgan and 500 picked riflemen north to strengthen General Horatio Gates’s defensive position north of Albany. General Henry Knox called Morgan’s men the “most respectable body of Continental troops that were ever in America.” “I have great dependence on you,” Washington told Morgan.
Gates, a neighbor of Morgan from Virginia, gave him another 300 musketmen, whose bayonets would both protect the riflemen in close combat and give the combined unit the ability to charge the enemy with cold steel if an opportunity arose.
On September 19, Burgoyne’s army marched toward Gates position in the first battle at Saratoga. Morgan’s men moved into a wooded area ahead of the American fortifications to meet the enemy. After some early confusion, the battle began in earnest across the open fields of Freeman’s Farm.
As Morgan directed his riflemen with turkey calls, the marksmen proved their worth. They picked off the gunners manning the artillery that Burgoyne had so laboriously hauled down from Canada. They deliberately targeted British officers, ignoring the custom that held such behavior dishonorable. Burgoyne later testified to Parliament that the riflemen killed an inordinate number of officers and caused the wholesale desertion of Indians and Loyalists.
The late arrival of a body of Brunswick troops under General Friedrich Riedesel allowed Burgoyne to hold the field. But the Americans had inflicted six hundred casualties on the British force, losing only three hundred of their own.
Washington, who was being manhandled by Howe around Philadelphia, had a notion to recall Morgan and his force to that theater. Gates labeled Morgan’s men “the corps the army of General Burgoyne are most afraid of.” He held onto the riflemen, who harassed the British during a tense standoff that lasted into early October.
When Burgoyne tried an end run around Gates on October 7, the American general ordered Morgan and his men to “begin the game.” A natural tactician, Morgan improvised a plan to thwart Burgoyne’s maneuver. Another ferocious battle ensued.
During the fighting, the calm, much-admired British General Simon Fraser rode back and forth on his gray horse, rallying and stiffening his lines. Morgan ordered one of his riflemen, Timothy Murphy, to climb a tree and take out the conspicuous officer. Murphy sighted down his double-barreled rifle and sent a ball through Fraser’s gut, mortally wounding him.
That might have been the most important single shot of the war. British morale faltered. The Americans battered the enemy troops, pushed them back, and inflicting another 600 casualties. Ten days later, Burgoyne surrendered. Morgan and his riflemen, a small portion of Gates’s 11,000-man force, had been the catalyst for success. Gates embraced the backwoodsman, announcing, “Morgan, you have done wonders.”
In spite of the effectiveness of the riflemen at Saratoga, they were to play a diminished role during the rest of the war. The Continental Army, trained in European methods of fighting during the Valley Forge winter of 1777-78, relied increasingly on the musket and bayonet. Durability and speed of loading argued in favor of the musket. The shock of the massed volley and the bayonet charge won out over the accuracy of aimed fire.
Fighting petered out in the middle colonies over the next two years. Morgan, feeling slighted when he was passed over for promotion and suffering increasingly from back pain, temporarily left the army in 1779 and returned home.
In 1780, the British adopted a strategy of using the southern colonies as a base to rally Loyalists. In August, General Gates led a force against British General Charles Cornwallis at Camden, South Carolina. The result was a disastrous defeat that all but erased the glorious reputation Gates had earned at Saratoga.
The Board of War praised Morgan as having “uniformly distinguished himself as an active, brave and useful officer.” By November, his health restored, the “Old Wagoner”was a brigadier general leading a mobile corps that included continental infantry, cavalry, and southern militia. Many of the militiamen carried rifles, which had served them well in backcountry guerilla fighting.
In December, Nathaneal Greene assumed overall command of the southern theater. He detached Morgan’s troops and sent them west along the border of North and South Carolina. Morgan was opposed by British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, whose Loyalist Legion had become notorious in the vicious fighting that prevailed along the southern frontier.
On January 17, 1781, Morgan took a stand at a field known as Cowpens, where drovers fattened cattle on the way to market. The open space and lack of natural anchors for Morgan’s lines seemed to favor Tarleton’s superior cavalry and artillery. Morgan reasoned that the river at his back and the lack of escape routes would encourage his militiamen to stand rather than run.
Morgan’s personality and robust presence served him at Cowpens as they had throughout the war. All night he moved among the troops, goading them with pep talks worthy of Henry V. His unorthodox plan was to meet Tarleton’s attack with a first line of militiamen. These soldiers, many armed with rifles, were to fire only two rounds, aiming at officers when they could. They would then withdraw behind the main line of Continentals stationed at the top of a low rise.
The battle unfolded much as Morgan planned it. Tarleton’s force rushed at the line of militiamen with a “prodigious yell.” The Americans screamed “the Indian whoop” in return, then unleashed a well-aimed volley, checking the British attack. As they hurried to the rear, they were thrown into disorder by a British cavalry charge. Morgan helped rally them, shouting “Old Morgan was never beaten!”
Hot fire broke out between the advancing British and the main American line. When orders to shift their position were mistaken, the American troops began a general retreat. Morgan took advantage of the confusion to form them into a new line farther back. The British, smelling a rout, broke ranks to run after the enemy.
The American infantry turned and blasted their pursuers from barely fifteen yards. The volley staggered the British troops. The Americans charged forward with their bayonets. Morgan led the regrouped militia toward one British flank, while his cavalry attacked the other. The British were crushed.
“A devil of a whipping,” Morgan called it. The battle, one of the most decisive American victories in the war, crippled Tarleton’s Legion, giving Greene the latitude to pursue the mobile strategy that wore down Cornwallis. Greene adopted Morgan’s method of using militia in battles at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina, and Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina.
For Morgan, Cowpens was the end of the war. His sciatica returned, along with a severe case of piles. At age 46, he was forced to return home. There he learned of Cornwallis’s October capitulation at Yorktown and the effective end of the fighting.
Morgan, who had marched off to war with the first contingent of the Continental Army, could take pride in his long devotion to the cause. He had played a decisive role in the two most important turning points of the war: Saratoga and Cowpens.
The uneducated Morgan had proven himself one of the few first-rate generals on the American side. He had risen through the ranks strictly on the basis of natural ability. He had found a way to instill discipline while retaining the sympathy and affection of his men. He had introduced innovative tactics that made the most of riflemen and light infantry. He had proven an inspired and inspiring battlefield leader.
As a Virginia farmer, he continued his interest in public affairs after the war. He sat in Congress for one term in the 1890s. As one of the most famous of the men of ‘76, he received a steady stream of visitors before he died in 1802 at the age of 67.
Morgan was in many ways the most uniquely American of the Continental Army’s leaders. He was a product of the New World: a loud, earthy man, addicted to liberty, inured to physical hardship, naturally canny and extraordinarily resourceful. His inestimable contribution to the American cause was a one of the great strokes of fortune on which ultimate victory depended.