Daniel Morgan was one of the great innovators of the American Revolutionary War. At a time when most commanders used the musket and bayonet, he preferred the rifle and when most commanders looked at colonial militia in disgust he looked at them with opportunity. His infamous victory at the Battle of Cowpens cemented him as an American legend.
His accomplishments at the Battle of Saratoga should not be discounted either. Daniel Morgan is a true American hero who epitomizes what an American can do with honest hard-work and intelligence.
General Nathaniel Greene said this about him:
Great Generals are Scarce–there are few Morgans out there
Daniel Morgan was born in the Middle Colony of New Jersey in 1736. His childhood was rough and he would eventually leave home at the age of 16 after a fight with his father. He would settle on the frontier of the Southern Colony of Virginia.
Morgan was over 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and a rough speaker. He was fond of drinking and gambling. His education was poor.
Morgan worked as a civilian teamster during the French and Indian War. He was still a young man with a rebellious attitude which resulted in him punching one of his senior officers. In response, General Braddock sentenced him to 499 lashes. This action caused him to hate the British.
He would serve as a rifleman on the western frontier. After the French and Indian War, he purchased a farm and acquired some wealth.
American Revolutionary War
After the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the British were trapped in Boston which became known as the Siege of Boston. The Continental Congress formed the Continental Army and placed George Washington as its Commander-in-Chief. They also called for the formation of 10 rifle companies to support the Boston siege.
Morgan quickly recruited 96 men and marched them to Boston in 21 days. His elite group of marksmen became known as “Morgan’s Riflemen.” They were different from the other riflemen in that they used a lighter more accurate rifle. Morgan also employed a controversial tactic that was seen as dishonorable.
He would hide and target British officers and Indian guides that the British sent out to scout out the land. While it was controversial it was effective. It would often send the British Army into chaos.
Morgan served in the attack on Quebec. He served alongside Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold. While he served bravely he was captured by the British General Guy Carleton. He remained a British prisoner until 1777 when he was freed due to a prisoner exchange.
After his release, he was awarded the rank of Colonel due to his actions in Quebec. General Washington commanded him to raise a new army of riflemen and harass General Howe’s supply lines. Morgan recruited 500 men and did as the General asked him to do. He harassed Howe continually through New Jersey.
Morgan was then reassigned to the Northern Department where he served under General Horatio Gates.
At Freeman’s Farm, Morgan’s riflemen wreaked havoc on Burgoyne. General Fraser’s advancing force was met with rifle-fire and after the smoke cleared each officer to lie dead in the first exchange. This pushed the advancing force back. Morgan’s men then charged and were repelled by the British.
The men became disoriented and Morgan, with the help of Benedict Arnold, re-organized the men. As the British lines began to form Morgan’s sharpshooters continued to break them up.
The next action was at the Battle of Bemis Heights, which is the second engagement of Saratoga. This time Morgan once again met General Fraser’s advancing wing. During the fight, Benedict Arnold commanded Morgan to shoot General Fraser, which Morgan reluctantly ordered.
The marksman Timothy Murphy obliged and shot Fraser. This proved effective and the British Army fell back to its redoubts. Morgan and Arnold then attacked Burgoyne in the middle of his army. Burgoyne was forced to fall back to Saratoga.
While bunkered in at Saratoga, Morgan’s men continued to pick off any patrols which made Burgoyne’s escape near impossible. Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates and the Continental Army. This victory would bring France into the war.
After the Battle of Saratoga, Morgan and his marksmen harassed the British supply lines.
He was not involved in any major battles and did not participate in the Battle of Monmouth. During this time he became increasingly frustrated with Congress and its handling of the army.
He was never active in politics nor was he a politically correct man which lent to him being passed over for promotion to men with less combat experience and less ability to lead. His body was also in rough shape as his legs and back suffered from the abuse he took in the Quebec campaign.
His plight was similar to that of Benedict Arnold, but instead of betraying his nation he asked to be allowed to retire. His request was accepted on July 30, 1779.
Morgan then retired to Winchester, Virginia.
In 1780, General Horatio Gates asked that Morgan come out of retirement. Morgan abstained. After Gates’ debacle at the Battle of Camden, Morgan pushed his own interests aside and re-enlisted in the Southern Army.
New commander Nathanael Greene took control of the Southern Army. He split the army into two and placed Daniel Morgan at the head of one. Daniel Morgan finally got his promotion to Brigadier General.
Greene wanted to split his army to annoy the British and give it time to rebuild its forces through recruitment. The British eventually realized what was going on and reacted with their own division of forces. Cornwallis continued to chase Greene while Banastre Tarleton was ordered to pursue Morgan.
Learning who is enemy was, Morgan asked militia commanders and soldiers about Tarleton. Tarleton had become famous due to his aggressive nature. He was the British officer who captured Charles Lee and obliterated the American Forces at Waxhaws. After educating himself on his enemy Morgan decided to disobey orders and stage a direct confrontation with Tarleton.
Tarleton had been successful in the Battle of Camden, Waxhaws, Fishing Creek and many other engagements. He was known to be an aggressive commander and treated the population with disdain. The population began to refer to him as “The Butcher”. The first of these reactions was at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Morgan would set out to do the same to Tarleton.
Morgan’s strategy was revolutionary. He planned to take advantage of Tarleton’s aggression and his disdain for the militia. He created three lines, each hidden from the British. In the first line, he placed riflemen behind trees. Here their long-range would be deadly and protect them from a bayonet charge. The second line he placed militia.
Here he ordered them to fire two volleys and then retreat. This retreat would cause the British to pursue. During the retreat, the militia would reload their muskets. The third line consisted of Morgan’s professional Continental Soldiers and William Washington’s Calvary.
Morgan believed that Tarleton’s aggressive tactics would cause him to attack the Continental Army with a full-frontal assault. His gamble was correct.
Tarleton assaulted the riflemen and took heavy casualties. The riflemen then dissolved and left Tarleton to assault the second line. Morgan’s militia did as they were told and fired 2 volleys at the British troops and then turned and retreated.
Tarleton believed that the rebels were in full retreat and looked to rout them. He did not see the formation of Continental Regulars and Calvary and proceeded to charge into them. The result was devastation for the British and it led to the capture of 800 British. Tarleton fled the battlefield with 250 men.
The battle destroyed Cornwallis’ light infantry for the rest of his campaign in the South. Morgan’s sciatica began to flare up and left him in constant pain. He would retire from the Army. He would serve with Lafayette in 1781 to pursue Banastre Tarleton, but was unsuccessful.
Later Years and Death
Morgan would return to the Army and serve under Light Horse Henry Lee during the Whiskey Rebellion.
Morgan served as a Representative in the House of Representatives in 1797 – 1799.
He died 3 years later on his 66th birthday.
Daniel Morgan came from poor education and a rough childhood to become an American hero. He rose through the ranks based on his ability and not his last name. If he had been a British subject he would have never been anything higher than a private.
He received 499 lashes, took a bullet that left a scar on his face and lived a rugged frontier life for many years. Yet he would be the man who orchestrated the greatest tactical victory in the American Revolutionary War.
After the war, he would go on to be elected to the House of Representatives as a Federalist and on his death, he would leave behind a massive amount of wealth.