Men Of The Revolution: 16. Daniel Morgan

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A few months after the shooting began, the besiegers and the beleaguered of Boston became aware of a new presence on the scene. It was a new man, so to speak, with a new weapon; and since there were some fourteen hundred of them—boisterous, cocksure frontiersmen, clothed in fringed buckskin shirts and leggings, given at the slightest encouragement to demonstrating their skill with their deadly-accurate long rifles—it was difficult for anyone in the vicinity of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to ignore them. To the delight and amazement of onlookers, they could put one ball after another into a seven-inch target at 250 yards, and to the dismay of George Washington, who was trying to fashion an army capable of standing up to the British, the backwoodsmen proved as unrestrained a lot of ruffians as could be imagined, hopelessly unsuited to discipline.

In June the Continental Congress had resolved to enlist ten companies of riflemen—men known, as Richard Henry Lee put it, for their “amazing hardihood.” As may be supposed, no ordinary mortal was capable of commanding the respect and loyalty of these independent, unpredictable characters, and it fell to the likes of Daniel Morgan to do so. Born in New Jersey about 1735, Morgan had run away from home at the age of seventeen and grew up on the wilderness edge of Pennsylvania and western Virginia. He became a teamster, hauling freight between remote frontier settlements, and in 1755 was hired as a wagoner for the Braddock expedition against Fort Duquesne. No teamster had any use for authority, and Morgan was no exception; when he was reprimanded by a British officer on the march, he knocked the man down. For his trouble he was sentenced to five hundred lashes, and in later years Morgan—who was scarred for life—liked to say that he owed the British one stripe because the fellow who flogged him had miscounted.

Three years later he was an ensign with the Virginia militia, carrying dispatches, when an Indian bullet went through his neck, taking all the teeth on one side of his mouth with it. He married and settled down to farming in the Shenandoah Valley, but only temporarily; in 1763 he served as a lieutenant in Pontiac’s War, and in 1774 he was fighting Indians again in the Ohio Valley.

Over six feet tall, he had a superb physique and a notoriously short temper. He could barely read or write, but that was no great handicap on the frontier; Morgan possessed a fine mind, an abundance of common sense, and the acute perceptions of a man who had learned to survive hardship and continuous danger.

After the Revolution began, we catch our first glimpse of him in mid-summer of 1775, riding into Cambridge at the head of the company he had raised in Virginia and brought north at a pace of over twenty-eight miles a day. Next we find him in the van of Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec (with his ever-resourceful riflemen stealing flour from other units when their own food ran out), enduring that incredible ordeal that was one of the true epics of American military history. In the disastrous assault on Quebec, Morgan took command when Arnold was wounded and led his detachment against a barricade in the narrow streets of the Lower Town. As his head appeared over the barrier a musket volley knocked him backward; one bullet went through his cap, another singed his beard, and powder burned his face. On his feet again, he vaulted over the top of the fence, roaring at his men to follow, calling on the enemy to surrender. But time was against him. While he waited for reinforcements more British and Canadians filtered into position, surrounding his command, and at the last Morgan stood with his back against the wall of a house, facing his enemies with drawn sword, tears of rage and frustration streaming down his cheeks. His men begged him not to sacrifice his life, and the Virginian, seeing a priest in the crowd, handed his sword to him rather than yield it to a British officer.

A captive until late in 1776, Morgan rejoined Washington’s army in April of 1777—just in time to raise a new corps of sharpshooters and to be sent off to join Horatio Gates in upper New York. At the Battle of Saratoga we see Morgan in his element, maneuvering his thin skirmish line of riflemen through the deep woods to fall on the unsuspecting British, calling them hither and yon with an eerie turkey gobble, orchestrating their movements like a conductor while they picked off enemy officers one by one from concealed positions in the dense forest.