Men Of The Revolution: 16. Daniel Morgan

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Then, finally, came the battle that was all Morgan’s—the classic demonstration of the resourceful frontiersman at his best, inventive, supremely practical, utilizing his troops at the precise level of their capabilities. In January of 1781 Morgan was retreating before Banastre Tarleton’s legion and decided to make a stand at a place called “the cowpens,” where cattle were often wintered. It was not a choice many officers would have made. The site was a hilly meadow; beyond was the Broad River, cutting off any possible retreat in that direction; and by taking position on the hill Morgan was exposing his flanks, inviting a superior enemy to surround and annihilate him. But he had in mind a particular disposition of his troops, and the battleground suited him perfectly. In the front ranks he placed his militia—notorious for running away from battle; and before the engagement he told them that all he wanted was two rounds, two well-placed shots from each man, after which they could withdraw to the rear. One hundred and fifty yards behind this line was another, and these militiamen got similar instructions: hold your fire until the British come into close range, pick out the officers, and fire; then retreat to the third line when the enemy gets too close for comfort. In the rear was his main battle line, and here he posted his veterans—Delaware and Maryland Continentals and two hundred Virginia riflemen—and behind them a reserve. Finally, off to the left were William Washington’s cavalrymen, with orders to swoop in on Tarleton’s right flank when the moment was ripe.

 

The night before the battle Morgan made the rounds of his troops, bucking them up with praise, telling them exactly what he wanted of them. He saw to it that they were well fed and rested, and at dawn, when Tarleton launched his attack, Morgan’s plan went off to perfection, almost totally destroying the larger, more experienced British force, costing the enemy over three hundred casualties (including sixty-six officers) and six hundred prisoners out of the eleven hundred troops engaged, against twelve Americans killed and sixty wounded. In saving his own little army to fight again Morgan also deprived Lord Cornwallis of an essential part of his—the light troops he needed most in the months to come. More important, perhaps, the battle raised the morale of rebels everywhere at a dark hour, encouraging southern militiamen to turn out in substantial numbers.

After Cowpens, Morgan’s fighting days were at an end. Sciatica compelled him to return to Virginia, where he came so close to dying, he said, that he “literally peeped … into the other world.” But he was not done for yet. After the war he operated a gristmill, speculated in western lands, corresponded regularly with his “old swords,” took the field briefly during the Whiskey Rebellion as commander of a Virginia militia outfit, and in 1797 won a seat in the House of Representatives. In 1802 the Old Wagoner grudgingly gave up the fight and returned—doubtless struggling every step of the way—to his Maker.