February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
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.
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.