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American Revolution: Brigadier General Daniel Morgan


American Revolution: Brigadier General Daniel Morgan

Brigadier General Daniel Morgan

Photograph Courtesy of the National Park Service

Daniel Morgan - Early Life & Career:

Born on July 6, 1736, Daniel Morgan was the son of James and Eleanor Morgan. Though believed to have been born in Hunterdon County, NJ, Morgan may have arrived in Bucks County, PA where his father worked as an ironmaster. Enduring a harsh childhood, he left home around 1753 after a bitter argument with his father. Crossing into Pennsylvania, Morgan initially worked around Carlisle before moving south to Charles Town, VA. An avid drinker and fighter, he was employed in various trades in the Shenandoah Valley before beginning a career as a teamster. Saving his money, he was able to buy his own team within a year.

Daniel Morgan - French & Indian War:

With the beginning of the French & Indian War, Morgan found employment as a teamster for the British Army. In 1755, he took part in Major General Edward Braddock's ill-fated campaign against Fort Duquesne which ended in a stunning defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela. Also part of the expedition were two of his future commanders in Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and Captain Horatio Gates. Remaining in army service, Morgan encountered difficulty the following year when taking supplies to Fort Chiswell. Having irritated a British lieutenant, Morgan was made irate when the officer struck him with the flat of his sword. In response, Morgan knocked the lieutenant out with one punch.

Court-martialed, Morgan was sentenced to 500 lashes. Enduring the punishment, he developed a hatred for the British Army as well as later remarked that they had miscounted and only given him 499. Two years later, Morgan joined a colonial ranger unit that was attached to the British. Known as a skilled outdoorsman and crack shot, it was recommended that he be given the rank of captain. As the only commission available was for the rank of ensign, he accepted the lower rank. In this role, Morgan was badly injured during a Native American ambush near Hanging Rock. Struck in the neck, the bullet knocked out several teeth before exiting his left cheek.

Daniel Morgan - Interwar Years:

Recovering, Morgan returned to his teamster business and brawling ways. After purchasing a house in Winchester, VA in 1759, he settled down with Abigail Bailey three years later. His home life was soon disrupted following the beginning of Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763. Serving as a lieutenant in the militia, he aided in defending the frontier until the following year. Increasing prosperous, he married Abigail in 1773 and built an estate of over 250 acres. In 1774, Morgan returned to military service during Dunmore's War against the Shawnee. Serving for five months, he led a company into the Ohio Country to engage the enemy.

Daniel Morgan - American Revolution:

With the outbreak of the American Revolution after the Battles of Lexington & Concord, the Continental Congress called for the formation of ten rifle companies to aid in the Siege of Boston. In response, Virginia formed two companies and command of one was given to Morgan. Quickly recruiting 96 men, he departed Winchester with his troops on July 14, 1775. Arriving in the American lines on August 6, Morgan's Riflemen were expert marksmen who employed long rifles which were of greater range and accuracy than the standard Brown Bess muskets used by the British. Later that year, Congress approved an invasion of Canada and tasked Brigadier General Richard Montgomery with leading the main force north from Lake Champlain.

To support this effort, Colonel Benedict Arnold convinced the American commander, the now-General George Washington, to send a second force north through the Maine wilderness to aid Montgomery. Approving Arnold's plan, Washington gave him three rifle companies, collectively led by Morgan, to augment his force. Departing Fort Western on September 25, Morgan's men endured a brutal march north before finally linking with Montgomery near Quebec. Attacking the city on December 31, the Americans were repulsed after Montgomery was killed early in the fighting. Trapped in the city's streets, Morgan and many of his men were later captured by Governor Sir Guy Carleton's forces. Held as a prisoner until September 1776, he was initially paroled before being formally exchanged in January 1777.

Daniel Morgan - Battle of Saratoga:

Rejoining Washington, Morgan found that he had been promoted to colonel in recognition of his actions at Quebec. After raising the 11th Virginia Regiment that spring, he was assigned to lead the Provisional Rifle Corps, a special 500-man formation of light infantry. After conducting attacks against General Sir William Howe's forces in New Jersey during the summer, Morgan received orders to take his command north to join Major General Horatio Gates' army above Albany. Arriving on August 30, he began taking part in operations against Major General John Burgoyne's army which was advancing south from Fort Ticonderoga. On September 19, Morgan and his command played a key role as the Battle of Saratoga began. Taking part in the fighting at Freeman's Farm, Morgan was reunited with Arnold as the two inflicted heavy losses on the British before retiring to Bemis Heights.

On October 7, Morgan commanded the left wing of the American line as the British advanced on Bemis Heights. Helping to defeat this attack, Morgan led his men forward in a counterattack that saw American forces capture two key redoubts near the British camp. Increasingly isolated and lacking supplies, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17. The victory at Saratoga was the turning point of the conflict led to the French signing the Treaty of Alliance (1778). Marching south after the triumph, Morgan and his men rejoined Washington's army on November 18. Over the next several months, his command conducted scouting missions and skirmished with the British. In June 1778, Morgan missed the Battle of Monmouth Court House when Major General Charles Lee failed to apprise him of the army's movements.

Daniel Morgan - Leaving the Army:

Following the battle, Morgan briefly commanded Woodford's Virginia Brigade. Eager for a command of his own, he was excited to learn that a new light infantry brigade was being formed. Largely apolitical, Morgan had never worked to cultivate a relationship with Congress. As a result, he was passed over for promotion to brigadier general and leadership of the new formation went to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne. Angered by this slight and increasingly suffering from sciatica which had developed as a result of the Quebec campaign, Morgan resigned on July 18, 1779. Unwilling to lose a gifted commander, Congress refused his resignation and instead placed him on furlough. Leaving the army, Morgan returned to Winchester.

Daniel Morgan - Going South:

The following year Gates was placed in command of the Southern Department and asked Morgan to join him. Meeting with his former commander, Morgan expressed concern that his usefulness would be limited as many militia officers in the region would outrank him and asked Gates to recommend his promotion to Congress. Still suffering from severe pain in his legs and back, Morgan remained at home pending Congress' decision. Learning of Gates' defeat at the Battle of Camden in August, 1780, Morgan decided to return to the field and began riding south. Meeting Gates at Hillsborough, NC, he was given command of a corps of light infantry on October 2. Eleven days later, he was finally promoted to brigadier general.

On December 2, command of the department passed to Major General Nathanael Greene. Increasingly pressured by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis's forces, Greene elected to divide his army, with Morgan commanding part, in order to give it time to rebuild after the losses incurred at Camden. While Greene withdrew north, Morgan was instructed to campaign in the South Carolina backcountry with the goal of building support for the cause and irritating the British. Quickly recognizing Greene's strategy, Cornwallis dispatched a mixed cavalry-infantry force led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton after Morgan. After eluding Tarleton for three weeks, Morgan turned to confront him on January 17, 1781.

Deploying his forces on hill in a pasture area known as the Cowpens, Morgan formed his men in three lines with skirmishers forward, a line of militia, and then his reliable Continental regulars. It was his goal to have the first two lines slow the British before withdrawing and forcing Tarleton's weakened men to attack uphill against the Continentals. Once the enemy was halted, Morgan intended to counterattack. In the resulting, Battle of Cowpens, Morgan's plan worked and the Americans ultimately conducted a double envelopment which crushed Tarleton's command.

Daniel Morgan - Later Years

Rejoining Greene after the victory, Morgan was struck down the following month when his sciatica became so severe he could not ride a horse. On February 10, he was forced to leave the army and return to Winchester. Later in the year, Morgan briefly campaigned against British forces in Virginia with the Marquis de Lafayette and Wayne. Again hampered by medical issues, his usefulness was limited and he retired. With the end of the war, Morgan became a successful businessman and built an estate of 250,000 acres. In 1790, he was presented with a gold medal by Congress in recognition of his victory at Cowpens. Highly respected by his military peers, Morgan returned to the field in 1794 to aid suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. With the conclusion of this campaign, he attempted to run for Congress in 1794. Though his initial efforts failed, he was elected in 1797 and served one term before his death in 1802. Considered one of the Continental Army's most skilled tacticians and field commanders, Morgan was buried in Winchester, VA.

Selected Sources

  • NPS: Daniel Morgan
  • Patriot Resource: Daniel Morgan
  • Biographical Dictionary of the US Congress: Daniel Morgan
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