Daniel Morgan

Daniel Morgan (ca. 1735-1802), American soldier, was an excellent battlefield tactician and guerrilla fighter who distinguished himself in major Revolutionary War battles.

Daniel Morgan typified the differences between British and American military practices in the Revolution. Whereas his opponents stressed bulky linear formations and volley fire—commanders manipulating their men like pawns on a chessboard—Morgan, with a tradition of frontier combat behind him, emphasized the thin skirmish line and individual marksmanship.

Almost nothing is known of Morgan's first years, except that his parents, Welsh immigrants, were living in New Jersey at the time of his birth. A restless and high-spirited youth, he left home in his teens and, in 1753, settled in western Virginia. The tall, muscular young man was frequently in trouble with the law for brawling in taverns and not paying his liquor and card debts. As a teamster, he accompanied the ill-fated expedition of British general Edward Braddock against Ft. Duquesne in 1755. Later, he fought in the militia during Lord Dunmore's War.

Morgan's life became more stable after he formed a common-law union with 16-year-old Abigail Curry, with whom he had two daughters. He purchased a farm and earned the respect of his community, gaining a captaincy in the militia and appointment to several minor county offices.


Revolutionary Service in the North

By 1775 Morgan was a tested and tempered back-country soldier. He was proficient in Indian fighting methods and knew how to use the Pennsylvania rifle, a long, slender weapon of great range and accuracy. Not surprisingly, when the Continental Congress authorized the raising of 10 companies of frontier riflemen to serve as light infantry, he was chosen to form one of them and was given the rank of captain.

Morgan's first important assignment came in the fall of 1775, when he served in Benedict Arnold's expedition that invaded Canada. Morgan, stripped to the waist and attired in Indian leggings and breechclout, led the advance. Outside the city of Quebec, Arnold's column united with an American force from Montreal under Gen. Richard Montgomery. During the attack Morgan took temporary command after Montgomery was killed and Arnold was wounded. He fought heroically against the enemy until finally overwhelmed by superior numbers and compelled to surrender.

Although Morgan spent 8 months in a British prison before being exchanged, his performance at Quebec brought him deserved recognition. He was promoted to colonel and given a special corps of light infantry composed of 500 picked backwoodsmen.

Morgan's light corps had its finest hours in the Saratoga campaign of 1777, when Morgan rushed to assist the American northern army, then opposing the southward drive from Canada of British general John Burgoyne. Even before Morgan's arrival, Burgoyne had seen his two supporting columns repulsed at Oswego and Bennington and his supplies run dangerously thin in upper New York. In the two Saratoga battles (Sept. 19 and Oct. 7, 1777), American general Horatio Gates left the bulk of his command in its entrenchments and allowed Burgoyne to wear himself down in fruitless probes. Gates used Morgan's corps to delay and annoy the enemy. The riflemen, using their woodland skills effectively, took a heavy toll of Redcoats. Soon surrounded by Gates's army and swarms of militiamen, Burgoyne laid down his arms at Saratoga. In his report to Congress, Gates declared that "too much praise cannot be given the Corps commanded by Col. Morgan."

A sensitive man, Morgan felt slighted when a particular light infantry assignment went to Anthony Wayne and not himself. Consequently he returned home for nearly a year, until he answered an appeal to join the American southern army, which was endeavoring to halt the forces of Lord Cornwallis.


Revolutionary Service in the South

After discouraging months of inactivity, the American cause in the South brightened with a new commander, Nathanael Greene, who sent Morgan into western South Carolina to sit on the flank and rear of Cornwallis. Determined to rid himself of the pesky Morgan before invading the upper South, Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton's famed Tory Legion in pursuit. Morgan, who had long been eager for "a stroke at Tarleton," selected a site near Cowpens to meet the British forces. Placing his militia in front of his regulars, Morgan had them fire two blasts and then withdraw behind his Continentals. Taking the retirement for flight, the unsuspecting Tory Legion charged into the face of a volley from the regulars. In the confusion Morgan threw his cavalry and reformed militia against the British flanks; this ended the battle. "A more compleat victory never was obtained," exclaimed the colorful Morgan, whose men affectionately called him the "Old Wagoner."

Cowpens, the tactical masterpiece of the war, was Morgan's last major action; he soon retired because of a severe back ailment. Returning to the "sweets of domestic life," Morgan twice emerged for public service: he aided in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion as a Virginia militia general (1794-1795), and he served a term as a Federalist in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died on July 6, 1802.


Further Reading on Daniel Morgan

There are two recent biographies of Morgan. North Callahan, Daniel Morgan: Ranger of the Revolution (1961), takes a life-and-times approach. Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961), concentrates on the man. A shorter treatment that stresses the relationship between Morgan's fighting methods and the irregular war methods of the 20th century is Don Higginbotham's "Daniel Morgan: Guerrilla Fighter" in George A. Billias, ed., George Washington's Generals (1964). Recommended for general historical background are Willard M. Wallace, An Appeal to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution (1951), and Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution (2 vols., 1952).


Additional Biography Sources

Graham, James, of New Orleans, The life of General Daniel Morgan of the Virginia line of the Army of the United States: with portions of his correspondence, Bloomingburg, NY: Zebrowski Historical Services Pub. Co., 1993.