Main Kings Mtn Cowpens Events

Morgan portrait


by Janie B. Cheaney

In the spring of 1735 a tall, strong youth about 17 years old strode into Charles Town, Virginia with little but the clothes on his back and a determination to make something of himself. Almost nothing is known of Daniel Morgan's life before this time: he was born of Welsh immigrant parents in 1735 (or 1736) in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (or somewhere in Pennsylvania). His father was probably a landless farm laborer and Morgan later intimated that the two of them didn't get along. His mother's name and the existence of any siblings are unknown--Daniel himself never spoke of them. His shady background and subsequent rise strike an almost mythical note: he was the true American individual who came from nowhere and established himself as an authentic hero.

The young man was notably strong and a hard, tireless worker. He began by hiring himself out as a farm worker but in less than a year earned enough trust from his employer to be placed in charge of the man's sawmill. Though Daniel would find himself in debt more than once during his life, he saved enough money to buy his own wagon and team and set up as an independent wagoner by the age of 19. He played as hard as he worked--a legendary brawler and drinker in a country full of brawlers and drinkers. There was plenty of work to be had hauling farm produce from the backwoods and over the mountains.

War between the British and French on the frontier meant even more work for Morgan, who hired himself out hauling supplies for the British army. He was in the wagon train when General Braddock's army was attacked and almost wiped out by a French and Indian coalition; instead of supplies, Morgan found himself hauling wounded soldiers. At some point during that same year, 1754, he got into an altercation with a British officer which ended with a solid fist landed on the redcoat's soft body. This act of defiance led to swift military justice and a sentence of 500 lashes on the bare back. Such punishment was not unusual for the British army at the time, nor was it uncommon for a man to die under the lash. Morgan was too tough to die, but the experience left his back a mass of bone and hamburger. Once the scars healed over, however, he possessed a valuable visual aid that would prove useful to him more than once.

He was not too soured on the British army to apply for a commission as colonel of militia (which never amounted to anything), and he also scouted and ran messages for them. On one occasion he was ambushed and chased by Indians for several miles, after taking a bullet through the mouth that knocked out several of his teeth and left a deep cleft on his left cheek.

By 1758 he was settled near Winchester, Virginia, still following his old pursuits. His favorite hangout was a tavern near Battletown, a place that may have got its name from the numerous frontier brawls in which Daniel Morgan was a leading figure. He was often on the wrong side of the law during this time and appeared in court more than once on such charges as arson, horse stealing, assault and battery, and resisting arrest. One wonders if there was a charge of gunpowder in him that had to be worked out, for as time went on he showed more of his responsible side.

By 1763 he claimed a sweetheart, Abigail Curry, and the two set up housekeeping and produced two daughters before ever going through a legal ceremony pronouncing them man and wife. But Abigail probably had a lot to do with settling him down, and teaching him to read and write as well. By 1774, when they finally married, Daniel was a prosperous farmer, militia captain, and respected citizen of the community. When, in 1775, the first Continental Congress authorized the muster of two companies of riflemen from Virginia, Captain Morgan was the unanimous choice of his county to raise and lead one of them. Morgan's 96 riflemen trekked 600 miles from Winchester to Boston, arriving in plenty of time for the Battle of Bunker Hill. The American rifle, a frontiersman's weapon, was scarcely known in New England and Morgan's company caused quite a stir. More to the point, they helped create an almost pathological fear of rifle companies among the British rank and file, who suffered most from the weapon's range and accuracy.

Morgan soon attracted the notice of George Washington and other officers of the Continental army's high command, and was chosen to serve as commander of three rifle companies bound for Quebec. Congress had hatched a grand scheme to neutralize Canada as a British staging ground by simply bringing it into the patriot fold--a 14th colony, as it were. The plan called for a double-pronged attack on Montreal and Quebec, led by General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold, respectively. This was supposed to be easier than it sounds, for neither city was especially well-defended.

On September 25, 1775, the Quebec expedition set off from Fort Western, Maine (near Augusta) into the howling Canadian wilderness. It was a nightmare. Their route followed the Kennebec River into Canada, where the "height of land" forced a four-mile portage of their heavy, cumbersome bateaux (oversize canoes) to the Chaudiere, or "Cauldron" River. Roads did not exist there, and bogs and fallen timber impeded almost every step of the way. Both rivers were barely navigable. Game was extremely scarce and before it was all over the soldiers were reduced to eating dogs and leather. Two and a half months after they began, the expedition had thinned from 1050 able-bodied soldiers to 675.

During the march, Captain Morgan distinguished himself as a driver of men who nonetheless retained the common touch and kept their respect. Ordinary soldiers tended to work a little harder and push themselves a little farther when Morgan was leading them. On November 10 they camped on the St. Lawrence, within view of Quebec. General Montgomery joined them after securing the city of Montreal, and it was decided to attack Quebec during the next snowstorm. The weather did not oblige until New Year's Eve, when a blizzard blew in to mask the approach of the Americans. Montgomery was to lead a column from the south and Arnold from the north, the two columns to unite just inside the walls of the "lower city" before pressing on to storm the walls of Quebec proper. Before dawn on January 1, Arnold and Morgan at the head of the north column began their approach.

The delay allowed the British to rally and organize a quick defense, which soon became an offense when they surrounded Morgan's column on the narrow street. Even then, he refused to give up--backed up against a wall in a one-man defense, he dared the British to come on. Finally, under the urging of his own men, he handed over his sword to a priest in the crowd. Prisoners of rank generally received courteous treatment until they were exchanged with prisoners of equal rank from the other side. In Morgan's case an exchange did not occur until September 1776, when he was returned to the Continental army.

Washington, by now well aware of Morgan's abilities, used his rifle corps throughout the following winter and spring as light infantry to harry the British foragers and rear guard. By late summer, the Americans faced a threat in New York state as British General John Burgoyne marched from Canada with the intention seizing the Hudson River, thus dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. General Horatio Gates was dispatched to organize and lead the American resistance, and Colonel Morgan with his rifle corps accompanied him by special request. The two armies clashed near Saratoga, New York, in October 1777, in a two-day battle generally considered the turning point of the Revolution. Horatio Gates, more administrator than soldier, coordinated forces but left the fighting to Morgan and Benedict Arnold, both outstanding combat commanders.

On the first day, at Freeman's Farm, the Virginia riflemen attacked and drove off Burgoyne's Indian scouts. Later they cut up an entire regiment and rendered the British artillery corps useless by picking off the crew one by one. The second day, at Bemis Heights, Morgan led a flanking movement to the British right that, with Arnold's coordinating movement on the left, wrapped up the entire army and forced Burgoyne to surrender. It was a decisive victory, won when Americans needed victory in the worst way, and it played no small part in influencing the French government to officially enter the war on the side of the struggling colonies.

Morgan returned to Washington's army covered with glory, and almost immediately floundered in army politics. He felt that his accomplishments had earned him a promotion and a larger command; a special brigade of light infantry was then forming, and he wanted it. The problem: he was a Virginian, and Virginia was thought by Congress to have fielded enough generals. Jealousy and rivalry among the colonies prompted Congress to offer the command to Anthony Wayne, a Pennsylvanian.

The "Hero of Saratoga," deeply offended, slung his rifle over his shoulder and returned home to Winchester on indefinite furlough. Touchiness was one of his faults, but he benefited from the rest. The rigors of the Quebec campaign had caught up with him, in the racking pains and tortures of rheumatism. Over the next year Abigail treated him with cold baths and herbal remedies, but Morgan would never again be free of back problems. Though physically removed from the war he kept in touch through correspondence with his many friends, including General Horatio Gates, a near neighbor. When Gates was appointed to command the army of the South, he urged Morgan to join him as combat commander.

Unfortunately for his country, Daniel was in no condition to respond at first; only after Gates, through spectacular mishandling of his field forces at Camden, had lost yet another American army did Morgan pull himself together and head south. The Continental Congress had by now seen the error of its ways and promoted him to Brigadier General. When he arrived at headquarters in Charlotte, there was but little to command. After its near-annihilation at Camden, the army of the Southern Department was building up with agonizing slowness, and of the total number present, only a little over half were fit for duty. Foraging and raiding occupied their time until the end of the year, when a change of command promised better things for the future.

General Nathanael Greene arrived early in December to take over from Horatio Gates. Greene, raised a Quaker in Rhode Island, had jumped into the war at its beginning and quickly earned the respect of George Washington, who regarded him as one of his most valuable officers. He was Washington's choice to head the southern department from the beginning, but Congress had liked Gates better. Now that Gates's shortcomings were obvious to everybody, Nathanael Greene was to have his chance.

It was obvious to all that the new commander seemed to have a sure grasp of logistics, terrain, and discipline, but only a few weeks into his command he performed what appeared to be a fundamental error: in the face of the superior army of Cornwallis, he divided his own puny force. Charlotte, stripped clean by two successive armies, was no longer able to support them. Greene himself retreated with the sick, halt and lame to a camp on the Cheraw, while Daniel Morgan took command of the more able-bodied men--about 600, plus a small cavalry unit under Colonel William Washington--and marched them westward along the Broad River.

Morgan's orders were to keep his own little army together, draw into his force any scattered militia units that might be attracted to him, and stand ready to meet any British threat. This was a vague objective, and it made him nervous. Very soon something else made him nervous--the intelligence that Colonel Banastre Tarleton was chasing him with the body of Tory cutthroats known as the British Legion, along with two regiments of British regulars. Tarleton enjoyed the most formidable reputation of any British commander in the entire war: no one moved faster or struck harder, and on more than one occasion he was known to have cut down American troops even after they had surrendered. Morgan probably knew he could outsmart the Colonel, but had not so much confidence in his men.

The core of his little army was the Maryland and Delaware regiment, seasoned soldiers commanded by Colonel John Eager Howard, who had proved their worth over and over again. But the militia groups who were joining them daily were just the opposite of "seasoned"--what they did best was eat, and they were known to turn tail and run in the face of well-trained British bayonets. Their numbers brought his total up to around 1000, but the worth of a militiaman, in Morgan's view, was only half a trained soldier's.

Through the first half of January, 1781, Tarleton gained on him, never backing off even though severely impeded by the steady rains that swelled every creek and river. By the 14th, Morgan broke his camp on Thicketty Creek and began moving northward. He had sought permission from Nathanael Greene to march southwest into Georgia and build up his troops, but he had an idea his superior would not go for the plan and Tarleton was almost on him anyway. Early on January 16, the Americans had to leave their breakfast still cooking on the coals in order to escape Tarleton's advance guard closing in on them.

Morgan decided it was time to turn and fight, and pressed northward looking for a favorable spot to take a stand. Late in the afternoon he came to a rolling pasture known as "the Cowpens," and decided it would suit his purpose. Some of his contemporaries and later historians have criticized his choice of ground, because the area was wide open to any flanking movement and the Broad River, less than five miles at his back, would have cut off any retreat. Morgan later explained that this was precisely his intention--he figured the militia would stand and fight if they knew there was no escape.

That evening, the general came up with a battle plan that made the best use of militia in combination with his Continentals. If the plan seems glaringly simple to today's armchair strategists, we must bear in mind that it went against the military conventions of his day, and 18th-century warfare was nothing if not conventional. Since he had no artillery, he placed about 150 riflemen in a picket line shielded by trees, to perform the "softening up" that artillery was supposed to do. On his front line, he strung out the militia under the command of Colonel Andrew Pickens, with a very important proviso: they were to fire two volleys, and two only. Then they were to retire to their left and take cover in the shallow swale at the rear. About 150 yards behind the militia were the Maryland and Delaware Continentals commanded by John Eager Howard, who could be trusted to hold that line as long as it was humanly possible to do so. Colonel Washington's cavalry, about 80 strong, was held in reserve at the rear.

The night before he expected Tarleton to attack, Morgan went the rounds of the camp and made pep talks around the cooking fires, explaining carefully to the militiamen what he expected them to do and, for good measure, displaying the scars on his back. He claimed that the British drummer who laid those stripes on him had miscounted; instead of 500, he'd only received 499. So King George owed him one, but Morgan, "the Old Wagoner," anticipating cracking his own whip in the morning. He jollied, exhorted, and praised his men throughout the night; seldom in history have troops been better prepared for an anticipated action.

Tarleton arrived on the scene at about 7 a.m. on January 17 and began deploying his troops almost immediately. While his artillery--two six-pounders--commenced to hurl grapeshot toward the militia lines, a detachment of cavalry was sent to break up the snipers sheltering in the trees. Well-aimed rifle fire took a heavy toll of the horsemen, but the British artillery succeeded in breaking up the skirmish line. Tarleton then ordered a frontal assault by foot soldiers of the 7th Regiment and the British Legion infantry. The American militia stood their ground just long enough to deliver the promised two volleys, and their massed firepower opened gaping holes in the British ranks. Then the militia broke up in a more or less orderly fashion and made for the rear, where they might have kept going except that General Morgan and Colonel Pickens were there to keep them together.

The British, meanwhile, assumed that the retreat was a rout and pressed their attack on up the slope to the waiting Continentals. Here they came up against formidable resistance and for some time the two armies poured fire on each other with neither side giving ground. Frustrated at his inability to break through, Tarleton ordered his reserve corps to move up the slope double-time and outflank the American right. These were the 71st Highlanders, who customarily marched into battle with bagpipes squalling. At their approach, John Eager Howard ordered his right flank to turn to meet the attack. The order was misunderstood; instead of turning, the American right began an orderly retreat. The British, anticipating a quick victory, shed their famous discipline and broke ranks as they closed in for the kill.

At this point Morgan dashed up on horseback and, in Howard's words, "expressed apprehension of the event." (We can just bet he did!) Improvising quickly once he had grasped the situation, Morgan established another line beyond the crest of the slope for the Continentals to re-form. No sooner had they done this than the British made their last charge. The Americans turned and fired, then counter-charged. At the same time, Colonel Washington's cavalry attacked the British right and folded it. Under this furious assault, soldiers of the 7th and the Legion began throwing down their arms, and even themselves, in surrender. On the British left, the 71st Highlanders were giving a good account of themselves until a sudden influx of Americans outflanked the outflankers. Andrew Pickens had rallied the militia and delivered them where they were most needed, thus wrapping up the entire British army in a classic double envelopment.

Tarleton tried to save his artillery, but was too late even for that; he escaped with only about fifty troopers and a broken reputation. The entire action had taken about an hour. Cowpens is regarded as the tactical masterpiece of the Revolution--the plan was perfectly adapted for the men and terrain, the coordinating units worked beautifully together, and at a critical point when the outcome was iffy, luck or Providence stepped in. Also, Tarleton played directly into Morgan's hands. His forte was the swift approach and head-on charge, tactics that Morgan anticipated and used to his own advantage.

But stunning as the victory was, the General did not linger to celebrate; knowing that Lord Cornwallis would soon be after him, he was on the road by noon on the same day as the battle. Before long his rheumatism flared up again and to that was added the misery of hemorrhoids; after a week on the road he could no longer ride. He held his army together until its rendezvous with Greene's, but soon after he applied for a furlough. Greene discharged him most reluctantly, and Daniel headed home for another series of cold baths. The War had only eight more months to run, and he had done as much as any one man to bring about its favorable conclusion. He recovered in time to take the field very briefly in the Virginia skirmishing that led eventually to Yorktown, but even that proved too much for him.

In July of 1781 he retired for good. Daniel Morgan lived out the rest of his life in peace and prosperity at his home, "Soldier's Rest," near Winchester. In 1794 he commanded a company charged with putting down the short-lived Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of backcountry farmers incensed over a federal tax on distilled grains. He served one term in Congress, and one term was enough. A staunch Federalist like his hero George Washington, he became disgusted with Jeffersonian Democrats--"a parsall of egg-sucking dogs," as he termed them. He died in 1802 at the age of 66 (or 67). In the opinion of at least one historian, America never produced a better field commander.


Higginbotham, Don, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman. Chapel Hill, 1961.

Buchanan, John. The Road to Guilford Court House: the American Revolution in the Carolinas. New York, 1997

1998 Janie B. Cheaney dgccmaster