Little is known of Daniel Morgan prior to his arrival at Winchester in the early 1750's. A recent biographer (Albert Louis Zambone: Daniel Morgan - A Revolutionary Life ) says of his early years:-
"Why Morgan came to the valley remains a mystery because Daniel Morgan meant it to be one. He never really explained why he left home, what it was that he left behind, or all that much about who he left behind. His earliest biographers recorded that he only mentioned his early life by happenstance, and then only when conversation was warm and flowing easily. In these moments of ease, or forgetfulness, what he said amounted to this: His parents were Welsh - given the family name this does not count as a revelation - and had come up the Delaware River from Britain in the 1720's."
Additionally we know that he was born around 1735, had lived in New Jersey or Pennsylvania and had set out on his journey to Winchester after a family dispute, the details of which he never divulged.
While at Winchester Morgan became a wagoner and it was in this capacity that he learned the frontier survival skills that would serve him in good stead in his later military career. He also acquired a reputation as a formidable bar room brawler in the taverns around town.
With the outbreak of the French & Indian War (1754-1763) Morgan helped supply the British Army and earned the nickname - 'The Old Wagoner'. He was with General Edward Braddock at the disastrous Battle of the Monongahela in 1755. Shortly after this engagement Morgan was given 500 lashes for assaulting a British Army officer. The punishment, so severe that it could have proved fatal, obviously colored Morgan's attitude toward the British Army for the rest of his life. He maintained that the British miscounted, administering only 499 of the projected 500 lashes.
Daniel Morgan was involved in the ill-fated invasion of Canada in 1776. He took a leading role in the Battle of Quebec and following the defeat of American forces, refused to surrender his sword until a French-Canadian priest could be found to take it. He was captured and imprisoned for a few months until his release in January 1777.
A detailed account of Morgan's involvement in the early stages of the War of Independence lies outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that he distinguished himself and that his tactical genius was recognised by none other than George Washington who gave him command of a special new unit - the Provisional Rifle Corps, which he established in 1777. It was at the head of this unit, aka 'Morgan's Riflemen', that Daniel Morgan went on to play a decisive role in the subsequent key battles of the war.
In August 1777 Washington ordered his entire army south to confront British general William Howe. The one exception to this order was Morgan's Provisional Rifle Corps. It was ordered north to assist Gates near Albany where Gates' advance had " made a further reinforcement necessary ".
He goes on to say: " ..., and I know of no Corps so likely to check their progress in proportion to its Number as that under your command. I have great dependence on you - Your Officers & Men, and I am persuaded, you will do honour to yourselves, & Essential services to your Country. "
British General, Sir John Burgoyne departed for Albany with a formidable military force and every expectation of success in the coming campaign. He was to march south, capture Fort Ticonderoga, rendezvous with William Howe's army ( advancing north from New York), and inflict a decisive defeat on the Continentals thereby isolating the rebellious New England States from the rest of the colonies.
Things went well at first. Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga almost bloodlessly and resumed his seemingly inexorable march south toward Albany. After this initial success, however, circumstances conspired to place Burgoyne's army in a very precarious position by September 1777.
Writing in his Thoughts for conducting the War from the Side of Canada Burgoyne declared that:- " These ideas are formed upon the supposition, that it be the sole purpose of the Canada army to effect a junction with General Howe, or after co-operating so far as to get possession of Albany and open the communication to New-York, to remain upon the Hudson's River, and thereby enable that general to act with his whole force to the southward. "
Unfortunately for Burgoyne, Howe had decided to sail south and attack Philadelphia with the bulk of his army and his replacement in New York ( Sir Henry Clinton ) showed very little inclination to come to Burgoyne's assistance. This was a perilous state of affairs because it meant that Burgoyne's army had no prospect of reinforcement and its numbers were shrinking.
To the north a supporting expedition under Brigadier Barry St. Leger, which had been besieging Fort Stanwix before proceeding to Albany along the Mohawk River, was driven back by forces led by Benedict Arnold. Sir Guy Carleton, governor of Canada, was unwilling to send reinforcements south to his assistance and Burgoyne's Native American scouts were melting away. Two battles ( Hubbardton and Bennington ) since the fall of Fort Ticonderoga resulted in significant losses in the British ranks which could not be replaced.
To make matters worse the British supply lines were stretched to breaking point and under constant attack from Native American war bands and Continental militia. There was a real possibility that Burgoyne would not be able to feed and provision his army if he did not press on to Albany.
On the Continental side matters were improving. After the initial shock of the fall of Ticonderoga, Congress replaced Philip Schuyler, former commander of the Continental Army's Northern Department, with General Horatio Gates. Gates was not a risk taker and his decision to maintain a defensive posture by fortifying the area around Bemis Heights thereby blocking the British advance was undoubtedly both wise and cautious.
The other significant development on the Continental side was the deployment of Daniel Morgan's Provisional Rifle Corps to the Saratoga front. In giving the order for this deployment George Washington stated that he knew " of no Corps so likely to check their progress in proportion to its Number as that under your command. I have great dependence on you."
General Gates decision to fortify Bemis Heights was a wise and militarily necessary move. Caution was a sound strategy given that American forces had yet to score a major success against Burgoyne's superior force. Gates, no doubt, envisioned a battle in which British forces would be decimated by American rifle fire as they advanced across open ground toward heavily defended Continental redoubts. Arguably, he was well prepared for a battle which never happened. It might be argued that Morgan and Benedict Arnold were the true victors at Saratoga with their insistence on taking the fight to the enemy rather than waiting behind prepared defences. The linked video on this page -The Battles of Saratoga, gives an account of the engagement and leaves little room for doubt that Morgan and Arnold's aggressive tactics contributed decisively to the ultimate victory.
There were two battles at Saratoga in 1777 - Freeman's Farm (September 19th) and Bemis Heights (October 7th). In the interlude between these two engagements Continental forces, principally Morgan's Rifle Corps, harassed British pickets and patrols constantly thereby inflicting casualties, exacerbating supply line difficulties, depressing morale and denying Burgoyne intelligence of the Continentals whereabouts and dispositions.
In conclusion it can be said that even the most cursory analysis of Morgan's activities in the Saratoga campaign will reveal the critical, and probably decisive, role that his contribution made to the ultimate Continental victory.
"The profession of arms does not often attract innovative minds,....This untutored son of the frontier was the only general in the American revolution, on either side, to produce a significant original tactical thought."
"It was upon this occasion I was more perfectly convinced of Gen.'s qualifications to command militia than I had ever before been. He went among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweat-hearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. And long after I laid down, he was going about among the soldiers encouraging them, and telling them that the old wagoner would crack his whip over Ben. (Tarleton) in the morning, as sure as they lived. 'Just hold your heads, boys, three fires,' he would say, 'and you are free, and then when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you, for your gallant conduct!" I don't believe he slept a wink that night!"
"The defeat of his majesty's troops at the Cowpens formed a very principal link in the chain of circumstances which led to the independence of America. ......... The loss of the light troops, at all times necessary to an army, but on a march through a woody and thinly settled country, almost indispensable,was not to be repaired."
The above quotations clearly demonstrate that, in the eyes of contemporaries and modern historians, Daniel Morgan's leadership at Cowpens was both brilliant and massively consequential. Indeed John Buchanan has stated that Daniel Morgan was the only general, on either side, in the American war , "to produce a significant original tactical thought."
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the course of the engagement we recommend watching the video - 'Cowpens: A Brilliant Victory', which you will find (top right) on this page. The main outline of the days events can also be pieced together from the battle map at the bottom of the page.
That Cowpens was a resounding victory for the Continental army is beyond doubt but how decisive were Daniel Morgan's military skills in securing this result and how significant was it to the outcome of the war?
Firstly it should be stressed that Morgan was at a distinct military disadvantage. There has been some controversy about the numbers engaged at Cowpens. Contemporary estimates put Morgan's strength at around 800 while the British forces numbered 11-1200. Modern scholarship has revised these calculations and Morgan is now thought to have had approximately 1050 men at his disposal. The raw figures, however, do not tell the whole story. The British were superior in training, experience and equipment. They had two cannon at their disposal (three-pounders) whereas Morgan had none, and their cavalry outnumbered the Continentals three to one.
It might also be assumed, following a brief perusal of the battle map below, that Morgan had positioned his forces poorly for the coming confrontation. Any possible avenue of retreat was cut off by the Broad River at his back. Indeed Henry Lee, in Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States , says the following concerning Morgan's dispositions:-
"His flanks had no resting-place, but were exposed to be readily turned; and Broad River ran parallel to his rear, forbidding the hope of a safe retreat in the event of disaster."
In his defence it should be noted that Morgan was concerned that if he retreated across the Broad River, his militia would desert him. He also knew that the Militia were prone to 'shoot and scoot' in battle and having the Broad River at his rear made it much easier to rally them should they panic and bolt. Additionally Morgan knew his opponent, Banastre Tarleton, well enough by reputation, and may have considered him sufficiently reckless and over confident to storm the Continentals position immediately upon arrival. This he did, without allowing his troops time to rest and refresh themselves after many days of arduous cross country marching. There is also evidence that in his haste to engage, Tarleton did not take the time necessary to draw up his battle line correctly. The 71st Highlanders were almost completely sidelined during the early stages of the fight.
But Morgan's true genius manifested itself in the disposition of his troops prior to the engagement. If the definition of genius is, "...taking the complex and making it simple." then Morgan's plan to increase the effectiveness of his available force by positioning his least reliable troops at the front of the line must surely qualify. The militia were superb marksmen and armed with the American Long Rifle they outranged the Redcoats Brown Bess muskets by up to 100 yards. Morgan knew exactly what he was doing when he toured the camp on the night before the battle exhorting his militiamen and sharpshooters to give him "three fires and retire.". He instructed them to aim at the officers and he knew that with their devastating accuracy they would substantially weaken the British ranks before they joined with the Continental regulars. Having discharged their weapons they were to retire behind the Continental line and await further orders.
By placing the Militia at the front of his line Morgan ensured that his least reliable troops would play a full part in the battle. He also ensured that the British line would be substantially depleted by the time they engaged his regular troops. This was a form of 'defence in depth' which the British did not expect and for which they were not prepared.
Morgan's victory at Cowpens deprived the British Army of the light troops which played such a vital role in the War of Independence. Their removal from the board also made it much less likely that the British could successfully recruit Militia from amongst the 'loyalist' population.
This was the first occasion on which Morgan had control of the entire Continental force on the battlefield. Consequently he was able to bring to bear the full weight of the experience and expertise which he had developed during the earlier Canadian expedition and, more particularly, at Saratoga. His tactical genius secured a major victory which put the American revolution on course for ultimate victory.
Morgan became ill (probably with rheumatism) after Cowpens and had to retire to recuperate. As he headed north he wrote to Nathaniel Greene (the overall commander of Continental troops in the southern theater) recommending the employment of a three line defence in depth strategy in future engagements with the British. Greene heeded Morgan's advise (albeit in such a way that the lines were too far apart to support each other ) and deployed three defensive lines at the battle of Guilford Courthouse . Although this resulted in a British victory of sorts, Cornwallis lost an estimated 27% of his force, in its achievement.
The cumulative losses in these two battles put Cornwallis on the road to Yorktown and ultimate surrender and defeat.
Daniel Morgan retired from military life shortly after Cowpens although he was briefly recalled to help suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. He suffered from sciatica and rheumatism which, exacerbated by years of hardships in military service, made further campaigning very painful for him. He spent much of the rest of his life building his estate (which grew to 250,000 acres by the time of his death) and stood for election to the US House of Representatives in 1794 and 1796. Successfully elected on the second occasion, he served from 1797 to 1799.
In 1790 he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of his victory at Cowpens. He died at his daughters home in Winchester in 1802.
Daniel Morgan's great-great-grandfather was also the uncle of the Welsh privateer and pirate Henry Morgan. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan claimed to be one of his descendants.
In 1820 Virginia named a new county—Morgan County—in his honor. (It is now in West Virginia.) The states of Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee followed their example. The North Carolina city of Morganton is also named after Morgan, as well as the Kentucky city of Morganfield (originally Morgan's Field) which was founded in 1811 on land which was part of a Revolutionary War land grant to Daniel Morgan. Morgan actually never saw the land, but his daughter's cousin-in-law, Presley O'Bannon, the "Hero of Derna" in the Barbary War, acquired the land, drew up a plan for the town and donated the land for the streets and public square.
In 1881 (on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens), a statue of Morgan was placed in the central town square of Spartanburg, South Carolina. It is located in Morgan Square and remains in place today.
In late 1951, an attempt was made to reinter Morgan's body in Cowpens, SC, but the Frederick-Winchester Historical Society blocked the move by securing an injunction in circuit court. The event was pictured by a staged photo that appeared in Life magazine.
In 1973, the home Saratoga was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Morgan and his actions served as one of the key sources for the fictional character of Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, a motion picture released in 2000.
There is a street named after him in Lebanon Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
A statue of Morgan was erected at the McConnelsville library, in Morgan County, Ohio in 2017.
In Winchester, Virginia, a middle school is named in his honor.
The Daniel Morgan House at Winchester was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
In the early 1780s, Morgan joined efforts with Col. Nathaniel Burwell to build a water-powered mill in Millwood, Virginia. The Burwell-Morgan Mill is open as a museum and is one of the oldest, most original operational grist mills in the country.
A statue of Morgan is on the west face of the Saratoga Monument in Schuylerville NY.