Sunday, May 29, 2011

Daniel Morgan: An Unlikely Hero

Daniel Morgan - Image by: Virginia Society
Daniel Morgan was a wild frontiersman, a letch, a drunk, a womanizer, a brawler, and a horse thief. You will not find his name in many American history books, yet without his cunning tactics, his courage under fire, his ability to lead untrained frontiersmen, and his bravery on the battlefield, its is very likely that the American Revolution would have been a dismal failure, and instead of enjoying the freedoms we cherish today, we would be under the thumb of British rule.
Morgan left home at a very young age after an altercation with is estranged father, and never returned. He eventually settled into the wild fringes of northwestern Virginia, where he earned many of his most unsavory reputations, but where he also established himself as a rugged, loyal, dependable, fearless, and tough as nails defender
of the frontier. Morgan was a large, and powerfully built man, with the stamina of a plow-mule, qualities which where only rivaled by his unwavering courage and unyielding will, both of which would be tested many times in his life.
The first such occurrence presented itself in 1755, when under the command of British General Burgoyne during the French-Indian War, Morgan received nearly 500 lashes for punching an officer in the gut. Such a brutal punishment for a count of insubordination was not uncommon in the British army. What was uncommon however, was for people to survive the savage beating; Daniel Morgan did. Even though he had been beaten to a bloody pulp, he did not let this act cripple his call to duty, as he recognized that ultimately he was in the wrong. As fate would have it, Morgan would have his chance for retribution on General Burgoyne, but for now his service to the Crown served his blood-thirst.
Morgan later rejoined the war effort as a colonel of the militia, where he performed duties for the Britain army that no man lacking in nerve would willingly endure. During one such excursion, Morgan had been on a scouting expedition deep into enemy territory, when he was ambushed by Indian troops. Morgan suffered a shot to the head during the fray, dislodging several of his teeth, and leaving a sizable rent in his jaw line. He escaped with his life intact, but only after the Indians gave up the chase after several miles of pursuit. Once again Morgan’s toughness and cunning served him well.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, a call to arms was sent out across the colonies for regiments of riflemen to join in on the “Siege of Boston." After receiving glowing praise from Continental General Horatio Gates to George Washington that Morgan’s “courage, conduct, and reverence for liberty,” made him the perfect candidate, Morgan was given the honor to captain one of two Virginian rifle regiments. Always eager and willing for a good fight, Daniel Morgan proudly accepted the charge, and rounded up 96 of the best sharpshooters from the surrounding areas of Winchester, and made his way to Boston in record time, arriving 5 days ahead of the next regiment, making Morgan’s troops the first to arrive in support of the newly formed Continental army. There, Morgan’s Sharpshooters, as they were later dubbed, inflicted terrible damage upon the British troops, “picking off sentries and stragglers and sending dignified officers scurrying for cover.” Never before had the British army faced off against a regiment of riflemen.
The rifle was a frontier weapon, and in the hands of a capable marksman, could kill a man more than 300 yards away. The British musket, on the other hand, was woefully inaccurate in comparison; with a capable range a fifth of that. However, where the smooth-bored British musket lacked in range and accuracy, it excelled in ranks of close range fighting, with its wicked bayonets, and the ability to be reloaded and fired nearly 3 times as fast as the rifle. While this advantage allowed the British army to eventually repel the Continental siege on Boston, it was a pyrrhic victory, losing nearly a third of their force to Morgan’s riflemen and the rest of the American army, while only inflicting minimal damage in return.
Even in defeat, Morgan’s ability to lead men did not go unnoticed, particularly by George Washington himself. As British troops began to amass in the southern reaches of Canada, Continental Congress devised a preemptive strike to thwart any attempt by Britain to stage a campaign from the north. To lead this gutsy mission, Washington chose General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold, with Captain Morgan to lead three companies of riflemen under their charge. Little did they know that the British army would be the least of their concerns.
The plan called for Montgomery to take Montreal while Arnold and Morgan was to make their way northeast to stage an assault on Quebec after rendezvousing with Montgomery’s remaining force. In order to avoid British sentries and patrols that would otherwise alert the Quebec command of their approach, Arnold chose an uncharted route that took him into territories not even the local Indians would venture into; a choice that would cost him dearly. Morgan’s company of riflemen led the way, forging a trail ahead, while the rest of Arnold’s column followed in their wake. The journey was so long and treacherous, and the land so sparsely populated with wild game, that “the soldiers were reduced to eating dogs and leather” to survive. After a two and half month journey, Arnold finally arrived at the rendezvous point with only 600 of the 1000 men he started out with; Daniel Morgan being one of those men. Had it not been for Captain Daniel Morgan’s frontier experience, the trust and respect earned from his starving men, and his tenacious will, Arnold’s force would likely not have arrived at its destination, or lost entirely.
With Montgomery and Arnold reunited, the stage was set for an all out assault on Quebec, in hopes of crippling the British from staging a campaign from Canada. The plan, once again, was to split their force. A light artillery unit would create a diversion at the front gates, while General Montgomery was to take a company of men and flank the southern side of lower town, and Arnold to take a company of men and flank the northern side of lower town, then rendezvous in the center and take out any remaining resistance before moving on to Quebec proper.
On December 31st, 1775, in the wee hours of the morning and under the cover of a snowstorm, General Montgomery launched his attack. Not long into the battle, Colonel Benedict Arnold was hit the leg by enemy fire, and was taken out of the fight. Even though Morgan was not next in line to command, his superior officers unanimously chose him to take command and lead the charge, and that he did. After successfully navigating his men through a gauntlet of heavy musket and cannon fire, Captain Morgan finally made it to the first barricade of the compound, and ordered his men to scale the ladder of the high-wall and pierce the British defenses. No one, not even the remaining officers would dare climb the ladder, so Morgan led the charge himself. After reaching the top, a cannon blast sent him flying through the air, and he landed in a heap in the snow below. Miraculously, Morgan got to his feet and charged up the ladder again, this time however, he made it to the top unscathed, and single-handedly, leapt into a mass of British defenders. Immediately the bold commander came under heavy fire, but found refuge under the barrel of a cannon. The Brits converged on him in mass, shooting and stabbing at him with their bayonet ladened muskets, as Morgan staved off their advance, flaying his sword with reckless abandon. With the British troops focused on Morgan, the rest of his troops scaled the barricade virtually unnoticed, killing and capturing the defenders.
Having successfully defeated the British resistance in his quarter, Morgan and his troops eventually made it to their rendezvous point, and took up refuge in nearby buildings as they waited for Montgomery’s force to rally with them. Unfortunately, reinforcements would never come. Unbeknownst to Morgan, Montgomery had been killed early in the fight, and the officer who took command, cowardly retreated into the safety of the nearby forest, leaving Morgan and his men in a deathtrap. In the early morning of the New Year, severely out gunned and out manned, Morgan’s troops were forced to surrender, all save one. Facing impossible odds, Morgan, like a rabid caged beast, refused to give up the fight, flailing his sword as the British soldiers surrounded him. It wasn’t until a French priest talked Morgan into giving him his sword did the commander yield.
With the American strike forced stomped out, the British renewed their preparations for waging war. Then, under the command of British General John Burgoyne, the British army made their way south, with the plan of driving a wedge between the Continental Army, cutting off recourses, and effectively crippling their ability to wage war. With Morgan safely stowed away in a prison camp, General Burgoyne made short work of the American resistance, until the only thing left standing in his way from completing his mission was American General Horatio Gates, who was held up on a ridge in Saratoga, NY.
By this time, in the late summer of 1777, the American resistance was on the verge of total collapse. Small pox, starvation, desertion, and countless deaths had whittled what remained of the Continental Army down into a “barely disciplined mob” of desperate men. British General Sir William Howe had wrestled control of New York away from General George Washington, and the Royal Navy had free reign of the New England coastline with the ability to deliver troops anywhere they wanted at will. The outlook for the American Revolution was quite grim. However, George Washington was not willing to concede just yet. A successful prisoner exchange brought Daniel Morgan back into the Continental fold, and Washington wasted little time putting him to good use, sending him north as Colonel of a 500 riflemen unit to bolster General Gates’ last line of defense.
Morgan’s Sharpshooters were pivotal in turning the tide of the war. His riflemen harassed and punished General Burgoyne’s army to no end. Using the sanctuary of underbrush and the nearby woods, the Sharpshooters picked off officers from hundred of yards away, and single-handedly eliminated his artillery forces one unit at a time, paralyzing Burgoyne’s ability to bring cannons to the field of battle. But his harassment would not end there; under his command, Morgan’s men also eradicated any scouts or foragers they came across as well, effectively leaving Burgoyne blind of his enemies positions and fortifications, and his army half starved. In desperation, General Burgoyne made one last ditch effort to eradicate the entrenched rebels, but his army was routed, and eventually surrounded by Morgan and the rest of General Gate’s force.
Surrender of General Burgoyne by John Trumbull
In a famous painting by artist John Trumbull that depicts the formal surrender of Burgoyne to General Gates, Colonel Morgan is seen standing proudly in the foreground with a mask of smugness plastered across his face. Morgan finally got his revenge on Burgoyne. General Burgoyne had a long and illustrious military career that spanned more than forty years, starting with the “Seven Years War,” but his defeat at Saratoga was such and embarrassment to the Royal Army, that he was shunned into permanent retirement from the military. With the victory at Saratoga, also came the allegiance of the French. The victory was so sound, that it finally convinced “France to enter in the war as an ally of the fledgling United States.” The commitment from the French, although a boon in the fight for Independence, was not the end all to the war.
After his glowing success in Saratoga, Morgan became the victim of army politics, and was denied promotion to General in favor of Anthony Wayne from Pennsylvania; selected by Congress against the wishes of George Washington. Feeling unappreciated, Morgan retreated back to his home in Winchester. During his absence, the British army, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, had completely swallowed up the southern colonies. Cornwallis had complete control of Georgia, South Carolina, and was on the verge of capturing all of North Carolina. Once again the American Revolution was on the verge of collapse, and once again Daniel Morgan was called to the rescue.
Seeing the error of their ways, Congress promoted Morgan to Brigadier General, which compelled him out of retirement. He was immediately dispatched to Charlotte, NC and put under the command of General Nathanael Greene. Greene had just been handed a sound defeat, and had come up lame in the process. He ordered Morgan to keep Cornwallis’ army at bay long enough for him to heal and rebuild his own forces. However, Morgan had other ideas. He drove his men south, deep into enemy territory of Georgia and then back into South Carolina, clearing the land of valuable resources and gathering up militiamen in his wake.
His efforts, however, did not go unnoticed by General Cornwallis, who dispatched his most prized commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, to squash the pesky backwoods rebellion. Tarleton had command over the infamous British Legion, consisting of light cavalry and two regiments of British regulars. Tarleton had earned “the most formidable reputation of any British commander in the entire war,” with his uncanny ability to strike faster and harder than anyone. Morgan got wind of this, and planned on using Tarleton’s confidence and hastiness to his advantage.
After dragging Tarleton around the countryside for several weeks, Morgan finally found suitable ground to make is stand, in a place locals called the “Cowpens,” which was a patch of land that contained a cascade of rolling hills, flanked by forests, and butted up against a large flowing river. By this time, Morgan’s army had swelled to 1,000 men, nearly twice its starting size. However, only half of his army consisted of trained soldiers, the other half was comprised of militiaman, who were prone to break and run under the fiercely trained charge of British bayonets. Morgan had made concessions for that as well.
Morgan broke his army up into multiple ranks, coinciding with the cascading hills of the Cowpens, with riflemen strategically positioned in the tree lines flanking the battlefield, with his cavalry positioned in the rear. The last rank consisted of the core of his trained and seasoned regulars. The plan called for his militiaman, armed with rifles, to fire two shots then retreat over the hill and form up with the next line. The over confident British army would mistakenly take this as an all out route and give chase. When the Brits came over the hill, the next line would fire two shots, and again retreat to the next line until they had finally rejoined with the regulars, who would hold ground. While the British troops broke ranks in hot pursuit, the Sharpshooters positioned in the tree lines were ordered to pick off officers and stragglers.
The plan worked beautifully. Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton fell right into Morgan’s well-laid trap, “which resulted in a double envelopment.” After less than an hour of fighting, Tarleton’s army had been decimated, with Tarleton barely escaping with his own life. In toll, “the British lost 110 men and more than 200 more were wounded, while an additional 500 were captured. The American losses totaled only 12 killed, and 60 wounded.” His victory “at Cowpens is widely considered to be the tactical masterpiece of the war and one of the most successfully executed double envelopments of all of modern military history.”
The defeat at the Cowpens left Cornwallis without his coveted Legion and without his cavalry, severely hampering his ability to wage war against the Continental army. Eight months later Cornwallis would surrender his troops to General George Washington in York Town, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.”
After the war, Morgan spent one term in the House of Representatives as a Federalist, but his kind of raw patriotism was not well suited for politics. His only notable contribution while in office came when he became increasingly frustrated with Jeffersonian Democrats, and infamously dubbed them “a parcel of egg-sucking dogs.” While Morgan failed as a congressman, without his heroism there would not be a Congress; there would not be an America as we know it, and for that, we owe this patriot a great deal of gratitude.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

What are some of your historic heroes? Had you heard of Daniel Morgan before reading this?

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