Daniel Morgan – America’s Frontier General

Daniel Morgan is one of the most fascinating and exciting characters of the American Revolution.  His biography by Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman, is the best treatment of the victor of Cowpens, whose life “sheds light on frontier conditions in colonial Virginia. (Although, the best book about the battle of Cowpens itself is, unequivocally, Lawrence Babits’, A Devil of a Whipping)

Morgan’s biography affords an opportunity to study the hit-and-run backwoods fighting that American Revolutionary soldiers knew best.  It presents a unique vantage point to view such prominent patriot military figures as Benedict Arnold, Horatio Gates, and Nathaniel Green – to see them as their subordinate, Morgan, saw them.  It gives new information about the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.”(p.vii)  As the 43rd brigadier general out of the 48 who attained that rank in the Continental Army, Daniel Morgan represented a the unique breed of American leaders during the War for Independence; not one of the low-country, landed elite, rather, her was a hardy-frontiersman from the edge of Anglo-American eighteenth century civilization.

Morgan was the son of Welsh immigrants who may have settled in New Jersey in the early 1700s.  Higginbotham notes that little is known for certain about the general’s background, “the size and fortunes of his family are shrouded in mystery.”(p.2) However, when he arrived in Winchester, Virginia in 1753, alone and in his late teens, with no money and little, if any, formal education, he was certainly a member of the “motley processions of people” migrating “to the back country to preserve their national traits, avoid paying high prices for land…or to acquire farms where acreage was cheap.”  Morgan, “without family or friends in the hinterland,” must have belonged among those “merely caught up in the movement [west] following the rest and trusting to luck.”(p.3)  He gained employment as a farm laborer, eventually becoming a teamster, at which he excelled, and having saved enough was able to “purchase his own team and enter the hauling business for himself.”  Pressed into service with other teamsters, Morgan hauled supplies at the outset of the French and Indian War for British Major General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne, during which the raucous, young frontiersman was given 400 lashes as punishment for knocking down a British officer or non-commissioned officer.(p.4)

Whipped as a commoner, a farm hand turned teamster, know for his drinking and brawling (as demonstrated in the order books and suit papers of Frederick County, Va., cited by Higginbotham) and living for ten years with his future wife prior to actually marrying her in 1773, Daniel Morgan certainly was not a member of the Virginia gentry, although his purchase of farmland and ten slaves by the eve of the American Revolution attest to his rise from poverty toward prosperity.  But this is evidence of the enterprise and ingenuity of a self made man, working to better himself. During the French and Indian War (after his involvement in the Braddock Campaign) and Dunmore’s War, Morgan served in the Virginia Militia where, similar to his experience as a waggoneer, he demonstrated his excellence, this time as an Indian fighter and rifleman.  Morgan, his neighbors, and men of similar ilk, adept at frontier combat and living in the backwoods region of western Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania would come to form an elite corps of fighters during the American Revolution.  Experts with the Kentucky long rifle, these frontiersmen were members of a “motley crew” even more rough-and-tumble than the sailors or urban wage workers and tradesmen.  Higginbotham cites Richard Henry Lee describing these men as “known for their ‘amazing hardihood’ gained through ‘living so long in the woods.’ These veteran hunters and Indian fighters had traveled long distances with out provisions and displayed remarkable ‘dexterity’ with the rifle.”(p.19)

Organized as special rifle companies and light infantry, the method and manner of fighting employed by the frontiersmen was a uniquely American convention.  We recognize the success of their tactics in our reverence for battles such as Lexington and Concord with the celebrated “minuteman” patriots who achieved success firing on marching columns of British regulars from the cover of trees and stone walls.  The reality, however, goes much deeper than the celebrated lore, and the light unit tactics proved well suited to the North American terrain and its populace.  This was a fact understood by the British (they employed light infantry units and “rangers” in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution) but never fully appreciated by the commanders who continued to attempt European-style, linear warfare.  Americans were more willing to embrace the lighter unit tactics, and Morgan mastered them, to become the foremost leader among Continental Officers at the use of rifle companies, which was combined with an exuberant style of leadership.  He would quickly be elevated to become a colonel in command of an elite, independent rifle corps, comprised of hardy, independent-minded frontiersmen.  In this capacity Morgan proved vital in protecting the main body of Washington’s forces in New Jersey in 1777.  Later that same year, he would play a crucial role in the defeat of British Major General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, rivaled perhaps only by the dynamic personal performance of Benedict Arnold.

In January, 1781, Daniel Morgan, now a confirmed brigadier general, promoted by the Continental Congress, secured “one of the most decisive American triumphs of the war” (and one might argue, one of America’s most decisive battles ever) against the force led by Banastre Tarleton at Cowpens, South Carolina.(p.142)  The battle is significant in that Morgan displayed one of the most artful and effective uses of both militia and Continental regular soldiers by any American general, again demonstrating the success of the American method of warfare.  Aside from being a tactical masterpiece (wherein a partisan commander with little education executed one of the classic military maneuvers, studied by commanders since antiquity – the double envelopment of the enemy’s flanks) Cowpens is also significant, and perhaps under appreciated, for its strategic importance.  The total destruction of Tarleton’s Legion, Major General Cornwallis’ elite light force, deprived the British commander of a rapid maneuvering unit to match against Morgan.  Out of necessity, Cornwallis was left with no recourse but to “strip his army of all non-essentials and employ it as a light force” destroying his “baggage, provisions, and rum” risking “the future efficiency of his army.”(p.147)  Chasing Morgan, and then Nathaniel Green’s main force, through North Carolina in to Virginia, Cornwallis would exhaust the few supplies he had and eventually become trapped at Yorktown – an oversimplification, perhaps, but the strategic consequences of the Cowpens victory significantly contributed to the ultimate defeat of Cornwallis.

Clearly Daniel Morgan was an exciting persona who played a critical role in several important battles during the American War for Independence, but what do his actions reveal about the  Revolution, or America in general?  Higginbotham presents some convincing conclusions.  As noted above, the method of fighting employed by Morgan (and other Americans), was unique and itself a revolutionary departure from the traditions of imperial European military tactics.  “The British,” writes Higginbotham, “despite the creation of light regiments under Simcoe, Tarleton, and Ferguson, were slow to understand the importance of mobile forces.  Not until too late did most royal officers realize that America was ill-suited for the conventional warfare of the Old World.”(p.210)  The abandonment of “conventional” warfare would become a common characteristic of revolution from 1776 through the present, where local insurrectionist fighters would resort to guerrilla tactics as the most effective means of wearing down the occupying forces of larger powers.  In his book, War and Society in Revolutionary America,  Higginbotham identifies Morgan as a America’s foremost guerrilla fighter, citing Clauswitz’s observation that “rarely indeed are orthodox forces ever successful against guerrillas.”(War & Society, p.149)  From the resistance led by Toussaint and Bolivar to Ho Chi Min, the partisan commander had the example of the American Revolution, the success of which Daniel Morgan significantly impacted, to refer for inspiration.

Higginbotham also maintains that Morgan, by virtue of his rise “through the officer ranks” in eighteenth century society, represents the success of the democratic ideal fostered by the young United States.  Rank in the British system was purchased for sons by families that “possessed money and influence,” and for a teamster in the backwoods of Virginia, the chance to become one of the “officer class would have been remote indeed.”(p.211) Opportunity, though of course never perfect, was vastly greater in Revolutionary America, as Higginbotham concludes: “Morgan’s advancement, to say nothing of his increasing social and economic stature and his election to Congress, forcefully testified to the democratic spirit already beginning to permeate America.”(p.211)  To be sure, many marginalized groups in America remained so: women, slaves, etc.  But many were able to profit from independence, the emancipation of many northern blacks is indicative of this, as is the advancement of common men, such as Daniel Morgan, from wage laborers to prosperous land owners.

Morgan’s example also illustrates the conservative reaction that is characteristic to all revolutions since the eighteenth century.  Lest the “democratic spirit” noted above get far out of hand, allowing too drastic a change in the social fabric, those men who were able to seize power after encouraging participation of all classes in insurrection invariably established a means of control to preserve the new social order.  In America the creation of a strong central government under the Constitution placed “firewalls on democracy” to prevent the general populace from disrupting the establishment of the founders’ sense of order.  The Federalists were the strongest advocates of the central governments power, and Morgan became an ardent Federalist, supporting, as a Congressman, bills to increase the navy, and favoring “passage of a sedition measure” which became the Alien and Sedition Act.(p.206)  He would also march an army unit into the Pennsylvania backcountry to suppress the Whisky Rebellion of 1794. And though he opposed the actions of the Pennsylvanians, whose example Morgan felt would render the Constitution “worthless if men violated federal law whenever they chose,” (p.189) the backwoods sense of fair play had not completely left the general with his rise to success, as Higginbotham relates.  Upon finding a tavern keeper charging “whiskey to soldiers at an exorbitant price,” Morgan reprimanded the man.  The tavern keeper’s “subsequent failure to reduce his charge made Morgan furious.” He broke the man’s jaw.(p.191)  Despite success as a general, a businessman, a landowner, and politician, Daniel Morgan remained a man of action from the Virginia frontier – a uniquely American mix.


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