An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Washington’s Generals: The Life and Times of Daniel Morgan

Mar 30, 2020 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Daniel Morgan, one of Washington’s generals, was actually a first cousin of Daniel Boone. Where and when was he born?

Although most people associate Daniel Morgan with either Virginia or West Virginia, he actually was born in New Jersey on July 6, 1736. Accounts vary, but most historians feel that he was born in Lebanon Township; however, they have found no definitive proof to support that assertion.

In a similar vein, historians have mixed opinions regarding the wide-held belief that Daniel Boone and Daniel Morgan were cousins. This assumption apparently came from the fact that Daniel Boone’s mother had the last name of Morgan. Recently, a genealogist supplied evidence that seems to prove that no such family tie actually existed, but like many urban myths the supposed relationship between Morgan and Boone will undoubtedly live on.

  1. How did he first get involved in the military?

From all accounts, at the age of 17 Morgan had an unpleasant disagreement with his father, and decided to strike out on his own. After a brief sojourn in Pennsylvania, Morgan purchased a farm in Virginia. Soon thereafter, he became a teamster for a British military expedition into the Ohio Territory under the command of General Edward Braddock. After Braddock’s defeat south of present-day Pittsburgh, the remnants of his army, including Morgan, retreated.

In route, Morgan became angry with a British officer, who then struck him with the flat of his sword. Morgan then assaulted him, and the officer retaliated by sentencing him to 500 lashes. While many individuals died from such a punishment, Morgan somehow survived, but the incident would give him a life-long hatred of the British.

Braddock’s campaign led to the start of a wide-spread conflict that became known in British North America as the French and Indian War, and after recovering from his lashing Morgan decided to volunteer for service in a Virginia regiment. Although still a young man, Morgan received an appointment as a subordinate officer. Unfortunately, Morgan’s story at that point once again becomes problematic.

According to popular legend, Morgan led a spirited defense of Edward’s Fort in western Virginia in 1757. However, no record mentions a battle that took place at Edward’s Fort in that year. What historians have learned is that in 1757 Morgan received dispatches to deliver to a frontier outpost, and in route Native Americans ambushed his party. During the encounter, a bullet hit him from behind. It entered his neck, and took out a row of teeth as it exited through his mouth. Here again, Morgan miraculously recovered, and lived to fight another day.

3) Apparently he was associated with marksmanship, and his men distinguished themselves in this regard on several occasions. Can you tell us a bit about this?

At the start of the American Revolution, Morgan’s county decided to support the Patriot cause, and asked him to become the captain of the men who volunteered for service from that neighborhood. In June of 1775, nearly 100 men followed him to the Continental Army’s encampment outside Boston. His men brought the weapons from home, and most of them carried rifles.

This type of weapon had a groove, known as rifling, engraved in its barrel. That feature gave the weapon far greater accuracy than the musket most soldiers carried, and this made his unit highly sought after as sharpshooters.

Indeed, he would employ his men as what we would call snipers during the rest of the campaign to drive the British out of Boston. In 1777, George Washington would give him command of the Provisional Rifle Corps, a unit made up of 500 men from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, who all carried rifles. They would prove extremely useful in battle that fall.

  1. Morgan fought alongside Benedict Arnold on a number of occasions. What do we know about his endeavors?

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress decided that for strategic reasons it should order George Washington to allocate troops under his command for a campaign to capture Canada. Accordingly, in the summer of 1775 Washington tasked General Richard Montgomery with this assignment. After Montgomery’s departure, a colonel from Connecticut named Benedict Arnold suggested to Washington that he should lead another force into Canada to double the chances of capturing that colony.

Washington found Arnold’s logic compelling, and authorized him to take 1,000 soldiers northward. Marching through present-day Maine, Arnold’s force reached Canada in November, and alongside Montgomery attacked Quebec on New Year’s Eve 1775. Daniel Morgan commanded a company in Arnold’s expedition, and personally led one wing of Arnold’s assault force at Quebec. Showing remarkable bravery, Morgan personally led his men forward. Remarkably, he suffered no wounds, although the British succeeded in capturing him.

Exchanged through a prisoner-of-war cartel arranged between the British and Americans, Morgan rejoined the army in 1777, just in time to participate in the Saratoga campaign.

  1. The literature seems to suggest he was not a politician, and was passed over many times for the rank of general. Can you tell us a bit about his difficult rise to General?

At the start of the American Revolution, Morgan had found the rank of captain perfectly acceptable. In fact, it appears that his promotion to colonel for his bravery in the assault on Quebec took him completely by surprise. His estimation of his talents grew over the next few years, however, as on a number of occasions his superiors gave him important command responsibilities.

Despite his successes, Morgan remained at the rank of colonel into the summer of 1779. Having no one in Congress to champion the case for promoting him, Morgan tendered his resignation from the Continental Army on June 30 of that year. He would remain a civilian for over a year before rejoining the Patriot cause.

  1. What do we know about his role in the battle of Saratoga?

In June of 1777, the British general John Burgoyne led a large force out of Canada as part of a plan to split New England off from the rest of the United States. This threat did not fully sink in for the Americans until Burgoyne recaptured Fort Ticonderoga. That loss caused Congress to begin gradually shifting forces northward to deal with the advancing British.

In August of 1777, Morgan received orders to take his company to New York to become a part of the Northern Department of the Continental Army under the command of General Horatio Gates. By the middle of September, Gates had occupied a strong defensive position a few miles outside of Saratoga, New York, and waited for Burgoyne to arrive. When Burgoyne’s force finally advanced, Benedict Arnold (by now Gates’s second-in-command) suggested moving Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps to a wooded area bordering a farm owned by a man named Freeman. Gates agreed, and when Morgan advanced into the copse of trees he saw a British force moving across the field.

Immediately he ordered his men to fire on the British, instructing them to aim at the British officers. Within minutes, every British officer became a casualty, throwing the rank and file soldiers into confusion. Morgan then ordered his men to charge, and they quickly drove the British from the field.

Unfortunately for Morgan, he then ran into the main body of that wing of the British army, who drove the Americans back to the wooded area. A general engagement then developed that would last the rest of the day. By the end of the battle, the British had driven the Americans back to their original position, but had suffered twice as many casualties.

A few weeks later, Burgoyne tried again to work his way southward towards Albany. Anticipating this strategy, Gates deployed his army to block Burgoyne, giving Morgan command of the left wing. As fate would have it, that put Morgan squarely in the path that Burgoyne chose for his assault. But Morgan skillfully positioned his riflemen and a New Hampshire regiment in such a manner that the two American forces proved able to catch the advancing British soldiers in a crossfire. Here again, officers became the primary targets, and eventually one American sharpshooter succeeded in killing the British officer leading the attack.

With their commander dead, the British soon retreated, and Morgan and his men drove them back to their original starting point. This engagement, known as the Battle of Bemis Heights, sealed the fate of Burgoyne’s campaign, convincing him that he had no other recourse than surrender. As a tribute to his contributions to the American victory, the official painting of the surrender at Saratoga puts Morgan in close proximity to Gates. By contrast, Benedict Arnold, who also provided a significant contribution to the victory at Saratoga, does not appear in the painting.

  1. After General Gates’ “disaster” at the Battle of Camden, Morgan was again thrust into service, or decided to return to battle. Which was it? And what was his role at that time?

1780 started inauspiciously for the Patriot cause when a British campaign succeeded in capturing Charleston, South Carolina, the largest city in the South. The situation worsened when an American force under the command of Horatio Gates, sent south by the Continental Congress to rectify the situation, suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden. At that point in time, Morgan decided to re-enter the fray, and journeyed to Hillsborough, North Carolina, to offer his services to Gates.

Soon thereafter, Congress replaced Gates with Nathaniel Greene. Giving Morgan 600 men, Greene ordered him to take his force into northwestern South Carolina. Along the way, Morgan picked up a few more volunteers. Made aware of this foray, Lord Cornwallis, the British Commander in that theater of operations, deployed a force to move quickly against Morgan.

When he learned of the advancing British force, Morgan chose to stand and fight. At first glance, he seemed to have made a serious miscalculation when selecting a spot to make his stand. That location, a grazing area known as Cowpens, had a river running behind it. This meant that if they suffered a defeat, the Americans would find retreat nearly impossible. To make a seemingly made a second mistake when he put untested militiamen in his front rank. It soon turned out that Morgan had deliberately arranged his forces that way. Unbeknownst to the British, Morgan had placed a few sharpshooters in front of the militia.

He asked his sharpshooters and militia to fire two rounds at the advancing British, and told them that they could then retreat. At Camden, the militia present that day had ignominiously fled the battlefield, and Morgan sensed that his strategy for the engagement at Cowpens would convince the British that the same thing was happening again.

Events that day at Cowpens proved Morgan correct: feeling that they had routed Morgan when the saw the retreating militiamen, the British soldiers broke ranks to pursue them. But as the British reached the crest of a small hill, Morgan had his Continental soldiers rise up from hidden positions to deliver a punishing volley at point blank range. The American force then retreated, and the surviving British soldiers pursued them.

Suddenly, the Americans turned and fired a second volley. Taken completely by surprise, the British soldiers wavered. At that moment, Morgan ordered his 100 cavalrymen to charge the British in a pincer movement. Thoroughly routed, the surviving British soldiers attempted to flee, but Morgan’s force captured over 800 of them.

By the end of the day, Morgan had inflicted one of the worst defeats on the British that they would suffer during the entire course of the war. Soon after his victory, Congress finally received a promotion to the rank of brigadier general.

  1. Apparently, before he died he also served our country in a few other capacities. Could you highlight some of them?

After he resigned for a second and final time from the Continental Army a few weeks after the Battle of Cowpens, Morgan returned to his farm in Virginia. In 1794, however, Morgan would return to military service when George Washington (now the president) felt the need for a show of force against farmers in western Pennsylvania who had refused to pay taxes to the federal government.

Receiving a promotion to major general, Morgan took command of one wing of the army as it advanced against the farmers. After the resistance, known in American history as the Whiskey Rebellion, dissolved, Washington ordered a portion of the army to remain in Pennsylvania, and gave Morgan command of these troops. Once he received his discharge, Morgan ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives.

Easily winning the election, Morgan served one term in Congress. He did not seek reelection in 1798, and died four years later. Although largely forgotten today, Daniel Morgan’s name lives on in numerous states that named towns and counties after him.

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