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The old Wagoner: Daniel Morgan, a rugged frontiersman who earned the nickname "the Old Wagoner" while working as a teamster, helped turn the tide in America's War for Independence.

The haughty young British officer unsheathed his sword with one practiced, fluid motion and swung the flat against the face of the huge, powerfully built young man standing in front of him with his fists dug into his hips. The officer had learned this move in training, a non-lethal way to cow and punish insolent inferiors, like the uncouth wagoner who had just defied him.

Metal smacked against cheekbone with enough force to drop any ordinary man in his tracks. But his unkempt antagonist was unmoved. The wagon driver raised his left hand and rubbed his cheek, the corners of his mouth working into a slow smile.

Too late the effete English lieutenant saw the blow coming, distracted as he was by his opponent's left hand. A massive right fist slammed into his head, lifting his body slightly off the ground and then hurling him backward into a tree, where he fell limp to the ground.

Military justice was swift. The young wagon driver from Virginia with the iron fists was sentenced to 500 lashes, which he bore without a whimper, later contending that the British officer overseeing the punishment had miscounted, leaving the lashing incomplete by a single stripe.

The year Daniel Morgan received his 499 lashes was 1756. Young Daniel, just 20 years old, already had a fearsome reputation as a fighter with a gun, knife, or his fists. Ever guarded about his family background, the hulking young man with a seemingly limitless capacity for hard work, hard drink, and brawling had quickly risen to prominence in frontier Virginia. By the age of 19, Daniel had already saved enough money to purchase his own wagon and team. His occupation as teamster earned him the affectionate nickname, in later years, of "the Old Wagoner."

With the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, Daniel Morgan hired out his team for transporting military supplies. It was during this time that an altercation with a British officer led to his legendary flogging, a punishment that would have killed many men but left Morgan with a back crisscrossed with many ugly scars.

After the war, Morgan returned to Virginia and settled near Winchester where, it may be supposed, he anticipated a long and prosperous life of steady work, hunting, and occasional brawls.

True to his wild and apparently less than ideal upbringing, Morgan set up housekeeping with one Abigail Curry "without benefit of clergy," who bore him two daughters before finally marrying him in 1774. By that time, the eve of the American Revolution, Morgan had become a well-to-do and respected businessman in northern Virginia. Abigail, meanwhile, probably taught him to read and write and in general to conduct himself in a more civilized fashion than had formerly been his way.

War Again

In the spring of 1775, the American colonies were electrified by the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress soon ordered the formation of 10 rifle companies from the middle colonies, including Virginia, to support the Siege of Boston, where the British forces had holed up after the retreat from Lexington and were kept hemmed in by American troops. Virginia agreed to contribute two rifle companies, and Daniel Morgan was picked to lead one of them. He quickly recruited 96 men and marched them 600 miles to Boston, where they arrived in early August.

In the early years of the Revolutionary War, the rifle, the frontiersman's weapon of choice, was the one American asset that cowed the seemingly invincible British military. Outclassing the amateurish Continental Army and its supporting militia in heavy weaponry, field tactics, and strategy, the British had no answers for American sharpshooters from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and elsewhere, whose rifles could devastate battlefield chains of command, picking off officers from beyond the range of British muskets. Daniel Morgan's Virginia Riflemen (nicknamed "Morgan's Sharpshooters") soon earned a reputation for lethal accuracy and attracted the attention of George Washington himself.

Later in 1775, after Congress authorized the invasion of Canada, Daniel Morgan and his men found themselves in the vanguard of a task force led by General Benedict Arnold, bound for the city of Quebec.

The Battle of Quebec, launched on December 31, 1775, began auspiciously with the American forces penetrating the city. But the American fortunes took a disastrous turn, with the British regrouping and trapping the Americans inside the city. Daniel Morgan himself refused to surrender his weapon to a British soldier, finally handing it instead to a Catholic priest. Along with nearly 400 others, Morgan was taken prisoner, languishing in captivity before finally being freed in an exchange in January 1777.

In spite of missing more than a year of the war, Daniel Morgan re-entered the conflict without even breaking stride. He learned that, owing to his courage at the Battle of Quebec, he had been promoted to colonel during his imprisonment. He was assigned to create a new regiment, the 11th Virginia, which he would command personally.

Losing no time, the energetic Morgan swiftly recruited 400 men. Each new rifle man was supposedly tested by being asked to fire at a picture of a British officer from 100 yards; if he hit the picture with his first shot, Morgan signed him up.

Daniel Morgan had no illusions about the role his men were to play. During his imprisonment, American victories had been few and far between. The thoroughly professional British Army, after initial setbacks in the Boston area, had rolled through much of the south and retaken New York and Philadelphia with relative ease. Everywhere the Americans took on the British in a stand-up fight, it seemed, British tactics and flawless organization, honed by centuries of experience, carried the day. If the Americans were to have any hope of success, they would have to do what they could to disrupt the British chain of command.

The deliberate killing of officers on the battlefield was regarded as a war crime by the standards of 18th-century European warfare. Daniel Morgan and other commanders who encouraged the practice were considered war criminals by the British public. But before long, Morgan's tactics were vindicated spectacularly.

Winning Tactic

After seeing action in New Jersey, Morgan's regiment was reassigned to the Northern Command. In August of 1777, they marched north into eastern New York, to help General Horatio Gates resist the relentless advance of British General Burgoyne towards Albany.

"Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, so nicknamed for his foppish demeanor, was a capable general who had the Americans in full retreat from the loss of Fort Ticonderoga. The American army withdrew in haste to the southwest, the rear guard skirmishing with Burgoyne's forces. American engineers, under the capable direction of Polish-born Tadeusz Kosciuszko, felled trees, diverted watercourses, flooded fields, and in general did everything they could to hedge up the progress of the British.

Burgoyne's forces, encumbered by heavy cannon and well-laden supply wagons, were unable to overtake the Americans, giving American forces time to regroup near the village of Saratoga. Sometime before the first of two engagements that were eventually dubbed the Battle of Saratoga, Morgan's regiment joined General Gates' army. When the British and American armies collided at Freeman's Farm (the "first battle of Sara toga") on September 19, 1777, Morgan's Virginia regiment was in the vanguard. Morgan's men clashed with the British advance guard under General Simon Fraser. In the very first exchange of fire, Morgan's riflemen killed every officer in the British regiment, and the latter retreated. A subsequent charge by the Virginians proved ineffective, since the main column of Burgoyne's forces had arrived.

Morgan's men took up positions in the woods as more American forces arrived from their nearby encampment at Bemis Heights, and the resulting battle was something of a stalemate. The Virginians inflicted horrific damage on the British forces, especially the brass, but the redcoats kept coming until the Americans, low on ammunition, withdrew from the field. Inasmuch as the British held the field at day's end, the Redcoats could claim a victory of sorts. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: their casualty rate was double that of the Americans'.

On October 7, the second and decisive battle, known as Bemis Heights, took place. Morgan was assigned to command the American left wing, once again confronting the capable General Fraser. As before, his riflemen prevailed against the British light infantry. When the British attempted to rally under General Fraser's generalship, Morgan ordered him shot, and one of his sharpshooters promptly did the deed.

A British surge in the middle was repulsed, and General Burgoyne had no choice but to retreat into his redoubt, having lost hundreds of men. After withdrawing to the village of Saratoga itself, Burgoyne, running out of supplies and hopelessly bogged down, surrendered his army on October 17.

The American victory at Saratoga had a galvanizing effect on both sides of the Atlantic. For the first time, the young Continental Army had won a decisive set-piece battlefield victory against one of Britain's top generals. To Saratoga is usually attributed the French decision to ally themselves with the Americans, a turn of events with fateful con sequences at Yorktown a few years later.

Unschooled Hero

Saratoga also cemented Daniel Morgan's reputation, at least in the eyes of the American public. Unfortunately, his relationship with Congress was less secure. Still undereducated and rough around the edges, Morgan possessed none of the polish and finesse of many of his better-connected associates. After Saratoga, Morgan found himself assigned mostly to skirmish with the British around New Jersey, taking no part in larger military maneuvers and battles, and being repeatedly passed over for promotion. Moreover, Morgan had begun to suffer from back pains and gout, in no small measure as a result of the privations of the Quebec campaign and his long captivity.

Finally, exasperated with the lack of recognition for his exertions and sapped by severe back pain, Morgan resigned from the military in June of 1779 and returned to his home in Winchester, Virginia.

His retirement, however, was short-lived. The following June, his old friend from Saratoga, General Horatio Gates, visited him at his home and urged him to reenlist. Morgan declined, citing his persistent health problems and resentment of the political games Congress was playing with military appointments.

Two months later, however, Morgan changed his mind. On August 16, 1780, General Gates' army was routed by the British under Cornwallis at Camden, South Carolina. The American side suffered more than a thousand casualties, with another thousand or so taken prisoner. As a result of the catastrophe, General Gates was relieved of command and replaced by George Washington's pick, Nathanael Greene. Daniel Morgan, upon hearing of the debacle, reenlisted and was soon promoted to the long-sought rank of brigadier general.

With Cornwallis seeking to administer the coup de grace on the remnant of the southern army, General Greene decided to split his forces in two. Late in 1780, he assigned to Daniel Morgan roughly 700 able-bodied men, including a small cavalry unit under William Washington, with instructions to forage and to harass the British, while avoiding the risks of a head-to-head conflict. General Greene then retreated north with the other half of the army, and Daniel Morgan led his men west along the Broad River into northwestern South Carolina.

Before long, the depredations of Morgan's army provoked Cornwallis into sending a force under the leadership of Banastre Tarleton to eliminate the nuisance. Tarleton, nicknamed "Bloody Ban" for his supposed massacre of surrendering American soldiers at the Battle of Waxhaws, was at once the most detested and effective commander on the British side. Ruthless and at times inhumane, Tarleton commanded an elite cavalry unit, the so-called Green Dragoons, who plunged fearlessly into battle and sowed panic and confusion among American forces wherever they appeared. Tarleton set to the task of hunting down Daniel Morgan with typical single-mindedness of purpose, and by mid-January of 1781, had nearly caught up with his quarry.

Daniel Morgan, his men exhausted from the pursuit, had little choice but to disobey orders and prepare for battle with Tarleton's forces. He chose a hilly open pastureland known as Cowpens to make his stand and, with Tarleton's forces closing in, hastily drew up battle plans.

Well aware of Tarleton's penchant for charging impetuously into battle, Morgan decided to exploit his adversary's overconfidence. His forces enlarged by a steady influx of militia, Morgan now fielded over 1,000 men, but many of the added forces were unseasoned recruits, whom he knew from experience would break and run at the first onset by seasoned British regulars. Accordingly, he deployed on his first two battle lines skirmishers and militia, with instructions to fire two volleys and then feign a panicked retreat. Once out of sight behind the third line, which was composed of seasoned regulars, the militia were to reform and renew the attack.

The night before the battle, Daniel Morgan displayed the energy for which he was renowned, going from campfire to campfire delivering rousing pep talks to his men. As a motivational device, he bared his back repeatedly, putting on display the scars he had received decades earlier from the British lash, and telling the men he intended to be the one giving the whipping this time around.

Tarleton roused his men before dawn, and arrived at Cowpens around seven o'clock. As anticipated, he marched directly toward the American positions, confident his dragoons, along with the 71st Highlanders regiment held in reserve, would easily carry the day.

The first American line, 150 skirmishers from North Carolina, poured fire into the British ranks, killing fifteen dragoons, and then retreated. The 300 militiamen in the second line discharged two volleys as instructed, inflicting heavy casualties, and then ran for cover, leaving the third line of more than 500 regulars occupying a hill to contend with the advancing British.

Tarleton advanced stubbornly, but the seasoned American regulars held fast, mowing down the British as they attempted again and again to close with their adversaries. Tarleton ordered the Highlanders into battle, to try to flank the American position, while his infantry launched another determined assault on the American position.

At this juncture, the uncertain fortunes of war took an unexpected turn. Someone on the American side ordered a retreat in the confusion, and the Continentals began to withdraw from their positions. Daniel Morgan, taken by surprise at this turn of events, decided to turn the circumstances in his favor. He hastily ordered his men to feign retreat and then wheel and fire a close-range volley into the British, who were now pursuing the Americans, confident of victory.

The Continentals followed Morgan's orders, with devastating results. As the British wavered, the Americans followed up on the unexpected about-face with a charge, and William Washington's cavalry, which had been held in reserve, now appeared from behind the hill and dashed into the fray. In the confusion, many of the remaining dragoons fled the field, leaving the fight and rear flanks of the enemy bare to the attacks of Washington's cavalry. At that precise moment, the militia, having reformed behind the lines, reappeared on the left flank. Like Hannibal at Cannae 2,000 years earlier, Daniel Morgan now had his enemy in that most perfect of military outcomes, the double envelopment.

Total victory was not long in following, Tarleton, seeing the catastrophe unfolding, tried to lead the rest of his dragoons back into battle, but was repulsed by William Washington's cavalry. Washington engaged in a brief sabre duel with Tarleton, before the latter shot the former's horse and managed to escape. Most of the rest of the surviving dragoons, along with hundreds of other British and Loyalist troops, were taken prisoner. Most importantly, Tarleton's vaunted brigade was destroyed.

To Daniel Morgan must be given all credit for the stunning victory of Cowpens, the first in a series of successes against the British that whittled down Cornwallis' army in the months leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. Cowpens has been called the tactical masterpiece of the American Revolution, and was certainly one of the war's most critical episodes.

For Daniel Morgan it was also the last. His back pains (caused by acute sciatica) and his gout had been aggravated by the damp, chilly weather and by the rigors of the long pursuit. A few days after Cowpens, he requested and was granted a discharge, and returned to his home to convalesce.

The postwar years were kind to Daniel Morgan. A grateful Virginia legislature gifted to him a large estate abandoned by a Tory. Congress awarded him a gold medal in 1790 in recognition of his actions at Cowpens, and in 1794, he returned briefly to military service under President Washington, who appointed him to command certain militia units tasked with suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

Daniel Morgan's final act of service to his country was a single term in Congress, from 1797 to 1799, as a Federalist. He died in 1802 on his 66th birthday.

Daniel Morgan, not an educated man like many of the better-known Founding Fathers, embodied the spirit of the men who actually fought the Revolution. Straightforward, courageous, hardworking, and a skilled woodsman, Morgan typified the rugged, heroic frontiersman who so proliferated in 18th- and 19th-century America. Cut out of the same mold as Daniel Boone, Israel Putnam, and Davy Crockett, the Old Wagoner, at Saratoga and at Cowpens, helped to turn the tide, first in the north, and then in the south, of the Revolutionary War.

Charles Scaliger is a teacher and freelance writer.
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Author:Scaliger, Charles
Publication:The New American
Date:Aug 6, 2007
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