We tend to think of him in connection with Kentucky because of the riflemen, but Daniel Morgan was born in New Jersey and died in Virginia. Between those two events, he turned out to be pretty useful to the American cause. In the north, his riflemen arguably made the difference in defeating Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga. In the south, the slaughter they executed at Cowpens arguably set Cornwallis on the path to defeat at Yorktown. Not bad. Two armies, two surrenders. One the war’s turning point, the other the last straw for England. And before that, in 1775, he led one of the two simultaneous invasions of Canada that might have unrecognizably changed our history if it had succeeded.
So who was he? In 1775, he was 39 years old, and had been living for some time in the Winchester area. He had participated as a civilian in General Braddock’s disastrous campaign against the French at Fort Duquesne (the site that became Pittsburgh) during the French and Indian War, and had been lucky to survive – not because of the French or their Indian allies, but because he corrected a superior officer (that is, he punched him) and received 499 lashes on the back, which usually was enough to kill a man. Morgan survived, and, like young Andrew Jackson, and for more or less the same reason, intensely hated the British Army thereafter. When the Revolutionary War came around, he was not slow to offer his services.
In fact, he didn’t need to. When the Continental Congress asked for rifle companies, Virginia agreed to provide two, and asked Morgan to command one of them, due to his experience with the militia in the years after the French and Indian War. Captain Morgan recruited 96 men in 10 days, and marched them the 600 miles to Boston in three weeks, arriving at the siege on Aug. 6, 1775.
Morgan’s company was one of three that accompanied Colonel Benedict Arnold from Boston to Quebec City, accomplishing the grueling journey in six weeks. On New Year’s Eve, 1775, they attacked the city (jointly with the forces led by Montgomery that had previously captured Montreal), and after Arnold was felled by a bullet in his leg, Morgan took over command. The attack failed, and Morgan was among those captured, and was a prisoner of war until exchanged in January, 1777. How the British must have regretted that exchange, later!
Morgan returned to find himself now a colonel, and was assigned to raise a new regiment, which he did. In June, he was given command of the Provisional Rifle Corps of 500 men. In August Morgan was sent to join General Horatio Gates against Burgoyne in the two battles of Saratoga.
Morgan’s Riflemen were sharpshooters, using rifles that were worlds more accurate than the smoothbore muskets used by the British (and by most of the other Continentals and militia). Morgan took advantage of this accuracy, instructing his men to concentrate on killing British officers, thus leaving that army relatively leaderless, and thus nearly helpless.
At Freeman’s Farm, his regiment killed every officer in the British advance party coming at them, then charged (without orders) and were repulsed, reformed their lines and held the field for the rest of the day. At Bemis Heights, Morgan commanded the left flank against 1,500 advancing British soldiers. At Arnold’s direct order, one of Morgan’s sharpshooters killed British General Fraser while he was trying to rally his lines, and the British fell back. Between the battle of Bemis Heights and Burgoyne’s surrender, Morgan’s man destroyed any British patrols they saw, thus convincing Burgoyne that he couldn’t even retreat. One down.
The eternal and infernal politics of the Continental Congress prevented Morgan’s promotion from Colonel. Between this frustration and the physical results of his injuries sustained in Quebec, Morgan decided he had had enough, and resigned in June, 1779, returning home to Winchester. He was offered service under Gates when Gates was given the Southern Command, but declined. But after Gates took a pasting at Camden, Morgan reconsidered, and rejoined the army in North Carolina.
In October, 1789, he was promoted to brigadier general. In December, he met with Nathanael Greene, the new commander of the southern forces. As we said earlier, Greene split his forces in the face of superior numbers. Morgan was detailed to harass Banastre Tarleton, but not fight him. Morgan fought him anyway, and on January 17, 1781, executed a double envelopment that annihilated Tarleton’s army. Of nearly 1,100 men, Tarleton lost 110 killed and 830 captured (of whom 200 were wounded) and all his supplies and equipment.
The upshot was that Cornwallis lost much of his mobility, and we know what happened after that.