Daniel Morgan: Secret Weapon of the Revolutionary War

George Washington is called “the father of his country,” but it’s become widely known that he was also America’s most “badass” founding father. If George Washington gets the gold medal for his activities in the Revolutionary War, there is one other figure who solidly deserves the silver in the “badass” category, and it’s Daniel Morgan. Daniel Morgan wasn’t an intellectual powerhouse. He didn’t write the timeless words that would change the minds of all the world. He wasn’t a particularly eloquent man, though he was in the way that it counted. Instead, Daniel Morgan was a fighter, a rough pioneer and frontiersman, who would also help to usher in a new age of warfare, one cast closer in his own image. In the wake of his campaigns in the Revolutionary War, gentleman’s, aristocratic warfare would begin to fall by the wayside and total warfare take root.

Morgan and his Rifles

Daniel Morgan had a hatred of the British stemming back from his experience as a contractor of sorts during the French and Indian War, a conflict in which he was to accrue crucial experience fighting on the frontiers and protecting villages from French-sponsored Indian raids. After scraping together a modest fortune, Daniel Morgan returned to action when the Revolutionary War broke out, and he would take his unorthodox style of fighting with him.

To understand the full impact Daniel Morgan would have on the Revolutionary War, we first need to look back at how wars were fought at the time. This was so-called first generation warfare. Battles often seemed to take on the stuff of ritualistic dueling, particularly during the 18th century. So-called “free companies” that had terrorized civilians during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries (climaxing in the Thirty Years’ War) had largely disappeared as national armies replaced them. Skirmishers and light infantry were discarded for fear of desertion. It was fully possible (it hadn’t been prior to the mid-17th century) to dress all soldiers in bright colors to distinguish each side. Officers would stand out prominently in fancier dress and on horseback.

Men were directed to line up, fire a few volleys, and charge with bayonets until one line broke. Deliberately aiming at officers or specific individuals was considered barbaric. These rules came largely because the infantry weapon at the time was the musket, which was inaccurate over any considerable distance.

But during the American Revolution, another type of weapon was ready for its time in the sun. This was the Pennsylvania, or more commonly, Kentucky long rifle. While rifles had been developed shortly after the introduction of black powder weapons, they started to come into the fore on the American frontier, and Daniel Morgan was going to show their mettle in the war to come. At the behest of the Continental Congress and Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Daniel Morgan recruited a company not of standard, musket-bearing militiamen, but of riflemen.

The difference? A standard musket was essentially a smooth tube that shot a projectile. A rifle had a grooved barrel. This simple adjustment proved all the difference, as the grooves gave the bullet a spin, stabilizing the projectile in flight and allowing for far more accurate shots at far greater range. Whereas you were lucky to hit much of anything with a musket beyond 50 yards (hence the necessity of long lines of brightly colored soldiers essentially acting as a giant shotgun), a rifle of the day could hit accurately targets up to 300 yards, all because of those grooves in the barrel. This simple innovation would soon have very far-reaching consequences.

Musket vs. rifle
The difference between a musket (or smooth bore) and a rifle.

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World

The title is generally given to the first shots at Lexington and Concord that would start a colonial revolt which would turn into a world war, but the real “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the one that made the biggest impact of the entire Revolutionary War, came from Timothy Murphy (or so the story goes), a private soldier under the command of the future Brigadier General Daniel Morgan.

To get to that point though, Daniel Morgan would have to be tested greatly. To acquire his fortune on the frontier, he went through a descent into hardship, a katabasis. Early in the Revolutionary War, he would go through another, as he took part in Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated expedition to Quebec in late 1775 and early 1776. After his force of riflemen was outmaneuvered, Daniel Morgan was captured. He remained a prisoner of war for a year.

But his reputation was now considerable, and he was promoted to colonel and exchanged for a British prisoner. If glory only comes after suffering, Daniel Morgan would now see the cycle repeat once again. He had suffered, now he would dish out suffering in turn, with a much larger unit of riflemen.

These men, known as “Morgan’s Riflemen,” are widely regarded as among the best of the Revolutionary War, and they would prove it in 1777.

In the summer of that year, the British attempted to implement their basic strategic plan since the start of the war. This was to take control of the Hudson river and so in effect cut off New England, the soul of the revolution, from the rest of the colonies. A force from General John Burgoyne set out from Canada. Meanwhile, the main force under the British commander-in-chief in the theater, General William Howe, was supposed to move north to meet Burgoyne and secure control of the Hudson, but this is where things began to go wrong. Howe abandoned the campaign and General Burgoyne faced severe difficulties moving southward as American forces poured into the area.

Daniel Morgan was among these men.

As General John Burgoyne attempted to break through the American defenses and move southward, he was fiercely opposed. This was not to the liking of the commander in the area, General Horatio Gates, often derisively known as “granny” by the men serving under him, who was quite content to take a defensive posture, despite his growing numerical superiority. Benedict Arnold argued vehemently against this, and went to meet the British head on with counterattacks at the Battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights (together called the Battle of Saratoga).

It was in the last battle that Daniel Morgan and his riflemen would make their decisive impact. Fighting hard, Daniel Morgan positioned his sharpshooters in trees, and one of them, reputed to be Timothy Murphy, shot the commander of the British attack, Brigadier General Simon Fraser. This broke up the British charge, and an American counterattack ensued. While the British defenses weren’t captured that day, General Burgoyne knew that the situation was now hopeless. He didn’t have enough men to continue the campaign and reinforcements from the south, under General Henry Clinton, were too few in number to break through to Saratoga all the way from New York City. He had no choice but to surrender. Unfortunately for Daniel Morgan, Benedict Arnold, and the American cause, Horatio Gates would take the credit for this spectacular victory. It would come back to haunt the country.

The victory at Saratoga convinced France to join the war. This was why Edward Creasy saw fit to list it as one of the most decisive battles in the history of the world, as the new alliance would eventually turn the tide of the American Revolution against Britain, but it would take some time to bear fruit. Daniel Morgan would have to answer the call to service once again, his hopes of an early retirement dashed.

Daniel Morgan in the Revolutionary War

A Light in the Darkness

After the much-hoped for end of the war failed to materialize in 1778, Daniel Morgan seemingly retired. But things took a turn for the worse for the Americans in 1779. The British had a new strategy, a “Southern Strategy.” Here, there were many people still loyal to the king, and by taking advantage of this, the revolution could again be isolated and beaten into submission. Savannah was captured in late 1779, and things went downhill from there. 1780 would be the darkest year of the American Revolution.

Charleston would fall in May. With it would come the destruction of most of the southern Continental Army. A new army was raised, commanded by the “Hero of Saratoga,” Horatio Gates, and the remarks Sallust makes at the start of his histories, that “glory derived from riches or appearances is transitory and brittle,” rings truer with Gates than perhaps with any other figure. His campaign and command were torn to shreds at the Battle of Camden, to this day one of the worst defeats the U.S. Army has ever suffered.

After this disaster, Daniel Morgan, suffering from aches and content in his retirement, nevertheless felt a duty to return to action. He was promoted to brigadier general and sent south with Nathaniel Greene (George Washington’s choice from the beginning to lead the American forces in the south).

From here would begin a fascinating campaign of cat and mouse between Brigadier General Morgan and Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. This was the frontier-style fighting that Daniel Morgan had essentially come of age in. He’d proven its power once at Saratoga. Now he would do it again at his (and arguably the war’s tactical) masterpiece, the Battle of Cowpens.

First, the British attacked the American militia forces. These were men who they had beaten time and time again since the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775, and the British had contempt for them, but this weakness was precisely what Daniel Morgan banked on. After they famously fired two volleys, the militia line began to pull back as planned. The British, in the throes of confirmation bias, advanced, thinking they had won the field. This would prove to be a deadly mistake.

Behind the line of militiamen were regular soldiers in the Continental Army. No longer the riff raff George Washington found outside Boston in 1775, these men were hardened veterans, trained according to Baron von Steuben’s methods. The British, who had been pursuing for a while, were in shock at the sight of these new enemies, and immediately found themselves facing a bayonet charge.

Throughout the American Revolution, the rebellious colonists were always known to fear bayonet charges, but in the past two years, that had changed, and the Continentals were now keen to fight hand to hand with cold steel. The counterattack immediately sapped British morale and many redcoats broke. Their officers had faced heavily disproportionate casualties in the initial shooting, undoubtedly from accurate rifle fire. From this disorientation, the militiamen who the British believed had fled from the field returned and hit them on their flanks.

Much like Gates not even a year prior, Banastre Tarleton personally fled the field in humiliating fashion, only barely avoiding capture.

Battle of Cowpens map

The Battle of Cowpens was Daniel Morgan’s last notable act, and it was his crowning achievement, his aristeia, his great moment of glory. American morale was riding high again after such a feat of arms, and within the year, the entire southern British army surrendered at Yorktown. As such, major combat operations in the American Revolutionary War came to an end.

Morgan’s Kleos

Although he would eventually hold elected office, Daniel Morgan isn’t a name you’ll find on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. He was a crucial figure in the founding of the nation, but it was instead his arms, his prowess on the battlefield, that secured that nation’s existence and his fame for all time.

Relatively soon after the American Revolution, officers would cease wearing bright clothes. They needed to blend in so they wouldn’t be shot by snipers using rifles, now the standard-issue infantry weapon. Massed formations would give way to trenches and rapid movement to avoid enemy fire. Every time a sniper makes his mark today, he’s hearkening back to Daniel Morgan and his riflemen. They are some of the ancestors of modern warfare, with all the profundity and ghastliness that it brings.

Daniel Morgan was also a good persuader. In addition to taking advantage of British confirmation bias about militiamen, before the Battle of Cowpens he cleverly told those same militiamen that they only needed to fire two volleys, which was a psychologically satisfying, achievable number. The rest is history. Read Stumped, and you’ll be able to make history yourself with the psychological, man-moving tactics inside.