Daniel Morgan

Daniel Morgan in military uniform.
Daniel Morgan by Unknown Artist, c.1780, National Portrait Gallery.

National Portrait Gallery.

Daniel Morgan was born of Welsh parents in 1736. Because he rarely spoke of his early life, much of it remains a mystery. Therefore, his contemporaries assumed that his younger years must have been painful. Most authorities agree that Morgan was born in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. After having an argument with his father when he was about seventeen years old, he left home without his parents’ knowledge or permission and moved to Virginia.

When Morgan arrived in Virginia, he could barely read and write. His manners were rude, and he enjoyed fist fighting. He eventually became adept at card games and enjoyed strong drink. His first job was to prepare land for planting. Young Daniel was a hard worker and soon moved to another position as superintendent of a sawmill. After that he became a wagoner, a person who drove a wagonload of supplies across the mountains to the settlers.

He served as a wagoner for the British Army during the French and Indian War. It was during this period that he got his nickname, "The Old Wagoner." In the spring of 1756, as Morgan was taking a load of supplies to Fort Chiswell, he somehow irritated a British Lieutenant who struck Morgan with the flat of his sword. Morgan characteristically knocked out the officer with a single blow of his fist. As a result, he was court-martialed and sentenced to 500 lashes. In later years, Morgan delighted in telling that the drummer who was counting the lashes miscounted, and he only received 499. Morgan always maintained that the British owed him one more lash. In 1757, Morgan joined the British army, and several influential men recommended to the governor that Morgan be made a captain, but the only rank available was that of ensign. Morgan accepted the commission. As Ensign Morgan and two escorts were taking a dispatch to the commanding officer at Winchester, Virginia, Indians ambushed them at Hanging Rock. They killed the escorts and seriously wounded Morgan. The bullet, which struck him in the back of his neck, knocked out the teeth on his left jaw, and exited his cheek. Morgan carried the scar the rest of his life.

In 1759 Morgan bought a two-story house (which he named Soldier’s Rest) in Winchester, and by 1763 he had set up housekeeping with Abigail Bailey. They were officially married in 1773. In the meantime, she had a positive influence on his manners and morals. Daniel and Abigail Morgan had two daughters. (One, Nancy, married Presley Neville, a Revolutionary War veteran. Their other daughter, Betsy, married James Heard, also a Revolutionary War veteran.) In addition, Morgan had an illegitimate son, Willoughby,* who grew up in South Carolina.

Having no love lost for the British, Daniel Morgan joined the American army and accepted a commission of captain of a rifle company when the Revolutionary War began. The British captured Morgan and his riflemen along with Benedict Arnold at Quebec in December 1775. They paroled them eight months later on the promise that the parolees would not fight against the British until they were exchanged for British prisoners. Morgan distinguished himself at both Battles of Saratoga in 1777, and many historians believe that he did not get the credit that he deserved for his actions.

In 1779, having been passed over for promotion to Brigadier General, Morgan resigned from the Army. In June 1780, Congress offered Morgan command of the Southern Theatre of the war. Since Congress had not offered him a promotion to go with the new command, Morgan declined and remained a civilian. After Gates’ disastrous defeat at Camden, SC, Morgan put aside his personal feelings for the good of the country and rejoined the army in the Southern Campaign. In October of 1780, Congress finally gave him a promotion to Brigadier General.

Perhaps Morgan’s most memorable moment came on January 17, 1781. It was at the Cow Pens, a well-known pasturing area for cattle in the upcountry of South Carolina, that Morgan with his experienced, but untrained, militia and 300 Continentals defeated the better-trained British army under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Morgan knew his men and his opponent, knew how they would react in certain situations, and used this knowledge and the terrain to his advantage. The Americans camped on the battlefield the night before the battle. Morgan went amongst the men: encouraging them, telling them what he expected of them, and showing them his back, complete with the scars from his flogging.

On the morning of January 17, Morgan deployed his men in three main lines of defense. He knew that the militia had a tendency to run. Therefore he divided them into two groups and placed his sharpshooters on the top of a gentle rise and ordered them to fire twice and then retreat behind the second line. The second line of militia were positioned just behind the crest of the hill and were to fire twice and then retreat behind the Continentals who were about 150 yards behind them. Morgan knew he could count on the Continentals to take the hardest part of the fighting and that they would not run. He prepared them for the militia’s retreat. He placed his reserves, Washington’s cavalry, in a swale that hid them from the British view. He knew that Tarleton’s aggressive nature would lead him to drive straight into the Americans.

The British arrived about dawn, and Tarleton sent them into battle before they were fully deployed. The militia fired as ordered and retreated. The British pressed on valiantly, engaging the Continentals and fighting hard. Tarleton ordered the 71st Highlanders to advance. They threatened the American right side, and Lieutenant Colonel John Eager Howard ordered the men on the right to turn to face the new threat. The order was mistaken, and the entire line began an orderly retreat. Morgan used the mistaken order to his advantage. He ordered the 3rd line to retreat to a place which he chose and then to fire. Meanwhile, thinking that they had won the battle, the British broke ranks and charged forward. The Patriots surrounded the British. The Americans won.

Because he had sciatica so bad that it was too painful for him to sit on a horse, Morgan retired to his home in Virginia after the Battle of Cowpens. He later built another house which he named Saratoga for the famous battles in New York at which he had distinguished himself. On March 25, 1790 he finally received a gold medal which Congress had struck to honor him for his victory at Cowpens. Following the Revolution, Morgan organized and led a group of militia against the protesters during the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1797 he was elected and served one term in the House of Representatives. He died on July 6, 1802.

Daniel Morgan is a prime example of what one can accomplish with one’s life if one works hard and plans well. As his biographer James Graham stated, "His strength and spirit, his frank and manly bearing, his intelligence and good-humor, set off by a rich fund of natural wit, which he kept in constant exercise, rendered him a favorite among the people, and contributed to give him a great influence over his associates."

*See Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman by Don Higginbotham.

To learn more about Daniel Morgan, read the following books:
  • Life of General Daniel Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States by James Graham
  • Daniel Morgan Revolutionary Rifleman by Don Higginbotham
  • "Downright Fighting": The Story of Cowpens (Official National Park Handbook) by Thomas J. Fleming
  • A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens by Lawrence E. Babits
  • Battle of Cowpens: A Documented Narrative and Troop Movement Maps by Edwin C. Bearss
All the above books are available from the bookstore at Cowpens National Battlefield.

Cowpens National Battlefield, Saratoga National Historical Park

Last updated: May 29, 2024