No one truly knows exactly when Daniel Morgan (died July 6, 1802) was born. He may have been born in 1736, or possibly 1735. What is indisputable is that Morgan was born just in time for one of the great revolutions of the world.
Morgan was born to Welsh immigrants in New Jersey. Though he hardly ever spoke of his childhood, seemingly for good reason, that childhood developed him into a man who could suffer hardship and press on. When he was 16 or 17, he left home without telling either parent and wandered into Winchester, Virginia. At over six feet tall, he was a commanding presence. His affinity for playing cards, drinking hard liquor, and brawling made his presence even more prominent, earning him the nickname “The Bully of Battletown” (a town near Winchester).
Though he most likely worked at a sawmill, he also engaged in warfare during the French and Indian War (1754–1763) where he earned the nickname “The Old Wagoner” for his role as a wagoner. He was a strong man, but his discipline was less so. After annoying a superior officer of the British Army, the officer hit him with the flat of his sword. Hitting a man of Morgan’s stature and fighting reputation was unwise, as Morgan responded by knocking the officer down. However, his response was even more unwise, and subjected him to 500 lashes—a punishment which often killed its victims. The brutal punishment would serve two purposes for Morgan: Firstly, it would fuel his hate for the British, which he would utilize in the coming decade; secondly, it served him as a punchline, and he would often joke that the British had miscounted and had actually only whipped him 499 times.
During a skirmish against French-allied Indians, a musket ball shot through the back of his neck and through the left side of his jaw, taking his teeth with it. The massive scar on the left side of his face and neck matched the patch of scars on his back. But it only seemed to embolden his fighting spirit and enhance his fighting reputation.
When hostilities against the British broke out in 1775, Gen. George Washington, whom Morgan had served under in the French and Indian War, requested rifle squadrons to join the fight in Boston. Morgan recruited 96 riflemen and covered 600 miles in 21 days.
He was finally able to take revenge for the scars he had received from both the British and Indians, as his riflemen were known for their knack for targeting British officers and Indian guides. The militia under his command would be known as “Morgan’s Riflemen,” and would stand out for their guerilla tactics, hunting shirts, and deadly precision.
Morgan engaged in some of the most important military moments of the American Revolutionary War. He was selected to join the incursion into Canada, which culminated in the Battle of Quebec. The two commanding officers, Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery, were quickly put out of commission (Montgomery was killed in the initial charge), and Morgan, despite not being a senior officer, was elevated by his men to command.
He ordered his men up ladders to storm the walls of the British garrison. When his men proved hesitant, he charged up first, yelling, “Now boys, follow me!” When he cleared the wall, a volley of gunfire met him, knocking him off the wall and back on the ground. With his face black with smoke, a cut on his cheek, and a hole in his hat from bullets, he quickly jumped up to the cheers of his men who were heartened that he was alive. They took the garrison, only to lose the battle after waiting for Montgomery’s men to arrive.
He and his men would later be released in a prisoner swap. He went home to recuperate, but soon returned to the field of battle as a colonel to play a pivotal role in the Battle of Saratoga, a victory that convinced the French to join the Americans. Gen. Horatio Gates, who commanded the battle, wrote to Congress that “too much praise cannot be given to the Corps commanded by Col. Morgan.”
After being passed over for higher command, Morgan resigned. After Gates’s disastrous showing at the Battle of Camden in August 1780, Morgan returned and was made brigadier general. Washington requested he join the Southern Campaign in South Carolina, where he would accomplish one of the most brilliant military maneuvers in American military history by conducting a fake retreat against Lt. Col. Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton’s army. Though he was not supposed to directly engage the army, Morgan decided to conduct this battle on his terms.
The night before the battle, he went among his militia and the 300 Continental soldiers, encouraging them and revealing his scarred back as a way to embolden them. His psychological and military tactics worked flawlessly at the Battle of Cowpens on Jan. 17, 1781, routing Tarleton’s army and swinging the door open to the British surrender at Yorktown in October.
“The Old Wagoner” and “Bully of Battletown” would live another 20 years and die two days after the anniversary of Independence Day.