American Revolution: Brigadier General Daniel Morgan

Portrait of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, by Charles Willson Peale (1794)
Portrait of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, by Charles Willson Peale (1794).

Public Domain

Rising from humble beginnings, Daniel Morgan would ultimately become one of the Continental Army's finest tacticians and leaders. The son of Welsh immigrants, he initially saw service in the French & Indian War as a teamster before putting his marksmanship skills to use as a colonial ranger. With the beginning of the American Revolution, Morgan assumed command of a rifle company and soon saw action outside of Boston and during the invasion of Canada. In 1777, he and his men would play a key role at the Battle of Saratoga.

Briefly leaving the army in 1779 due to medical and political reasons, Morgan returned the following year and assumed command of part of Major General Nathanael Greene's army in the South. Directed to take a force into the South Carolina back country, he decisively defeated the British at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. Retiring later that year due to medical problems, Morgan received a gold medal from Congress in 1790 in recognition of his services during the war.

Fast Facts: Brigadier General Daniel Morgan

  • Rank: Brigadier General
  • Service: Continental Army
  • Born: July 6, 1736 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey
  • Died: July 6, 1802 in Winchester, Virginia
  • Parents: James Morgan and Eleanor (Lloyd) Morgan
  • Spouse: Abigail Curry
  • Children: Nancy Morgan, Betsy Morgan
  • Conflicts: American Revolution
  • Known For: Battle of Saratoga (1777), Battle of Cowpens (1781)
  • Political Office: US House of Representatives, Virginia’s 1st District (March 4, 1797-March 3, 1799)

Early Life & Career

Born on July 6, 1736, Daniel Morgan was the fifth child of James and Eleanor Morgan. Of Welsh extraction, he is believed to have been born in Lebanon Township, Hunterdon County, NJ, Morgan but may have arrived in Bucks County, PA where his father worked as an ironmaster. Enduring a harsh childhood, he left home around 1753 after a bitter argument with his father.

Crossing into Pennsylvania, Morgan initially worked around Carlisle before moving down the Great Wagon Road to Charles Town, VA. An avid drinker and fighter, he was employed in various trades in the Shenandoah Valley before beginning a career as a teamster. Saving his money, he was able to buy his own team within a year.

French & Indian War

With the beginning of the French & Indian War, Morgan found employment as a teamster for the British Army. In 1755, he, and his cousin, Daniel Boone, took part in Major General Edward Braddock's ill-fated campaign against Fort Duquesne which ended in a stunning defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela. Also part of the expedition were two of his future commanders in Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and Captain Horatio Gates. Aiding in evacuating the wounded south, he developed a relationship with the former.

Remaining in army service, Morgan encountered difficulty the following year when taking supplies to Fort Chiswell. Having irritated a British lieutenant, Morgan was made irate when the officer struck him with the flat of his sword. In response, Morgan knocked the lieutenant out with one punch. Court-martialed, Morgan was sentenced to 500 lashes. Enduring the punishment, he developed a hatred for the British Army as well as later remarked that they had miscounted and only given him 499.

Two years later, Morgan joined a colonial ranger unit that was attached to the British. Known as a skilled outdoorsman and crack shot, it was recommended that he be given the rank of captain. As the only commission available was for the rank of ensign, he accepted the lower rank. In this role, Morgan was badly injured while returning to Winchester from Fort Edward. Nearing Hanging Rock, he was struck in the neck during a Native American ambush and the bullet knocked out several teeth before exiting his left cheek.

Interwar Years

Recovering, Morgan returned to his teamster business and brawling ways. After purchasing a house in Winchester, VA in 1759, he settled down with Abigail Bailey three years later. His home life was soon disrupted following the beginning of Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763. Serving as a lieutenant in the militia, he aided in defending the frontier until the following year.

Increasing prosperous, he married Abigail in 1773 and built an estate of over 250 acres. The couple would ultimately have two daughters, Nancy and Betsy. In 1774, Morgan returned to military service during Dunmore's War against the Shawnee. Serving for five months, he led a company into the Ohio Country to engage the enemy.


With the outbreak of the American Revolution after the Battles of Lexington & Concord, the Continental Congress called for the formation of ten rifle companies to aid in the Siege of Boston. In response, Virginia formed two companies and command of one was given to Morgan. Recruiting 96 men in ten days, he departed Winchester with his troops on July 14, 1775. Arriving in the American lines on August 6, Morgan's Riflemen were expert marksmen who employed long rifles which were of greater range and accuracy than the standard Brown Bess muskets used by the British. They also preferred to employ guerilla-style tactics rather than the traditional linear formations used by European armies.

Invasion of Canada

Later in 1775, Congress approved an invasion of Canada and tasked Brigadier General Richard Montgomery with leading the main force north from Lake Champlain. To support this effort, Colonel Benedict Arnold convinced the American commander, the now-General George Washington, to send a second force north through the Maine wilderness to aid Montgomery. Approving Arnold's plan, Washington gave him three rifle companies, collectively led by Morgan, to augment his force. Departing Fort Western on September 25, Morgan's men endured a brutal march north before finally linking with Montgomery near Quebec.

Attacking the city on December 31, the American column led by Montgomery halted when the general was killed early in the fighting. In the Lower Town, Arnold sustained a wound to his leg leading Morgan to take command of their column. Pushing forward, the Americans advanced through the Lower Town and paused to await Montgomery's arrival. Unaware that Montgomery was dead, their halt allowed the defenders to recover. Trapped in the city's streets, Morgan and many of his men were later captured by Governor Sir Guy Carleton's forces. Held as a prisoner until September 1776, he was initially paroled before being formally exchanged in January 1777.

Battle of Saratoga

Rejoining Washington, Morgan found that he had been promoted to colonel in recognition of his actions at Quebec. After raising the 11th Virginia Regiment that spring, he was assigned to lead the Provisional Rifle Corps, a special 500-man formation of light infantry. After conducting attacks against General Sir William Howe's forces in New Jersey during the summer, Morgan received orders to take his command north to join Major General Horatio Gates' army above Albany.

Arriving on August 30, he began taking part in operations against Major General John Burgoyne's army which was advancing south from Fort Ticonderoga. Reaching the American camp, Morgan's men immediately pushed Burgoyne's Native American allies back to the main British lines. On September 19, Morgan and his command played a key role as the Battle of Saratoga began. Taking part in the engagement at Freeman's Farm, Morgan's men joined with Major Henry Dearborn's light infantry. Under pressure, his men rallied when Arnold arrived on the field and the two inflicted heavy losses on the British before retiring to Bemis Heights.

On October 7, Morgan commanded the left wing of the American line as the British advanced on Bemis Heights. Again working with Dearborn, Morgan helped to defeat this attack and then led his men forward in a counterattack that saw American forces capture two key redoubts near the British camp. Increasingly isolated and lacking supplies, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17. The victory at Saratoga was the turning point of the conflict led to the French signing the Treaty of Alliance (1778).

Monmouth Campaign

Marching south after the triumph, Morgan and his men rejoined Washington's army on November 18 at Whitemarsh, PA and then entered the winter encampment at Valley Forge. Over the next several months, his command conducted scouting missions and skirmished with the British. In June 1778, Morgan missed the Battle of Monmouth Court House when Major General Charles Lee failed to apprise him of the army's movements. Though his command did not take part in the fighting, it did pursue the retreating British and captured both prisoners and supplies.

Leaving the Army

Following the battle, Morgan briefly commanded Woodford's Virginia Brigade. Eager for a command of his own, he was excited to learn that a new light infantry brigade was being formed. Largely apolitical, Morgan had never worked to cultivate a relationship with Congress. As a result, he was passed over for promotion to brigadier general and leadership of the new formation went to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne.

Angered by this slight and increasingly suffering from sciatica which had developed as a result of the Quebec campaign, Morgan resigned on July 18, 1779. Unwilling to lose a gifted commander, Congress refused his resignation and instead placed him on furlough. Leaving the army, Morgan returned to Winchester.

Going South

The following year Gates was placed in command of the Southern Department and asked Morgan to join him. Meeting with his former commander, Morgan expressed concern that his usefulness would be limited as many militia officers in the region would outrank him and asked Gates to recommend his promotion to Congress. Still suffering from severe pain in his legs and back, Morgan remained at home pending Congress' decision. Learning of Gates' defeat at the Battle of Camden in August, 1780, Morgan decided to return to the field and began riding south.

Meeting Gates at Hillsborough, NC, Morgan was given command of a corps of light infantry on October 2. Eleven days later, he was finally promoted to brigadier general. For much of the fall, Morgan and his men scouted the region between Charlotte, NC and Camden, SC. On December 2, command of the department passed to Major General Nathanael Greene. Increasingly pressured by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis's forces, Greene elected to divide his army, with Morgan commanding part, in order to give it time to rebuild after the losses incurred at Camden.

While Greene withdrew north, Morgan was instructed to campaign in the South Carolina back country with the goal of building support for the cause and irritating the British. Specifically, his orders were to "to give protection to that part of the country, spirit up the people, to annoy the enemy in that quarter, collect provisions and forage." Quickly recognizing Greene's strategy, Cornwallis dispatched a mixed cavalry-infantry force led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton after Morgan. After eluding Tarleton for three weeks, Morgan turned to confront him on January 17, 1781.

Battle of Cowpens

Deploying his forces on hill in a pasture area known as the Cowpens, Morgan formed his men in three lines with skirmishers forward, a line of militia, and then his reliable Continental regulars. It was his goal to have the first two lines slow the British before withdrawing and forcing Tarleton's weakened men to attack uphill against the Continentals. Understanding the limited resolve of the militia, he requested they fire two volleys before withdrawing to the left and reforming to the rear.

Once the enemy was halted, Morgan intended to counterattack. In the resulting, Battle of Cowpens, Morgan's plan worked and the Americans ultimately conducted a double envelopment which crushed Tarleton's command. Routing the enemy, Morgan won perhaps the Continental Army's most decisive tactical victory of the war and inflicted over 80% casualties on Tarleton's command.

Later Years

Rejoining Greene after the victory, Morgan was struck down the following month when his sciatica became so severe he could not ride a horse. On February 10, he was forced to leave the army and return to Winchester. Later in the year, Morgan briefly campaigned against British forces in Virginia with the Marquis de Lafayette and Wayne. Again hampered by medical issues, his usefulness was limited and he retired. With the end of the war, Morgan became a successful businessman and built an estate of 250,000 acres.

In 1790, he was presented with a gold medal by Congress in recognition of his victory at Cowpens. Highly respected by his military peers, Morgan returned to the field in 1794 to aid suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. With the conclusion of this campaign, he attempted to run for Congress in 1794. Though his initial efforts failed, he was elected in 1797 and served one term before his death in 1802. Considered one of the Continental Army's most skilled tacticians and field commanders, Morgan was buried in Winchester, VA.