THE OLD WAGONER
Daniel Morgan brilliantly commanded American soldiers
during two of the lowest points of the War for independence,
rightly earning the title of American Hero.
By: Thomas R. Eddiem
B ritish Major Gordon Forbes advanced his men southward as the spearhead and the center of the British invasion force. His men broke out of the woods, into the wheat field and toward a farm house known locally in that upstate New York area as “Freeman’s Farm.”
He was trying to secure some high ground near the American encampment at nearby Beamis Heights on the Hudson River shore. Forbes’ company comprised part of the British and Hessian army, who along with their Indian and Tory allies totaled 8,000 men when they set out from Canada at the beginning of summer in 1777. Commanded by General John Burgoyne and guided by Indian allies, the British force planned to join with General Henry Clinton’s redcoats in New York City and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies.
The British had taken Fort Ticonderoga, known as the Gibraltar of North America, without a fight, and were making great progress in their invasion route, despite the destruction of their Tory support at Bennington in August.
As Forbes’ men of the 9th light infantry brigade entered the field in the early afternoon of September 17th, a terrifying racket of ear-shattering turkey calls came from the woods opposite Forbes’ men. The calls seemed to be coming from the trees, from a rail fence on the other side of the field, and from the field itself along the entire length of the 250-yard wide clearing . As the British brigade approached the farmhouse, officers began to fall down dead all around them. Fractions of a second later, the report of rifle fire registered in the ears of the British rank and file.
The puffs of smoke emerging from the woods and the treetops in the opposite direction indicated to the soldiers that the fire had come from the southern woods. In those woods were the riflemen of Colonel Daniel Morgan, a bear of a man from the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia. Morgan resembled the frontier man Daniel Boone, to whom he was related. But unlike his famous cousin, Morgan has not received similar historical recognition for his service to America during two of the lowest points of the struggle for independence. Something of a wild mountain man in his youth, the 41-year-old Morgan was six foot two, over 200 pounds, and scarred from head to foot. Morgan had no formal education or military training, though he had served in the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s War. Half his teeth had been shot out during the Indian wars.
His back was scarred from receiving 500 lashes after punching out a British soldier during Indian war service. His men came to know him as the “Old Wagoner,” because Morgan had driven wagon supply trains to the frontier in peacetime.
With the option of using a musket or the longer, heavier Pennsylvania rifle, Morgan and his men chose the latter. British and American regulars used the musket only accurate up to 100 yards because it could be effectively used in a huge volley of fire against an advancing column, and it could be quickly reloaded. On the other hand, the Pennsylvania rifle was lethally accurate up to 250 yards, enabling Morgan and his men to shoot down every officer in Forbes’ brigade . Despite the valiant efforts of the wounded Major Forbes to rally his men, the British soldiers beat a retreat back to the northern woods.
Morgan’s men quickly scrambled out of the woods in pursuit, revealing why they were so difficult to see. Garbed in fringed buckskin coats and pants, Morgan’s riflemen were the same color as the forest itself.
As the advancing riflemen ran across the unharvested wheat field, they picked off more of the fleeing British soldiers. Then the rest of the British center line arrived at the edge of the woods, and Forbes’ infantry reformed their ranks to counterattack. British Genera l Simon Fraser also reached the clearing with the right wing of the British assault force, just to the west of the remnants of Forbes’ brigade. Fraser fired his cannon filled with grapeshot into the thick of the advancing American riflemen corps, striking them down en masse. Moved to tears because of the death of his men, Morgan began the turkey call again, rallying the remaining men back to the woods on the southern end of the field.
The British counterattacked with cannons across the field and continued to advance until American reinforcements arrived. Morgan’s sharpshooters picked off 19 of the 22 British artillerymen. All afternoon the battle see-sawed between British and American battlefield dominance and ended only with the fall of night. Morgan’s sharpshooters covered the evening retreat of the outgunned American forces, leaving the field to the British.
The silence of the guns at nightfall revealed the cries of the hundreds of wounded Americans and British soldiers, who had been left unattended in the middle of the field all afternoon. The British had won the field, but the bodies and moaning of the wounded revealed a different victor in the battle. British losses in the first engagement on Freeman’s Farm totaled 566 (160 dead, 364 wounded, and 42 missing), twice the losses of the Continental forces.
Moreover, the remainder of Burgoyne’s Indian allies deserted him after the battle, correctly euessine the final outcome of the British invasion from Canada.
Credit for the success at Freeman’s Farm belongs to Morgan and his brave men. The British were astonished to find the Americans hold their ground in the open field, something that hadn’t been accomplished since Bunker Hill. New Hampshire’s Major Henry Dearborn noted after the battle, “We had something more at stake than fighting for six pence per day.”
The day had also been saved by an alert request from General Benedict Arnold, a bright, ambitious, and greedy officer who had pleaded with American Commander Horatio Gates to cover the American western flank at Freeman’s Farm. Arnold had successfully gotten Morgan’s men and two other units in place at the edge of the wheat field just in time to hold off the British attack.
Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm
Less than three weeks later, Burgoyne advanced three columns of 1,700 men with heavy artillery just a few hundred yards to the west of the original Freeman’s Farm battle site. Again, Arnold urged General Gates to send a major colonial force out to meet Burgoyne’s attack, but the timid Gates agreed to send only three units: Morgan’s sharpshooters, and militia units under Ebenezer Learned and Enoch Poor. Arnold responded to Gates with fury, shouting ~that is nothing; you must send a strong force.” Gates dismissed Arnold from his command, but did reinforce the soldiers at the more polite persistence of General Benjamin Lincoln.
Again Morgan’s riflemen were in the thick of battle, though this time Benedict Arnold did not command them. Receiving reinforcements throughout the day, the Americans advanced past the wheat field and into the woods by keeping a deadly fire on the British-Hessian force. Morgan kept up the pressure from the western flank, while Arnold--—despite having been relieved of command--—charged up to battle on his chestnut colored horse and rallied militiamen to assault a Hessian redoubt from the east. Arnold’s heroic charge routed the Hessians, cut off an escape route for the British army, and forced Burgoyne to retreat to Saratoga. In the process, Arnold had been shot through the leg (the same leg which had been shot during his service in Canada).
The shot at Freeman’s Farm had also killed Arnold’s horse, which subsequently fell on the hero of the battle and crushed his leg . The next time Arnold would take the field, he would do so against America as an infamous traitor at the head of a Tory legion.
Casualties in the second engagement on Freeman’s Farm were even more lopsided against the British side. Eight hundred and ninety-four of the 1,700 British soldiers ngaged in the battle had been killed, wounded, or captured. The Americans lost only about 130 men. Burgoyne’s invasion force of 8,000 British, Hessians, Loyalists, and Indians now numbered a mere 3,500 and were outnumbered more than three to one by the swelling ranks of the American army.
The Tories had been annihilated at Bennington in August, and Burgoyne’s Indian allies, along with a number of the Canadian volunteers, had deserted him after the first battle of Freeman’s Farm.
And Burgoyne had lost most of his rations and his field cannon. Hemmed in from the south by Gates’ Continentals, and from the north by a late-arriving New Hampshire army under the command of the hotheaded patriot General John Stark, Burgoyne had little choice but to sue for terms of surt render from his base at Saratoga.
Apparently uninterested in sharing credit for the victory, Gates belittled Morgan’s achievements at Saratoga by stripping him of riflemen command and giving him command over a militia unit instead. This probably contributed to Morgan’s decision to retire to nurse the growing pain from his rheumatism and sciatica.
Morgan was out of retirement by late 1780, at another low point in the War for Independence . The main southern Continental army of 5,000 had surrendered to British General Henry Clinton at Charleston, South Carolina, in May of 1780. Horatio Gates’ force, intended to relieve Charleston, was butchered at Camden three months later. Gates was a patriotic, but not particularly competent, officer who had marched his 3,000 troops of mostly untested militia against General Cornwallis’ numerically superior force of British regulars at Camden. The militia had fled at the first sound of British guns, and only the combined Maryland and Delaware regiment under the steadfast command of German volunteer Baron de Kalb held the line.
The individual Maryland and Delaware regiments had provided the only serious resistance to the British invasion of Long Island in 1776, and the combined regiment again proved the backbone of the Continental army by preventing a total annihilation of American forces at Camden.
Gates fled the field in the thick of the British onslaught and was one of the first stragglers to arrive at the scant rebel base at Hillsborough, North Carolina. Wanting to return to his command, Gates was informed that there was nothing left of it. Only a few hundred had made it back from Camden. Most of the surviving militiamen had gone home, and many of the battle- tested Continentals— including the courageous commander Baron de Kalb had fallen in battle.
As the year 1781 began, the British controlled all of the land south of Virginia . A Georgian legislature had met in 1780 under the authority of King George III. Only a handful of patriotic guerrilla warriors, such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens, dared to challenge British authority.
The remnants of the American army also had a new southern commander, a Quaker named Nathaniel Greene, who had overcome his pacifist philosophy. Greene had done an exemplary job as quartermaster for George Washington, but he had no command experience.
His first action defied military convention . In Hillsborough, he divided his forces in the face of a numerically superior foe. Greene sent Morgan west with a third of his force, about 600 troops, while he headed east with the rest of the army. Morgan was promoted to brigadier general and given the remnants of the Maryland/Delaware regiment and William Washington’s small cavalry unit . But two thirds of Moran’s forces were corn osed of the same kind of militia that had fled in countless battles, from Long Island to Camden. “Put nothing to the hazard.” Greene urged Morgan, suggesting that he avoid a pitched battle. “It is not our business to risk too much.”
Morgan, for his part, wrote to Greene that “the enemy is greatly superior in numbers and my distance from the main army will enable [Cornwallis] to detach so superior a force against me as to render it essential to avoid coming to action.”
Cornwallis did send a larger force to eliminate Morgan. He dispatched an elite force of 1,100 British cavalry and dragoons under the command of the enterprising and brutal Colonel Banastre Tarleton. (The previous year, Tarleton had assacred Americans soldiers who had surrendered at the Waxhaws.) When our Andrew Pickens brought his 100 men to reinforce Morgan, Pickens’ men brought news of fresh atrocities committed during Tarleton’s march to engage Morgan’s
Appearing to follow Gates’ failed strategy at Camden, the Old Wagoner defied military convention and chose to do battle in the open field with the elite British force. Morgan chose a little knoll in a South Carolina pasture known locally as the “Cowpens” for his stand. Unlike Gates, Morgan did not allow himself a line of retreat: To the rear of his little army was the Broad River.
Morgan placed several companies of militia riflemen in the front of two knolls under the mountain as Tarleton’s elite force engaged the colonists on that cold morning of January 17, 1781 . The militia got off two or three shots before they were in full retreat between the knolls . Seeing the fleeing militia as an opportunity to repeat the slaughter at Camden, Tarleton advanced his line forward toward his trapped enemy
But the anticipated slaughter quickly began to go awry . The British charged right into a solid line of Marylanders and Delawares, who countered with a deadly bayonet charge. The militia counter attacked through the gap between the knolls, and riflemen hemmed in the British force from the flanks. Trying to bolster the wavering British line, Tarleton led a charge of his cavalry to the line. But William Washington’s cavalry — supplemented by cavalry reinforcements from Georgia came up from the rear behind the knolls and engaged Tarleton, forcing Tarleton’s cavalry further and further from the main battle.
By the end of the Battle of Cowpens , 90 percent of Tarleton’s force had been killed, wounded, or captured. It was one of the most lopsided victories of the war, thanks largely to Morgan’s planning . He noted that cutting off a means of retreat for the militia was a key part of his strategy. “I would not have had a swamp in view of my militia on any consideration; they would have made for it, and nothing would have detained them from it.... As to retreat, it was the very thing I wished to cut off all hope of. I would have thanked Tarleton had he surrounded me with cavalry . It would have been better than placing my own men in the rear to shoot down those who broke from their ranks. When men are forced to fight, they will sell their lives dearly.”
Morgan had prearranged the retreat of the militia before the battle, asking them to pull back after firing only three shots. By feigning retreat, Morgan was able to lure Tarleton’s forces into a trap, where he was hit not only on the front by the militia (which had only temporarily retreated) but on the flanks as well by other American forces.
Morgan subsequently advised Greene about the militia that “if they fight, you will beat Cornwallis; if not, he will beat you.” Morgan suggested that Greene “put the militia in the center, with some picked troops in the rear with orders to shoot down the first man that runs.” This is precisely the tactic employed by Greene to recover the south, copying Morgan’s strategy at Guilford Courthouse and other battles.
Despite Morgan’s advice to Greene on the militia, he publicly credited the valor of the troops who fought. “Such was the inferiority of our numbers that our success must be attributed to the justice of our cause and the bravery of our troops.”
After returning his forces to Greene, Morgan again retired from military service for health reasons. He suffered from painful sciatica and rheumatism. “I have been doctoring these several days,” Morgan wrote to Green, “thinking to be able to take the field again. But 1 find I get worse. My pains now are accompanied by a fever every day.” Greene reluctantly accepted Morgan’s resignation. “Great generals are scarce,” Nathanie l Greene remarked, “there are few Morgans to be found.”
Morgan would return to military service after peace with Britain to put down a rebellion in Virginia and to serve George I Washington in the Whiskey Rebellion. But his service to America during two of the lowest points of the struggle for independ dence had already brought credit to Daniel Morgan, a heroic patriot.
NEW AMERICAN Magazine
October 21, 2002 (Pgs. 36 - 38)
Vol. 18. No. 21.
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