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DANIEL MORGAN, THE RIFLEMAN OF
DURING the disastrous campaign of the self-willed General Braddock against the French and Indians in 1755, there was in his army a young Virginia wagoner of hasty temper and independent spirit, who was little inclined to submit to military discipline. Though a boy of nineteen, he was a man in strength and spirit, and when a British officer insulted him he promptly knocked him down. This was an offence of the deepest dye and the hot-tempered youth was sentenced to the inhuman punishment of five hundred lashes.
The lashes were administered by the drummer of the corps. The unlucky culprit was by name Daniel Morgan, a name destined to become much better known. The lashes may not have been heavily laid on, for he had the composure to count them, and always asserted that the drummer was one short in his count, adding jestingly that “George the Third still owed him one lash.” He got ample satisfaction out of the British for the four hundred and ninety-nine in Revolutionary times, though it is to his credit that the British officers who fell into his hands as prisoners were always kindly and generously treated. He did not hold them responsible for the cruelty of Braddock and his lieutenant.
Daniel Morgan was born in New Jersey in 1736, of parents so poor that he got no education and was obliged to work as a day laborer. This he continued after his removal to Virginia in 1755, afterwards becoming a wagoner, and it seems to have been in this capacity that he took part in Braddock's campaign. Later on he served in the milita, and in 1758 was made an ensign.
After his return home to the village of Berrystown, he was fond of wild adventure and had some narrow escapes from the Indians. He was so pugnacious that he was frequently engaged in quarrels, and became notorious as a boxer and fighter. So much indeed was he given to pugilistic encounters, that the village became known, from his exhibits of pugnacity, by the name of Battletown.
Morgan was often overmatched in these fights, but his unconquerable spirit usually brought him out victorious. He never knew when he was whipped, and would return again and again to the contest until he rarely failed to defeat his antagonist. In after years, when his contests were on the battle-field, the same spirit animated him. Defeat he seldom knew, and when he did his retreat was sullen, stern, and dangerous. This the notorious Colonel Tarleton learned to his sorrow.
By 1775, when the first shots of the Revolution were fired, Morgan had married and was cultivating a farm, which he had purchased in Frederick County, Virginia. Patriotism at once impelled him to the front. A rifle company was raised in the vicinity, Morgan was chosen as its captain, and he marched away in haste to join the army then besieging Boston. He wanted to repay the lash which he owed George the Third.
By order of Washington, the commander-in-chief, Morgan and his men soon after joined the disastrous expedition against Quebec, under Arnold and Montgomery, and took part in the bold attempt to storm that fortress, in which Arnold was wounded and Montgomery fell dead. Morgan's daring valor was so marked that it attracted the admiring attention of the defenders. He was in the assailing column led by Benedict Arnold, and when that officer was wounded and was being carried from the field, Morgan took the lead. Rushing impetuously forward, he broke with his men through the first and second barriers of defence. Victory seemed almost within his grasp. But the fall of Montgomery at this critical moment changed the aspect of affairs, the garrison took advantage of the confusion that followed to repel the assailants, and Morgan was among those who fell into their hands as prisoners.
Morgan's gallantry during the siege won him respect and not a little distinction as a prisoner. One British officer, indeed, sought to win his valuable services for the royal army by offering him the position of colonel, but the patriot rifleman hotly repelled the tempter, bidding him “never again to insult him in his misfortunes by an offer which plainly implied that he thought him a villain.” After that, no one ventured to tempt him to treason.
Morgan was exchanged in 1776 and rejoined the army, being now, on Washington's recommendation, raised to the rank of colonel. He was placed at the head of a select rifle corps, in command of which, on various occasions, he attacked the enemy with terrible effect. His men, skilled sharpshooters, were the most dangerous in the American service, and to confront them in the field was sure death to many of the British officers.
He was especially active in the campaign against General Burgoyne, his exertions and the brilliant services of his men aiding effectively in the overthrow of the Burgoyne expedition. To him and his men much of the glory of the capture of the British army belonged, but General Gates was so grossly unjust that he did not even mention him in his despatches. The cause of this is said to have been the following:
It is well known that Gates, intoxicated by his success, began to intrigue for the removal of Washington. He broached the subject to Morgan in a private conversation, telling him that the army was greatly dissatisfied with Washington's leadership, that his reputation was rapidly declining, and that several prominent officers had threatened to resign unless a new commander-in-chief were appointed.
Morgan's impatience barely permitted Gates to reach the end of his remarks, and he immediately broke out with stern indignation: “Sir, I have one favor to ask. Never again mention to me this hateful subject. Under no other man than General Washington, as commander-in-chief, will I ever serve."
This ended all intimacy between Gates and Morgan. The general gave a dinner a few days later to the principal British officers and to some of the American, but Morgan was left out of the list of guests. While the dinner was proceeding official business required Morgan to communicate with Gates, but as soon as he had completed his business he withdrew. His name was not announced, but some of the British officers, perceiving from his dress that he was of high rank, inquired his name. When told that he was Colonel Morgan, commander of the rifle corps, a number of them left the table, followed him from the room, and introduced themselves to him, expressing warm appreciation of his skill and valor.
From Saratoga Morgan made his way to Washington's camp at Valley Forge, and continued with him till June, 1779, when, his health being greatly shattered, he resigned his command and sought his family and farm. Here he remained until after General Gates had been appointed to the command of the Southern army. Gates called upon him and requested his services in his new duty, but Morgan's indignation still rankled deeply and he spoke his feelings very plainly in regard to the treatment he had received. Motives of public good might influence him, he said, but friendship could not exist for one from whom he had experienced only neglect and injustice.
A few weeks later Congress promoted Colonel Morgan to the rank of brigadier-general, and at their request he set out to join the army of General Gates. He was not obliged to serve under his enemy. When he reached the Carolinas there was nothing that could be called an army to join. The battle of Camden had been fought, the army was scattered like leaves before the wind, and Gates was a fugitive without a soldier to keep him company.
It was not until after General Greene took the place of Gates and brought the scattered soldiers together again that the patriot forces made any show in the South, beyond the work of Marion and other partisan commanders and of the brave Tennesseans at King's Mountain. But early in 1781 Morgan had an opportunity for the greatest deed in his career, the exploit which has made him famous in American history.
General Greene dispatched him with four hundred Continentals, Colonel Washington's force of dragoons, and a small number of militia, amounting to about six hundred men in all, to take position on the left of the British army under Lord Cornwallis, he taking post himself about seventy miles to the right.