Revolutionary War Historical Article

Daniel Morgan - The Early Years

By James Frassett

Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from Vol.3 Issue 4 of the Lock Stock and Barrel Living History Newsletter and Event Calendar, 2000

Daniel Morgan was the most successful field leader of the American Revolution – and perhaps the least remembered. James Graham, author of The Life of General Morgan of the Virginia Line of the Army of the United States, writes in his 1856 volume, “After examining all the sources of information within my reach, I became convinced that few, if any, of the heroes of that day furnished larger contributions than he did to the glory of our arms, or surpassed him in the amount and value of their services.” History has not been kind to the "Old Wagoneer" as he frequently called himself. The stories of this great patriot and the men that served under him in the siege of Boston, in the assault on Quebec, the destruction of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, and his devastating defeat of Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens, are nearly forgotten.

Research for this article was extremely difficult to acquire. To my knowledge there are only two books that have been written on the life of Daniel Morgan. The first, as mentioned above, was written by James Graham in 1856 and the second written by Don Higginbotham in 1961. It is my objective to write as much of the history of this great man as I possibly can with the aid of these two volumes and bits and pieces of information gathered from additional sources. The reason for exerting this effort on Daniel Morgan is that unless you purchase either of these books at a used book seller, you may not get the chance to read them as they are long ago out of print.

Not much is recorded about the early life of the great General. It is generally perceived that he was born to Welsh immigrant parents in 1736 in New Jersey. His birthday is questionable, as the only time he ever mentioned his age was during his capture by the British after the failure of the attack on Quebec under Benedict Arnold. During the exchange of prisoners in 1776, it is said that he told the British officers in charge of handling the exchange that he was 40 years old thus marking his birth year in 1736. His early life was marked by a tough frontiersmen image. He left home when he was young and settled in Winchester, Virginia which is in the Shenandoah Valley. He began his career working as a farmer and later in a saw mill, but was offered a job as a teamster for a wagoneer and found that he liked the outdoors much more than he liked working in the mill. Within six months, Morgan had saved enough money to buy his own cart and team and became a wagoneer on his own account on the Great Wagon Road. Wagons in the 18th Century were the only way of getting product from the frontier to the market place. The Great Wagon Road (which is great to trace on a map) began in Philadelphia, passed through Lancaster, turned southward to Frederick, Maryland, ran through Winchester, traversed the eastern and middle parts of the Valley of Virginia, and ended up at the Yadkin River in North Carolina. It is this editor’s opinion that his first hand knowledge of southwest Virginia and northwest North Carolina contributed to his stunning defeat of Tarleton at Cowpens’s and the subsequent idiotic moves of Cornwallis to catch him – leading to the British defeat at Yorktown and the end of the war.

Daniel Morgan was a big man. He stood six feet tall and was built like a rock. His indomitable spirit and his quick wit made a favorite among the frontier people and soon many of the folks from Winchester and Berrysville looked up to Morgan as a leader. He liked to brawl, gamble and drink at this period of his life, and it would have been hard to look at Morgan in his twenties and believe that God had cut him out for greatness.

The rival claims of France and England for the fertile valleys west of the Alleghenies had begun to produce bloodshed. The French had captured the British fort on the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers and Colonel Washington had tried to take it back, only in turn to surrender at Great Meadows.

General Braddock was sent from England to secure the land west of the mountains. Braddock had brought a fine army consisting of two British Regiments and an array of artillery. Transportation needed to be procured and Morgan stepped in to volunteer his services. Along with the regulars, Braddock was joined by a 1200 man provincial force and other camp followers numbering about 500.

The provincial army was gathered at Fort Cumberland awaiting the arrival of Braddock. The objective was to get underway as soon as Braddock arrived, somewhere around the beginning of May, but the expedition was held up for three weeks while wagons and teams were found to transport the baggage and equipment.

Once the force was finally in motion the going was excruciatingly slow. The ground was uneven and the roads were crisscrossed with swamps and creeks. On June 19th, Braddock decided to march ahead with 1200 men and to leave the baggage and artillery behind with Colonel Dunbar. Dunbar was to continue the march and to catch up with Braddock at Fort Duquesne, the object of the expedition.

On the evening of July 10th, as Dunbar’s troops set camp seven miles west of Great Meadows, the first stragglers began to arrive with news of Braddock's’ defeat. Panic and fear spread through the camp at the thought that the savage enemy might be in hot pursuit. The next morning many of the provincial troops headed home along with many of the unencumbered wagons and teams, leaving no transportation for the helpless wounded.

On July 12th, Braddock’s wounded body was brought into camp. Orders were given to retreat to Fort Cumberland. Baggage, artillery and supplies were destroyed to make room for the wounded in the wagons. On the night of the 13th Braddock died. He was buried in the middle of the road to prevent the discovery of his body by the Indians. Morgan’s wagon along with every other wagon, rolled over Braddock’s grave on its way back to Fort Cumberland. The wounded and dying reached the Fort on the 17th, with Dunbar and the rest of the force who had been covering the retreat, arriving soon after.

The situation on the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontier was ominous. The defeat of Braddock left the frontier wide open for the robbing and murdering of the frontier population. At a time when circumstance demanded that every man be available to protect the defenseless inhabitants, Colonel Dunbar put his troops in motion for Philadelphia, where they went into winter quarters.

The government of Virginia met the situation with promptness and vigorously raised an additional Regiment of sixteen companies under Colonel Washington to defend the frontier. Morgan, and his wagon and team, were assigned to the quartermaster’s department.

Washington posted troops at varying points along the Virginia frontier. Morgan was given the duty of transporting supplies up and down this line of defenses. It was an extremely dangerous job as a wagoneer was constantly subjected to the greatest danger from the lurking foe. On one or two occasions Morgan narrowly escaped with his life.

In the spring of 1756 Morgan had a terrible altercation with a British lieutenant. The lieutenant had taken offense at something Morgan had said or done and after verbally abusing him, he struck him with the flat of his sword. Morgan’s immediate right cross struck the lieutenant senseless and he fell knocked out cold to the ground.

British law was extreme on this type of offense and Morgan was given the harshest punishment possible – five hundred lashes! He received all of them except one that for years to come he would comment that he "owed good old King George one more." When it was over it was said that the punishment that would have killed a lesser man, left the flesh on Morgan’s back hanging down in strips.

The British lieutenant who had caused the incident knew that he had been wrong, and regretting the terrible consequences made a public apology to Morgan. Morgan accepted the apology and magnanimously discharged his mind of all resentment towards the officer. Morgan may have forgiven the young lieutenant but he never forgave the British army or King George.

Up until this time Morgan had yet to command anyone. He had volunteered to go with Braddock and been faultily beaten for his efforts. The ware raged on and descended to the base of the Blue Mountains. Fort Cumberland and Fort Louden were menaced by the enemy and after the ambush of Captain Mercer and thirty-six of his men at the Cacaehon River, the enemy stood just 20 miles from Morgan’s home in Winchester. The militia was called out to garrison Fort Edwards. Morgan led the fifty volunteers to the fort and remained there, in command, for some time. No record of his rank is recorded but it is generally believed that he was in command of the garrison.

A short time after his arrival, Fort Edwards was attacked by a formidable body of French and Indians. Owing to Morgan’s bravery and leadership the attack was repulsed and as the enemy retreated, Morgan yelled at the top of his voice, "Let us follow the red devils!" The garrison sallied forth and overtook their foes killing and wounding many of the Indians as they fled in every direction.

In the spring of 1758, as the commander to the British forces, General Forbes made plans to attack Fort Duquesne, Morgan was recommended by several leading men of West Virginia for a captaincy. Governor Dinwiddie denied the request and all that could be obtained was an ensign’s commission. Morgan accepted the commission and was stationed at varous forts along the frontier in the spring of 1758.

Morgan was sent from one of these forts with an escort of two soldiers with a dispatch for the commanding officer at Winchester. At a place called Hanging Rock there is a spot that cannot be circumvented where the road is just wide enough for a man to pass. Morgan and his two escorts were attacked by a band of French and Indians. The escorts were shot and fell immediately off of their horses. Morgan was hit by a musket ball that went in through the back of his neck, grazing the left side of his neck-bone, then passing through the mouth near the socket of the jaw bone, coming out through the left cheek. The ball knocked out all of Morgan’s teeth on the left side, but amazingly enough did not injure the jaw bone. Basically Morgan had been shot in the head. Although terribly wounded Morgan did not fall from his horse. The blood flowed freely out of the wounds in his head and he was helplessly weak, yet he was able to keep his senses long enough to get away from further harm. The filly he was on at first panicked and froze, but Morgan grabbed her neck and spurned her on. Incredibly the filly turned and headed back towards the fort. The Indians, believing Morgan was mortally wounded, left but one of their party to tend to Morgan while the rest fell upon the escorts looking for scalps and began to run down the empty horses. Morgan, believing he was about to die, kicked his heels into the filly, determined to get away from his pursuers in order that his body would not be mangled.

Morgan’s horse reached the fort and he was taken from the saddle insensible. He was in a critical state for a long time, but with good care and judicious treatment, he recovered. In all of Morgan’s long and active military career, this was the only wound he ever received.

Morgan, now 23, returned to Frederick where his bravery and manly conduct had earned him a high position among his associates. This period became a bad time for the future general, as he took to drinking and gambling. He became addicted to alcohol, but his stature and ability to hold his liquor kept him from being regarded as a drunkard. His drinking and his gambling with people of questionable character led him into numerous brawls and difficulties.

By the time Morgan was 27, he had gradually reformed and adopted a discreet and orderly way of living, and as a result, he fell in love. Morgan became enamored with a lovely woman named Abigail Bailey, and soon afterwards she became his wife.

Morgan purchased a two-story dwelling and a piece of land that he named "Soldier’s Rest." Here with Abigail he began his domestic career. The French and Indian War ended and soon after it looked as though Morgan would get to live a peaceful life. Almost immediately after the peace agreement was signed, Pontiac’s War broke out. This was a savage onslaught that ravaged the entire Western Frontier.

Virginia responded by calling one thousand militia into service to aid the existing forces already on the frontier. The men were placed under the command of Colonel Stevens. Daniel Morgan was given the position of lieutenant in one of the companies of this regiment.

In a decisive battle with Colonel Bouquet, the Indians were defeated and General Bradstreet along with Colonel Bouquet forced them to conclude a peace without Morgan ever having been involved in the action. The militia was disbanded and thus ended Pontiac’s War.

Morgan returned to “Soldier’s Rest” where he lived in domestic tranquility for the next nine years. Abigail bore him two daughters, and Morgan turned his attention to the cultivation of his land and the raising of stock. His grants for service in the military had helped him acquire a considerable quantity of valuable land. Our good Daniel Morgan became regarded as a man of substance.

Morgan took this time to spend many hours reading and improving his deficient education. He became involved in public affairs and was thought to be a man of sound judgement. On the subject of America’s loyalty to King George, Morgan was considered a patriot.

Morgan’s military career between the years 1764 and 1774 was almost nonexistant. One interesting note in 1771, was that William Nelson, the acting governor of Virginia, commissioned Daniel Morgan Captain of the militia of Frederick County.

This was a time of great expansion on the Virginia frontier, much to the chagrin of the Indian population. Great atrocities were occurring in Kentucky and the population of Virginia felt it was just a matter of time before the trouble reached Virginia. Their thoughts were soon realized and blood was spilled by a group of settlers, sparking what has been termed as Lord Dunmore’s war. The Shawnee had taken up the hatchet and been joined by several warriors from the Northern and Western tribes. Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, was determined to handle the matter himself. He ordered a large force to be organized from the Northern territories to be headed by himself and ordered four regiments of militia and volunteers to be raised in the Southern territories to be lead by General Andrew Lewis.

While recruitment for these forces was being accomplished, a force of four or five hundred men, under Angus McDonald, was raised to throw itself between the settlements and the frontier. It was under Major Angus McDonald that Morgan took the field. Morgan raised a company of men and marched off to Wheeling, Virginia to meet up with Major McDonald.

McDonald originally was called to take a defensive position, but having no engagements with the Indians, decided to take the offensive. Six miles out of Wappatomica, the column was ambushed. Captain Woods, in the advance position, became confused and fell back. Morgan’s company, marching second in line, quickly drove the Indians from their positions, and pushed them to retreat.

The Indians abandoned the town of Wappatomica and headed for safer ground across the river. After several days of skirmishing on the banks of the river, the Indians sued for peace. McDonald accepted their request on the condition that they send five of their chiefs to be held as hostages. The Indians obliged, but it was quickly noted that peace was unattainable without the chiefs from the surrounding towns. Two of the hostage chiefs were sent to summon the chiefs from the neighboring towns. When they did not show up, McDonald marched on the upper town and took it with ease.

McDonald quickly deduced that the plan of peace had been a decoy to consolidate their forces and plan an attack on the column. With supplies running short, McDonald chose to retreat. After taking as much corn from the towns as he could carry, he burned the towns and crops and retreated towards Wheeling.

The Indians were furious and quickly caught up with the Virginians. An unceasing conflict was kept up between the two parties for the entire retreat. The Virginians were forced to exist on one ear of corn per day. Losses on both sides were heavy. Morgan took a prominent position in this battle and few of his men were lost.

Soon after McDonald reached Wheeling, Lord Dunmore arrived with the main body of the Northern division. Dunmore’s plan was to attack the Shawnee towns on the Scioto River. He sent a messenger to General Lewis advising him to meet his forces on the Scioto.

Dunmore’s troops, bolstered by McDonald’s, totaled 1200 men, as it descended the Ohio River and headed for the Scioto on keel boats and canoes.

While Dunmore was moving down the Ohio, a bloody battle was taking place between General Lewis’ forces and the Indians at the mouth of the Kanawha. The Indians were led by Cornstalk, the great sachem of the Shawnee. The battle lasted 10 hours, under the brilliant direction of General Lewis. This battle is considered to be one of the most well fought battles in the history of Indian warfare.

The losses were heavy. Twelve Virginia officers were killed along with seventy-five men and one hundred and forty wounded. The Indian losses have never been calculated, but it is generally believed that Indian losses were in the same categories.

The Indians, due to a brilliant maneuver by General Lewis where he led them to believe that Dunmore had arrived with a large army, retreated across the Scioto to their towns.

The Indians could new see that defeat was inevitable. The combined forces of Dunmore and Lewis would be more than enough to decimate them. They sued for peace. General Lewis, with his men ripe for revenge, joined forces with Dunmore and prior to accepting the Indian’s request for peace, destroyed many of the Shawnee towns. It was only after the order was given for the third time, in person by Lord Dunmore himself, that General Lewis was able to control himself and his revenge minded troops.

Every chief was required to attend the peace meetings. When several of the northern chiefs failed to show up, Dunmore sent Major Crawford with a force that included Morgan’s company to destroy the towns. He was able to accomplish his mission without any opposition as the inhabitants fled at their approach.

With peace being accomplished, Lord Dunmore’s War was terminated. The army headed home in the direction of Fort Pitt. Upon arrival at Fort Pitt, they were informed of the startling news that Parliament had closed the Port of Boston and that the Virginia House of Burgesses had met and passed an order condemning this despotic action and calling for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer. They learned that a Congress had been called from the thirteen colonies to take action against the measures and tyrannical encroachments of the British government.

Morgan, in his own journal covering his military career wrote: "we, as an army victorious, formed ourselves into a society, pledging our words of honor to each other to assist our brethren of Boston in case hostilities should commence."

The winter and spring of 1775 saw Morgan at home with his family caring for his domestic concerns, but intently watching the great political movements of the day. Morgan was a zealous supporter of the principles of the colonists and made no secret of his opinions on the subject. The countryside knew of his readiness should the result be an appeal to force.

War broke out on the 19th of April on Lexington Green and continued with the glorious struggle on Breed’s Hill on the 17th of June. On June 10th the Second Continental Congress assembled and on June 14th it named General Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. It made provision for the raising and provisioning of an army of twenty thousand men.

Congress also called into service ten companies of riflemen to be raised in the States of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Of the companies for which Virginia was called upon to provide, Morgan was selected as the captain of one, by the unanimous vote of the committee of Frederick County.


Side Article

William Nelson, Esq., President of His Majesty’s Council and Commander in Chief of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia

To Daniel Morgan, Gent,

By virtue of the power and authority to me given, as President of His Majesty’s Council, and Commander in Chief in and over this Colony and Dominion of Virginia, with full power and authority to appoint officers, both civil and military, within the same, I, reposing especial trust in our loyalty, courage, and good conduct, do, by these presents, appoint you, the said Daniel Morgan, Captain of the militia of the county of Frederick, whereof Adam Stephen, Esq, is Lieutenant and Chief Commander: You are therefore to act as Captain, by only exercising the officers and soldiers under your command, taking particular care that they be provided with arms and ammunition, as the laws of the colony direct; and you are to observe and follow such orders and directions from time to time, as you shall receive from me, or any other superior officer, according to the rules and disciplines of war, in pursuance of the trust reposed in you.

Given at Williamsburgh, under my hand, and the seal of the Colony this fourth [unknown word], and in the eleventh year of His Majesty’s reign,

Anno Domini, 1771

William Nelson


Side Article 2

When Morgan was an old man the following anecdote was related about him.

"Upon one occasion while assisting in changing his linen, I discovered his back to be covered with scars and ridges from the shoulder to the waist. 'General,' said I, ‘what has been the matter with your back."

"Ah," replied Morgan, "that is the doings of old King George. While I was in his service, upon a certain occasion, he promised to give me five hundred lashes. But he failed in his promise, and gave me but four hundred and ninety-nine; so he has been owing me one lash ever since. While the drummer was laying them on my back, I heard him miscount one. I was counting after him at the time. I did not think it worthwhile to tell him of his mistake, and let it go so."

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