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Daniel Morgan and the Battle of Cowpens

January 18, 2010


On Christmas Day, 1780, General Daniel Morgan was camped on the Pacolet River in the Upcountry of colonial South Carolina.

Lord Cornwallis, commander of all British troops, thought that Morgan was going to attack the fort at Ninety Six, South Carolina. Cornwallis ordered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton west to thwart Morgan.

Tarleton was a brash twenty-six-year-old officer with an infamous reputation. At the Siege of Charleston and the Battle of Camden he proved ruthless. Commanding the British Legion, Tarleton won decisive victories at Monck’s Corner and Fishing Creek. After his victory at the Battle of Waxhaws, he ordered the slaughter of American soldiers who had already surrendered. The nickname Bloody Tarleton was well deserved.

Tarleton and the Legion marched in pursuit of Morgan, first to Ninety Six and then to the Broad River. Morgan, received word that Tarleton was in hot on his trail and moved north, attempting to avoid being trapped between Tarleton and Cornwallis.

By the afternoon of January 16, 1781, Morgan was approaching the Broad River which was high with floodwaters. By nightfall he reached Hannah’s Cowpens, a grazing area for cattle. When General Andrew Pickens joined Morgan’s camp, Morgan decided to stand and fight.

Tarleton received word of Morgan’s location and marched toward Cowpens at 3:00 in the morning of January 17. On that day, in what is now Spartanburg County, a decisive victory was won.  Daniel Morgan became a hero.

A statue of General Morgan stands at the center of Spartanburg. Who was he?

Daniel Morgan was born in 1736, the fifth of seven children of a New Jersey blacksmith.  As a teenager with a quick temper, he got into a fight with his father. He left home never to return.  He worked his way through Pennsylvania and settled on the Virginia frontier. 

Daniel Morgan was a large, rough man.  Poorly educated, he was known as a man who worked hard and drank hard. He was charged several times with horse stealing.  Gambling and womanizing were among his vices.  He worked at a sawmill and as a teamster until he saved enough money to buy his own horses.  He fought in the French and Indian War, serving as a wagon master.  He came to the attention of a young colonel, George Washington, who among others, referred to Daniel Morgan as the Old Waggoner.

In 1758, while carrying dispatches through the wilderness, he was ambushed and seriously wounded.  A bullet hit him in the neck, going through his cheek, knocking out the teeth of his left jaw.  He stayed in the saddle and managed to escape. The wound permanently disfigured his face. 

After the French and Indian War, he bought a house in Winchester, Virginia, and set up housekeeping with a 16-year-old girl.  By the time they married eleven years later, they already had two daughters.

Morgan returned to military service to put down the Indian uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.  He led a five-month campaign against the Shawnee Indians.  When the American Revolutionary War began, Daniel Morgan led a rifle company from Virginia, marching them in only 21 days to join George Washington at Boston. 

In the invasion of Canada, Morgan was defeated and taken captive by the British at the Battle of Quebec.  Refusing to surrender his sword to British troops, he handed it, instead, to a French priest. While a prisoner, he defied an order from a Red Coat officer, slugging him in the nose with his fist. As punishment, Morgan received 500 lashes with a whip across his back. He survived the brutality, but carried, with the scars, a score to settle.  He remained a prisoner of war for two years until he was freed in an exchange. 

Colonel Morgan rejoined George Washington and was assigned to raise and command a regiment.  In 1780, after the bloody Battle of Camden, Daniel Morgan was sent south to join General Gates at Hillsborough, North Carolina.  He was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to General Nathaniel Greene at Charlotte.  Greene dispatched Morgan’s regiment into the backcountry of South Carolina.  The British sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton to track down and engage Morgan. 

Morgan’s victory at Cowpens on the morning of January 17, 1781, is his finest hour.  His defeat of Tarleton is considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War in the South and the greatest tactical victory of the war.

After the Revolutionary War, Daniel Morgan settled down, became somewhat domesticated, and was baptized in the Presbyterian Church.  He spent time with his family, especially his 19 grandchildren. 

On January 17, 2006, a group of citizens gathered in a brisk wind at Morgan Square in downtown Spartanburg to mark the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens. The statue of Daniel Morgan had been refurbished and relocated, one of many times the monument had been moved. Dr. George Fields quipped that the statue of General Morgan has traveled around the square so frequently that “It should have been designed with wheels.” 

Dressed as a patriot soldier, Dr. Fields, gave a stirring account of The Battle of Cowpens. Wofford College President Bernie Dunlap presented an address on the life of Daniel Morgan. He entitled his remarks “The Heroic Reprobate.”  Those assembled joined in a prayer of rededication and the laying of a wreath.

We are all indebted to the reprobate hero.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010

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