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General Daniel Morgan

January 14, 2013

As one of the thirteen original colonies, South Carolina played a significant role in leading the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War. More than 200 battles were fought on South Carolina soil, along with countless other military engagements and skirmishes throughout the Palmetto State, nicknamed for the palmetto tree native to the region.

On June 28, 1776, near the beginning of the American Revolutionary, nine British warships attacked a fort on Sullivan’s Island. The fort was constructed of palmetto trees. The soft, spongy logs did not splinter under bombardment.  Instead, they absorbed the shot, causing the cannon balls to bounce off the walls. General William Moultrie and 400 men fought a daylong battle that ended with the heavily damaged British ships being driven from Charleston Harbor. Fort Moultrie was named for the American commander in that battle. The palmetto tree became a symbol of our state following the battle.

Upstate South Carolina was the location of two of the Revolutionary War’s most critical battles. On October 7, 1780, on the rocky slopes of Kings Mountain, a group known as the Overmountain Men, wearing buckskin and armed with long rifles, attacked Loyalist troops from behind trees. The guerrilla tactics of these backcountry patriots resulted in an overwhelming victory.

About three months later on January 17, 1781, the Battle of Cowpens saw a different military strategy, but a similar outcome. Continental soldiers, dragoons, and patriot militia defeated British Regulars.

Spartanburg County has more Revolutionary engagement sites than practically any other locale in the United States. The fiercely independent Upstate settlers formed a militia unit in the summer of 1775. The county eventually got its name from those fighting men known as the Spartan Regiment. Colonel John Thomas, Sr., was the first commander of the Spartan militia. His son, Colonel John Thomas, Jr., led the Spartan Rifles in the Battle of Cowpens.

Most South Carolinians are familiar with General Thomas Sumter, the Gamecock; General Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox; and General Andrew Pickens, the Wizard Owl.  They are the best known of South Carolina’s Revolutionary War leaders. However, at the center of Spartanburg stands the Greek revival likeness of another general. The statue of Daniel Morgan was refurbished and relocated in 2006; one of many times the monument had been moved. Revolutionary War historian, 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.”

Who was this Daniel Morgan?

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

Lord Cornwallis, commander of all British troops, thought that Morgan was planning to attack Star Fort at Ninety Six, South Carolina. He ordered Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, commander of the British Legion, to move west in order to thwart Morgan.

Tarleton was a brash twenty-six-year-old officer with an infamous reputation. At the Siege of Charleston and at the Battle of Camden, he had proved ruthless. 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 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 three o’clock 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.

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 and 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 for working hard and drinking hard. He was charged several times with horse stealing.  Gambling and womanizing were among his vices.  Morgan worked at a saw mill and as a teamster until he saved enough money to buy his own horses.  In the mid- to late-fifties, he fought in the French and Indian War, serving as a wagon master.  There he came to the attention of a young colonel, George Washington, who among others, referred to Daniel Morgan as the Old Wagoner.

In 1758, while carrying dispatches through the wilderness, Morgan was ambushed and seriously wounded.  A bullet, hitting him in the neck and passing through his cheek, knocked out the teeth of his left jaw.  He managed to remain in the saddle and 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 sixteen-year-old girl.  By the time they married eleven years later, they already had two daughters.

Morgan returned to military service to suppress the Indian uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.  He also 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 twenty-one 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 a prisoner exchange.

Colonel Morgan rejoined George Washington and was assigned to assemble and command a regiment.  In 1780, after the bloody Battle of Camden, the patriot cause was in danger. Washington dispatched Morgan 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 Colonel Tarleton tracked down Morgan and engaged his men in battle.

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 nineteen grandchildren.

Several years ago, Wofford College President Bernie Dunlap presented an address on the life of Daniel Morgan. He entitled his remarks “The Heroic Reprobate.”

We are all indebted to the reprobate hero.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2-13

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