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I don’t often read fiction anymore and hardly ever unless it has a historical context. Recently, I was convinced to order a copy of Oliver North’s book. It is a prequel to some other novels he has written and is titled The Rifleman (no, it has nothing to do Chuck Conners – might have dated myself on that one). I have only begun reading the book, but I am looking forward to it capturing (I hope) the flavor of one of my very favorite Revolutionary heroes, Daniel Morgan.
But the novel has caused me to dig up something that I wrote in another place and time with Morgan more or less at the center. I might have retouched it slightly since it was written in a darker time during the first term of Fearless Leader Obama and it is hardly intended to be a definitive piece.
But in a time when some among us seem to prefer that those who defend or advance our freedoms and ideals be more proper and civil, it reminds us that all heroes are flawed but does not diminish their worth or purpose. It also brings some reflection that perhaps in another time Daniel Morgan could well have been a reasonable choice for Secretary of Defense in a Trump administration – or even FBI Director, we could only hope!
Many of us have seen the movie The Patriot starring Mel Gibson. It centers on a time when the American Revolution faced almost sure failure but turned the tables on the King’s best general. After years of long struggle, the focus of the war turned to the southern colonies and, in a short time, the darkest hours and the brightest days took place. The war was finally won in the South. That win was very much the story of two of the three most important military leaders of the American Revolution. If you have seen the movie you already have a general idea of the greatest tactical battle plan of the war, even if the movie could not do it justice. With this and probably another post I will try to tell their story in a general way. I will risk boring you with too much history because these were not boring men. They were examples of determination overcoming circumstance. They were Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene.
Since I am doing the writing, I will begin with my favorite. Daniel Morgan was born into poverty on the frontier of New Jersey. He left home at about the age of 17 or possibility 18 after a conformation with his father. He never spoke of it and never told anyone what it was about.
He drifted to the frontier of western Virginia where he led a rough-and-tumble life. He was described at various times as a drinker, a brawler, a gambler, and a “wincher.” Among the things he was arrested for were assault, drunkenness, arson, and horse theft. He also took time to hire out cleaning land with ax, saw, and team. By the 1760s, he was a property owner with several holdings.
By the time of the Revolution he had served in the French and Indians War and a couple of Indian wars. He had led men in combat and was an expert with both the rifle and tomahawk. He held a commission in the Virginia militia through two different Indian wars.
He was also boot-leather tough. During the French and Indian War, he was shot through the mouth, knocking out a few teeth. He stuffed a rag in his mouth to soak the blood and went about his business. He also was given 499 lashes for striking an officer. It didn’t mellow him any, or improve his opinion of British officers.
He began the Revolution with the rank of captain and led a company of riflemen to Washington’s aid in Boston in 1775. He was later captured during a failed attempt to capture Quebec. He had been surrounded by British troops and backed against a wall but still refused to surrender. He finally gave his sword to a priest in the crowd but refused to hand it to any British soldier.
He spent a few months in a British prison and was released in time to be commissioned a colonel by Washington, who ordered him to raise a group of 500 riflemen who become known as Morgan’s Rangers. Morgan applied tactics to the battlefield that were much more like those of the Indians than the Field Marshals of Europe.
His men were selected for their marksmanship and ability to live off the land. Their uniforms were hunting shirts and they had to show the ability to hit a man’s head at 200 yards. Their view of warfare was not molded by Europe but by the kill-or-be-killed realities of the frontier. In their belts they carried both tomahawks and scalping knives. They were basically a bunch of snipers and guerrilla fighters.
One of the formal military courteous understandings of the day was that officers were not to be targeted. It was an “ungentlemanly” to do so. Morgan was never accused of being a gentleman. He considered officers prime targets. His objective was to create as much confusion in the enemy ranks as possible. Today it is called interruption of chain of command and is a standard practice. To Morgan it was common sense in an all-out fight to win. Also, since one of many advantages that the British had was their well-equipped and highly trained artillery, artillerymen were also prime targets.
By the fall of 1777, Morgan and his command were assigned to Horatio Gates in an effort to stop a British invasion from the north headed by the polished General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne. A successful effort by Burgoyne would have split the states in half and almost surely would have doomed the Revolution.
What became known as the Battle of Saratoga was actually an affair of several weeks spread over several positions but resulted in Burgoyne surrendering his sword because he was cut off by Morgan’s Riflemen. The two most important engagements of those weeks were at Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. In both, Morgan’s command made the decisive move that broke the British. In between fights, Morgan’s men constantly sniped at all scouting patrols and even the camps themselves. This kept Burgoyne from getting information about the surrounding area and supplies. When Burgoyne did make his big move on Bemis Heights, it was without much-needed intelligence about the area.
It was Morgan’s men who held the key position at Bemis Heights and, after seeming to break the British front, the Redcoats were rallied by General Fraser who come riding up on a gray horse. He rode back and forth along the lines redistributing troops in key positions and encouraging them. Morgan, riding his own horse across the field is reported to have said, “That officer on the gray horse is a brave man but he must die!” Three sniper shots later, Fraser fell from his horse with a fatal wound.
Saratoga was the first real victory of importance for the Americans. It ensured that Franklin would be able to convince the French to join America. Without this victory, the Revolution would likely never gotten through its third year.
No one contributed more to that victory than Daniel Morgan. But it was not to be his brightest hour. That would come later at another dark moment in our revolution.
Daniel Morgan’s tactics had been central to the American victory at Saratoga. For two years more years Morgan and his men pursued British troops as guerrilla fighters, captured supplies, and created disorder throughout the King’s Army.
As you may have already guessed, Morgan was easy to anger and slow to play politics. He was continuously passed over for promotion by Congress. He was not the complete picture of an “officer and gentleman” that some envisioned. He was just a stubborn, determined and skilled leader of fighting men. He had many run-ins with Congress and often found their logic irrational (some things never change). In the summer of 1779 he was allowed to retire to his land in Virginia.
After the disasters that were the loss of Charleston and the Battle of Camden, Morgan made his way to the disgraced Horatio Gates and was given the command of the light infantry corps and the rank of Brigadier General. Within two months, he met the new commander in the South, Nathanael Greene.
Greene had decided to split his inferior force and annoy the British troops while he tried to rebuild the Continental forces. Morgan was to take 700 men and strike south to forage for food and supplies as well as harass the enemy while avoiding a battle.
Lord Cornwallis sent Banastre Tarleton after Morgan. Cornwallis expected to crush Morgan’s combination of regulars and militia with Tarleton’s British Legion and then use them as his “eyes and ears” to run Greene to ground.
If you have been paying attention, you might be able to guess that if Morgan saw a chance to strike a death blow that he would take it, regardless of orders. You would be right.
First, I will take the risk of explaining a couple of things about warfare of the period. It is important to the battle. I will try hard not to bore you. Relax, there is no math involved!
Morgan’s Rangers had always been a hit-and-run company because they were riflemen. Most soldiers of the period carried muskets. Muskets were heavy and had not very accurate over more than 40 yards. But most battles in Europe were fought in formation and eye to eye. Because of their heavy construction, muskets could be fitted with deadly three-sided bayonets.
Rifles were much more accurate. A skilled rifleman of the day could hit a man’s head at 200 yards. But rifles were slower to load than muskets. They were also light and could not be fitted with bayonets.
Continental regulars carried muskets with bayonets. For the most part, militia did not have muskets and used their own rifles. A rifleman could load about twice if he was good before he was overrun by British infantry carrying muskets. So, as a rule, most militiamen tended to bail out when their rifles were empty and the bayonets near.
As a result, the British army had developed a false impression of the Continental militia. Both the enlisted men and their officers greatly doubted their willingness to stand and fight when faced with traditional warfare.
To meet Tarleton’s superior numbers, Morgan chose a hilly area where the surrounding South Carolina settlers would graze their cattle. It was called the Cowpens.
Morgan roughly divided his 700 men among militia, regular Continentals, and cavalry. He decided to use the British disdain for militia as the central feature of his battle plan.
The militia would form his front line. Far behind them would be the regulars. The cavalry would be held in reserve on the left flank.
The militia would be in two lines. The first line was to fire two shots and then retreat and form behind the second militia line. Both lines would then fire twice and fall back, this time behind the waiting lines of regulars who would fire muskets and stand to form a bayonet line. The cavalry would strike from reserve.
If battlefield tactics bore you, visualize the movie. The Patriot gave you only a slight wink at how well the plan worked and developed. But it gives you a great starting place.
The night before the fight, Morgan made his way around the campfires. He reminded everyone of their part. He laughed and joked and gave out his fiery gaze.
“Boys, after this, when you get home the old men will praise ya and the women will kiss ya!”
“Give Old Dan two shots, just two shots. And kill with each one.”
The next morning the trap was laid. Tarleton saw the militia at the center and ordered the attack at what he was sure would cave in. The first line fired their two shots and fell back to reform behind the second line of militia. Again, the militia fired their two shots and then broke for the rear.
Oh, Did I fail to say that muskets were famous for firing high?
As the British infantry chased the militia, they topped a slight rise in the ground. Below them at about 30 yards were the Continental regulars who fired a volley directly in their face. The fight became general and heated.
In those days, communication to troops was done through sound, such as drums and horns. In midst of battle, it was easy for confusion to take place.
At the height of the fight, a Continental column misunderstood a sound and began an orderly retreat. Morgan rode to the colonel and demanded, “Are your men beaten?”
The colonel replied, “Do men who march like this seem beaten?”
Morgan at once saw the situation. They were actually drawing the British deeper into the trap. He rode back a little farther, chose his ground and ordered the men to stop and turn. They fired a volley into the bayonet charge of the British at roughly 20 yards.
Morgan galloped to the waiting militia who had done their part and ordered them around the right flank. At the same time, the Continental cavalry was going around the left flank as planned. The British were caught in a terrible three-sided fire.
In all the history of warfare, modern and ancient, there have not been enough successful double envelopments to count on both hands. This one was perfect.
Only slightly more than one hundred of Tarleton’s men escaped death or capture. Cornwallis had lost both his light infantry and his “eyes and ears.”
Over a year before, Morgan had legs and a back that carried the wounds and pains of four wars and headed back to his Virginia land. He was hurting physically and burning inside from the insults of Congress. Now, he once again carried that wounded body back to Virginia and missed the victory at Yorktown. He had done his part and then some.
The days after Charleston and Camden were the darkest of the Revolution since Valley Forge. The life of the Revolution did hang by a thin thread.
To read the history of the Revolution is to know that during those eight years, there were several times each year when the life could have easily been snuffed from it. That Revolution was long. But it lived because of people like Daniel Morgan who answered at just the right moment.
It was not luck. It was the spirit and belief of those who responded. Luck cannot be counted on. The spirit of good people can.
Morgan responded because he was at heart a warrior. Great ideas do not survive without the heart and will of a warrior. Those ideas will always be attacked. That means they have to be defended.
Morgan had his time and we have ours. The ideas of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are hanging by a thin thread. We are not asked to respond in accordance to our training or perceived skills. We are simply asked to respond with a warrior’s heart and determination.
The greatest tactical plan of the war was carried out on the fly by a rough-hued untutored son of the frontier. He stopped an army. We have to win an election to save the Founding Documents and leave them to our children.
After Cowpens, Cornwallis was desperate to catch Greene and burned his wagons so he could move faster. He headed across North Carolina determined to capture the Continental Army. Ahead of him lay Guilford Court House and Nathanael Greene.