It is commonly understood that the American Revolution effectively ended at Yorktown in October 1781. British General Lord Charles Cornwallis, trapped between the French navy and an army of American and French soldiers, had no choice but to surrender. What is not so commonly known, however, is that victory over the British would not have been possible without the contribution of one particular commander and his small army ten months earlier. A natural fighter and leader, he was at that point in the war one of George Washington’s top battlefield generals. He had been leading men into battle since the start of the Revolution and six years later helped win one of the war’s most decisive battles. His name was Daniel Morgan. This is the story of how he destroyed the British cavalry at the Battle of Cowpens.
By the time of the American Revolution, Daniel Morgan was already a legend among frontier Virginians. His was a tumultuous life. He was born in July 1736 in New Jersey to Welsh immigrants but left home at age seventeen after a vicious argument with his father. He settled in the small village of Winchester in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and found work as a teamster, which later earned him the nickname “the Old Wagoner.” With the start of the French and Indian War in 1755, and at the ripe old age of nineteen, he was impressed into the British army to haul supplies to Fort Cumberland, Maryland. There he argued with and hit a British officer. In response, he was sentenced to 500 lashes but later claimed he had received only 499. Soon after he joined a ranger company, and while on patrol, an Indian musket ball tore through his throat, dislodged several teeth and exited out his cheek, leaving a permanent scar. After the war, he returned to Winchester where he developed a reputation as a brawler, a wrestler, an athlete and the leader of a “gang” of local frontiersmen. In 1771 he was commissioned a captain in the local militia and led soldiers in Lord Dunmore’s War of 1774 against the Shawnee Indians. After hearing that the British had closed Boston harbor in response to the famed Tea Party, Morgan led his neighbors in pledging to help their “brethren in Boston” by any means necessary. He soon proved the truth of his words.
Upon joining the Continental Army, Morgan quickly won the respect of his fellow officers as he developed into one of America’s top tacticians. In July 1775 he raised a company of Virginia riflemen and marched over 600 miles to Boston in only three weeks. After being greeted by General Washington, he was attached to Colonel Benedict Arnold’s army preparing for the invasion of Canada. Arnold was at that time, of course, still completely loyal to the patriot cause. Marching beside Arnold, Morgan endured the arduous trek through the Maine wilderness before arriving outside the city of Quebec in December. In the ensuing battle he fought valiantly at the head of Arnold’s force after Arnold was wounded, but he was forced to surrender when surrounded by enemy troops. After being released from British captivity, he was promoted to colonel and placed in command of 500 elite light infantry. In September 1777 Colonel Morgan joined Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold, to whom he always referred as “my old friend,” in opposing British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York. On September 19th he attacked British positions around Freeman’s Farm, killing or wounding all the British artillerymen and inflicting heavy losses on the 62nd Regiment. On October 7th, he led another attack on two redoubts on the British right flank, defended mostly by Germans, and along with Arnold succeeded in capturing them. By taking the positions, Morgan helped ensure Burgoyne was forced to surrender. With the threat in the North over, Morgan turned his attention to the British threat in the South.
Morgan rejoined Washington and the main American army in late 1777, but his prized corps of riflemen was soon disbanded. He yearned for an independent command once again, but when no opportunity arose, he went home on furlough. He was still there in May 1780 when he heard the British had captured Charleston, South Carolina and 5,000 American soldiers. Weeks later he received a summons from his old commander, Horatio Gates, who asked him to join the American Southern army. Sciatica prevented him from arriving until after the decisive Battle of Camden on August 16th, where the Southern army was routed and virtually destroyed. When he did arrive, he found only about 1,200 troops without any artillery and only a few muskets, as most had been lost at Camden. Grateful to have a man he trusted, Gates ordered Morgan to assume command of a corps of light infantry and cavalry. Traversing the countryside, Morgan engaged small bands of Tory militia, but he was most desperate to find and engage the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Tory Legion. Known as “Bloody Tarleton,” he may have been the most brutal officer in the British army, once massacring American soldiers as they tried to surrender. After the arrival of the new Southern commander, General Nathanael Greene, Morgan was finally given the chance to face the hated Tarleton in battle.
In late December 1780, Brigadier General Morgan was ordered to march his corps of infantry and cavalry into northern South Carolina. Throughout early January 1781 Morgan’s command attracted numerous South Carolina and Georgia militiamen. He contemplated raiding British-held Savannah, Georgia, but on January 14th he received word Tarleton was advancing on his location and quickly decided to revise his plan. He had less than 1,000 men to combat Tarleton’s 1,100 mounted dragoons and elite infantry. By nightfall on January 15, 1781 he had withdrawn to a camp between the Broad and Pacolet Rivers. The next morning Morgan woke with the hope he could cross the Broad River to rougher terrain. As night approached, however, he was still too far away, but there was perfectly suitable terrain nearby to engage Tarleton. Called Cowpens, it was a wide pasture with two tree-covered ridgelines, a natural “pen” area for cattle to graze before going to market. Along the first ridge, he stationed his most experienced troops, Continentals along with Virginia and Georgia militiamen. He placed the South Carolina militia 150 yards down the slope and a group of skirmishers armed with rifles 150 yards in front of them. He deployed his cavalry commanded by William Washington, cousin to George, behind the ridge. He directed the skirmishers to fire at the advance of Tarleton’s column before falling back to join the South Carolinians. He told the South Carolinians to then deliver two volleys, trying to kill Tarleton’s officers. Afterwards, the militia would withdraw behind the American main line and wait in reserve. It was a bold plan. He hardly slept at all, thinking about what the morning would bring.
Just before 7:00 A.M. on January 17th, Morgan received word that Tarleton’s force was only five miles away and coming on quick. He ordered the men into position and exhorted them to stand fast in the name of liberty. Moments later, he caught sight of the green uniforms of British dragoons followed by the red and white of the British infantry. He watched intently as Tarleton directed his dragoons to sweep away the skirmishers at the bottom of the ridge. The riflemen took careful aim and fired, dropping fifteen enemy soldiers. Stunned, the rest of the dragoons turned and galloped back to safety. Tarleton turned to his infantry and ordered them to clear a path. Ahead of them, other skirmishers waited and after firing several rounds raced to join the South Carolinians. The infantry gave chase. The militia waited until the British were in range and then, just as ordered, fired two volleys into the enemy’s faces. The British were momentarily staggered by the American response, but they immediately reformed their ranks, leveled their bayonets and prepared to charge. The militiamen knew they could not stop the charge, so they pulled back to the line of veterans.
Sensing victory, Tarleton ordered his dragoons to give chase and destroy the militia. Then, to the surprise of “Bloody Tarleton,” William Washington’s cavalry surged forward to drive them away. At the same time, Morgan raced forward to rally the militia shouting, “Old Morgan was never beaten.” He then turned his attention back to the front where Tarleton’s infantry was starting up the slope towards the veterans. The advance threatened the American right flank, and through a series of misinterpreted commands, the entire line of Continental infantry began to fall back. Morgan did not despair though. Even though his men seemed in disarray, he rode in front of them and ordered them to turn around and fire on the British soldiers who were now only ten to fifteen yards away. Only moments before the Redcoats had believed the day was theirs; now, they froze in disbelief. That was a mistake. No sooner had the smoke cleared than the veterans leveled their bayonets and charged the front while the militia attacked the left flank and Washington’s cavalry attacked the right. Many British soldiers threw down their muskets and raced for the rear. The Americans pursued, capturing artillery and large numbers of prisoners. In dismay Tarleton rallied his remaining dragoons and charged forward, but after a short and desperate fight with William Washington, he was forced to flee for his life. On the field behind him lay the remnants of his command. Surveying the field, Morgan was ecstatic at his accomplishment. Having lost only 72 men, he had secured one of the most decisive American victories of the war and destroyed the “flower” of the British Southern Army in the process.
As news of Cowpens swept throughout the country, Morgan was celebrated as “the rising Hero in the South.” He was awarded a saber, a horse and accompanying accoutrements by the Virginia House of Delegates and was voted a gold medal by the Continental Congress for his “complete and important victory.” Both Nathanael Greene and South Carolina Governor John Rutledge sent congratulatory messages to Morgan, Greene proclaiming, “there are few Morgans to be found.” Thanks to Morgan’s victory, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was forced to destroy his baggage train as he moved hurriedly through North Carolina. After his great victory, Morgan had to take temporary leave due to his sciatica, but he returned shortly thereafter when Cornwallis moved into Virginia. At one point Morgan almost came to blows with Tarleton again, but the British officer refused to be engaged a second time. He missed the British surrender at Yorktown, but Morgan was thrilled at the result nonetheless. Even after the war ended, he continued to prove his love of country by serving as a major general of militia during the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania and as a U.S. Representative from 1797-1799. The “Old Wagoner” and hero of Cowpens died on his sixty-sixth birthday in July 1802 and was buried in Winchester’s Mount Hebron Cemetery where today a monument stands in his honor.
Daniel Morgan, more than almost any other American commander, was responsible for bringing about the victory at Yorktown. His devastating defeat of Tarleton’s legion deprived General Cornwallis of his “eyes and ears” at a critical time in the Southern campaign. In such a state, the British commander could ill afford to strand his Southern army far from the supplies and support that lay to the north. He was forced into a tactical withdrawal. The situation ultimately led him to Yorktown and to defeat. Though it is the British surrender in October 1781 that we most often remember, the seeds of victory were actually sown at the Cowpens by one of our most pugnacious generals — the “Old Wagoner.”