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Daniel Morgan
09.21.2018 738856129310

"Betwixt every peal the awful voice of Morgan is heard, whose gigantic stature and terrible appearance carries dismay among the foe wherever he comes." - Anonymous American soldier at the Battle of Quebec City, January 1775

American Revolution commander Daniel Morgan might just be one of the most unsung badass heroes of the War for Independence.  A gigantic, hulking, foul-mouthed monster of a human being, Morgan stood over six feet tall at a time when the average human being was about five-six, and he was swinging an unsheathed sword at the forefront of some of the most insane fighting of the entire Revolution.  He invaded Quebec City and tried to fight basically three-quarters of the population of Canada in hand-to-and combat, he led America's first real Special Forces unit in the decisive action of the most important battle of the war, and he used clever tactics to outsmart and crush the biggest and most hated bastard the British Army sent to the New World.  Oh, right, and he is one of like three guys who is credited with establishing the United States Army Rangers, and when you're talking about a dude who commanded victories that turned the tide of the war both in New York and South Carolina – and only after being shot through the freaking face by a .69-caliber musket ball – a little thing like "founding one of the most famous and badass military special forces units in the known world" really only ends up being a footnote in this dude's story.

Dan Morgan was born to Welsh parents in 1736, though aside from that we don't really know a hell of a lot about his early life.  He was probably born in or around New Jersey, he was a distant cousin of pioneer badass Daniel Boone, and liked to claim that he was the great-great nephew of the infamous pirate Henry Morgan, but honestly until he shows up in Virginia at age 17 it's pretty much anyone's guess what else was going on with this dude.  He was big, tall, and strong, and even though he couldn't really read all that well he was pretty dang good at beating the crap out of people in fistfights, chugging copious amounts of booze, and winning the occasional card game.  He worked as a planter and a sawmill superintendent, but neither of those jobs really had enough adventure, so he eventually settled into a job known as a wagoner – which was basically what you called long-haul truckers back in the days before trucks were invented.


Wagoneering circa 1800


Wagoneering (wagoning?) was good work for Dan, and when the French and Indian War broke out in 1756 Daniel Morgan and his wagon were conscripted in to help fight some French and/or Indians.  The 20 year-old teamster drove Colonial supplies up and down the East Coast in support of the British War effort, but things got kind of crappy on one run to Fort Chiswell, when some jackass British officer took offense to something or other and slapped Daniel Morgan in the head with the flat of his sword.

This, you will learn, is not an effective way of communicating with Daniel Morgan.

Morgan responded by jacking that Brit in the freakin' face, laying that entitled, self-important idiot out unconscious with a single punch.

Well, unfortunately for Morgan, cracking your CO in the face was pretty hardcore frowned on in the British Army, even in situations where that moron totally deserved it and had it coming, and Morgan was sentenced to an insane punishment – an unbelievable 500 lashes.  Honestly, this is a punishment that would kill most people.  But not Daniel Morgan.  Instead, he turned it into a fun story he'd tell his men during the Revolution:  He'd say the guy doing the whipping mis-counted, and only gave him 499 instead of 500. 

The Brits still owed him a lash… and if they wanted it, they were just going to have to come and get it.



Despite getting beaten within an inch of his life by the British Army, Daniel Morgan still joined up in 1757, this time at the rank of Ensign, which was basically the lowest officer rank in the military.  During one frontier patrol, however, he was ambushed by Native American warriors, who killed most of Morgan's detachment and shot Morgan through the dang face in the process.  The bullet entered the back of his neck and came out his cheek, blowing out most of the teeth on the left side of his jaw and leaving him with a presumably-badass-looking Heath Ledger Joker scar.  He somehow survived taking a gunshot wound very close to his spine, finished his tour of duty, got married, bought a house, and had a couple of daughters.

When the American Revolution broke out, Daniel Morgan was one of the first men to sign up to help show the British exactly where they could shove their Stamp Acts.  He was made a Captain in a Continental rifle company, and his first campaign ended up being one of the most insane of the war – the American invasion of Canada.

Serving as second in command to Benedict Arnold, Dan Morgan helped lead a team of American soldiers on a 350-mile hike and boat ride through the freezing-cold uncharted wilderness of Maine and Canada, guiding troops through white-water rapids, down water falls, and across frozen swamplands in the dead of the Canadian winter.  With hardly any food, through freezing rain and knee deep mud, Morgan and Arnold took their men all the way from New York to Quebec City, the most secure fortress in North America, where they charge through knee-deep snow into a heavily-defended, walled town and proceeded to basically Black Hawk Down their way through street-by-street fighting against a hardcore garrison on British, Scottish, and Canadian troops.  Charging the walls, Morgan led from the front, and was the first man to climbed one particular tower along the outer walls of the city – he summited only to have a Canadian jam a musket in his face and immediately pull the trigger.
The gun went off so close to Morgan's face that he got powder burns from the muzzle flash.  But it missed.



Morgan killed that guy with a sword, took the tower, and rallied his men even though they were fighting in hostile territory, in the dead of the Canadian winter, through basically a blinding snowstorm.  Even when both Generals in command of the operation were wounded in action, Captain Dan Morgan continued leading his forces straight into the teeth of the enemy.  Even after every other American unit in the fighting was defeated or captured, Morgan's men still pressed forward, capturing two more towers, until suddenly they found themselves backed against a wall, surrounded by so many redcoat muskets that they basically had no option other than to surrender or be horrifically slaughtered out of control like crazy.

Morgan surrendered his command, spent a couple months in British custody, and was eventually ransomed back to the Continental Army during a prisoner exchange.

The first thing he did was create Morgan's Rangers – an elite unit of 500 men, hand-selected from the best marksmen the Americas had to offer.



The selection process for Morgan's Rangers was pretty simple – Dan Morgan would create these big life-sized cutouts of British officers (and of King George), and you couldn't get into his unit unless you could hit that target consistently from 100 yards out.  Now, most muskets of the day were accurate out to about 50 yards, but Morgan equipped his men with the Pennsylvania Long Rifle – it was a longer, threaded barrel that was accurate for a longer range, and the only downside was that it wasn't really set up to equip a bayonet… so you'd better kill the redcoats before they got close enough to shank you in the face.

This is why it helped to have accurate snipers in his ranks.  And they became so well-known for their marksmanship that the Continental militia used to joke that the Rangers trained by shooting apples off each others' heads for fun.

To this day, the U.S. Army Rangers trace their lineage back through Morgan's Rangers.



The Rangers were at the forefront of the most important battle of the Revolution:  The Battle of Saratoga.  The short version of the story is that there was a gigantic army of Brits in Canada, and they were headed south to NYC to link up with the rest of the Brits and crush the forces of George Washington.  Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates were send to turn back this reinforcement column, because if these two British armies successfully linked up they were going to create an insane Voltron of Imperialism that would smash whatever was left of the Revolution under its ultra-fashionable designer Eurotrash shoes.

Arnold and Gates decided that the most effective way to hold back this advancing column was by having Morgan's Rangers hide at the farm at the crossroads of Saratoga and pour so much rifle fire into their vanguard that the Brits couldn’t advance.

This worked.




It's an oversimplification, sure, but Daniel Morgan's Rangers held Frasers Farm during both battles of Saratoga, blasting back numerically-superior enemy attacks repeatedly thanks to super-accurate long-range sniper fire, typically directed at the British officers to create maximum confusion.  The Brits were brave, and kept charging forward, but were thrown back time and time again before they could close with their bayonets.  The Battle of Saratoga was a huge victory for America, and is now repeatedly over and over referred to as the "turning point of the war", whatever that means.

Somehow, after all that, Dan Morgan was passed over for promotion for Brigadier General, so in 1779 he resigned his commission.

Less than six months later, the Americans were getting the crap kicked out of them all over South Carolina, and they were like "yeah, ok Dan, we need you to come back and be in command of all American forces in the South and somehow defeat the worst, most violent, most brutal British commander we've ever seen."

So he did.



Morgan's primary adversary in the south was a hothead British Colonel named Banastre Tarleton.  I tend to believe that "Butcher Tarleton" is actually kind of an awesome badass, but I've already mentioned that before, so the best thing to say in this space is that the bad guy in The Patriot is modeled pretty closely to the character of Tarleton.  "Bloody Ban" was the Darth Vader of Great Britain in the American Revolution, and in this particular analogy, it's safe to say that Dan Morgan wasn't Luke, but rather that he was Obi-Wan Kenobi standing on the high ground, about to chop off Vader's legs and arms and throw his limbless corpse into a river of molten lava.

Morgan took over command from Horatio Gates, who had just been super-omega owned by Tarleton in a battle that had crushed the back of the American forces in the south and left tens of thousands of American soldiers dead.  Tarleton was now (and had been for a while) running all around South Carolina torching basically anything he could get his hands on, and Morgan was given a small cadre of demoralized troops and told to basically just do anything in your power to make this jerkwad stop incinerating plantations and American civilians left and right.

What nobody on either side never really fully realized, however, was that Dan Morgan had seen plenty of jackasses like Tarleton before.  And he knew exactly how to take them down.
By exploiting their hubris.  And then shooting them in the face.  A lot.



At the Battle of Cowpens in 1780, Daniel Morgan set up three lines of defense against a British army that vastly outnumbered them.  The night before the battle, the big, hulking, facially-scarred badass went walking up and down the lines, telling each man what he needed to do if he wanted to beat the British.  He cracked jokes, drank whiskey, shared battle scars, and convinced the men that they were fighting for a fellow soldier, and that Dan Morgan sure as hell wasn't about to back down from some hotshot British Colonel who's claim to fame was incinerating American civilians.

The plan was pretty simple, but genius.  Morgan's army consisted primarily of militia – which were basically just regular every-day dudes with rifles – and the militia was not a reliable or effective fighting force against front-line British troops.  They had low morale, ran from battle often, and weren't disciplined or trained as well as their enemies.  Morgan also had a small cadre of Continental Army soldiers – the regular infantry of the soon-to-be United States.

So, knowing that Tarleton was a hothead cavalry officer who loved charging into the enemy and cutting them down with a sword, Morgan instructed his militias to the front, told them to fire two volleys, and then turn and run screaming away as fast as they could.  Tarleton then gave chase, thinking he'd won, and when he broke his lines he found his disorganized troops heading straight-on into a firing line of disciplined, organized Colonial Infantry. 

Oh yeah, and also a few guys held over from Morgan's Rangers.



Before the Brits could regroup and attack again, they were horrified to realize that the first wave of militia hadn't actually fled the battlefield – they'd run behind the Colonial Regulars, broken around to the flank, and now they were standing on the British flank on both sides throwing down a crap ton of enfilading fire.

It was a tactic that started with Genghis Khan, and now it was working pretty darn well for Daniel Morgan as well.  Tarleton broke and was defeated.  He fell back, joined up with the main group of Brits in the South, and they retreated back to a town called Yorktown to regroup.

Yorktown was surrounded a few months later by George Washington and the Compte de Rocheambeau, and is now generally accepted as the place where the American Revolution finally ended.



Having been in the middle of three of the biggest and most insane battles of the American Revolution (not to mention dozens and dozens of smaller actions that I didn't even bother getting into here), Morgan retired home to Virginia, and built a house that he named Saratoga after the site of his greatest victory.  He was called back into service in 1794 to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion, a group of farmers who didn't like taxes on whiskey, but those dudes surrendered without ever firing a shot… probably because they heard that Dan Freaking Morgan was on the way to curbstomp them into oblivion.  He served a single term in the United States House of Representatives, then retired for good.  He eventually died in 1802, on his 66th birthday, one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution, and a big reason why nobody in the State ever has to really care about Royal Weddings, Brexit, or Coldplay.


Morgan at the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga.
He's the one in white, rolling his eyes.




Cowpens Battlefield





Further Reading:

Gilbert, Ed.  Cowpens 1781.  London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Ketchum, Richard M.  Saratoga.  New York: Henry Holt, 2014.

Thompson, Ben.  Guts & Glory: The American Revolution.  New York: Little, Brown, 2017.

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Tags: 18th century | American Revolution | Battle Rage / Berserker | Last Stand | Military Commander | Sniper | Soldier | Special Forces | United States | US Army | War Hero

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