Return to Command

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Dan Davis

Like my last post at Emerging Revolutionary War on the “Race to the Dan”, the origins of this post lie in a conversation with blog co-founder, Phill Greenwalt. The topic of our discussion revolved around the aftermath of the British victory at the Battle of Camden. The engagement ultimately brought two American officers to the Southern Theater: Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Greene accepted the position as the new head of the Southern Department’s co two months to the day after the battle while commanding the post at West Point, New York. Morgan’s story, however, is much more fascinating.

In the spring of 1779, George Washington created a light infantry corps within the Continental Army. Such a command fit Morgan’s skillset. He previously commanded the army’s provisional rifle corps. Additionally, Morgan, then a colonel, had compiled a record that arguably warranted elevation to brigadier general. After fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, Morgan led a rifle company to the aid to the American army besieging Boston. Morgan participated in Col. Benedict Arnold’s Canadian Expedition and was captured during the assault on Quebec. He also played a critical role in the Battles of Saratoga. Morgan’s home state of Virginia, however, had met its quota for general officers and a vacancy was not available.

On June 30, 1779, Morgan learned Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne received command of the new corps. With his pride devastated, Morgan traveled to Philadelphia. There, on July 19, Congress read his resignation.

Morgan returned to his home near Benjamin Berry’s tavern, outside Winchester, Virginia. Despite his absence from the army, Morgan maintained a cordial relationship with his neighbor and former commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. The following spring, a British command led by Sir Henry Clinton captured Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston’s fall resulted in the largest American surrender of the war. Hoping to salvage fortunes in the South, Congress appointed Gates to lead what was left of the Southern Department. Gates shared the information with Morgan along with news that Congress contemplated calling him back to duty. The idea excited Morgan and the two men met at Mr. Berry’s tavern prior to Gates’s departure. Although Morgan was enthralled with the chance to return to the field, he was resolute in that he would not do so until he was promoted to brigadier general. Gates assured Morgan he would attempt persuade Congress on Morgan’s behalf.

On August 16, 1780 Gates was soundly defeated by Charles, Lord Cornwallis north of the British outpost at Camden. The disaster deprived the Americans of any organized force in the Carolinas. Virginia lay open to invasion. When word of the battle reached Morgan, he quickly put aside his honor and pride. In the hour of his country’s greatest need, Morgan got back in the saddle and, without a command, rode south to join what was left of Gates’s army.

This selfless moment of patriotism in Morgan’s life would be surpassed in January 1781. Finally promoted to brigadier, Morgan, at the head of the Southern Department’s flying army, achieved a complete to victory over Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens. Morgan’s triumph set off a series of events in the south which ended in Cornwallis’s surrender to a combined Franco-American force at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.

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