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                DANIEL MORGAN and his RIFLEMEN




The battle tactics in the American Revolution were mainly particular to the 18th century European battle tactics. Both sides mainly fought on an open field in line formations where they exchanged volleys of musket fire, thus inflicting casualties unto the opposing force. In addition to foot soldiers, armies would also employ cavalry equipped with horse pistols, shot carbines and swords. Sharpshooting was largerly utilized in guerrilla tactics which implemented hit and run harassment on ground that favored the guerrilla fighters. In open battles, sharpshooters would hide in nearby cover such as trees and bushes and seek out important targets such as enemy officers. Artillery was also implemented by both sides, artillery tactics were usually influence by the battleground.

It is a popular belief that the American Revolution was solely won by the Colonists due to their use of guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla tactics did in fact play an important role in defeating the British, but in actuality, most of the American forces used conventional warfare tactics of the 18th century. Maneuverable guerrilla fighters would wear down bulkier British forces by using hit-and-run tactics and by destroying their supply lines. This guerilla harassment made the British forces more vulnerable once they faced the Continental Army in open battle. Colonial generals and military leaders used their troops sparingly by making the British chase them forcing the British to overextend their supply lines from the coast, and engaging the British in battle when conditions were favorable. The Continental Army was originally inferior to the British Army in virtually every respect, but the success of the Continental Army increased once Continental troops received proper training from Baron Frederick von Steuben—a veteran of the Prussian War. Steuben regimented the Colonial troops, drilled them and disciplined them into an effective fighting force capable of quick and orchestrated battlefield maneuvers. Now the Continental army was able to match the capabilities of the British forces. It would be naïve to think that the British held no guerilla warfare experience of their own after the British had just fought the French-Indian war and previously fought many years to protect the colonies from Native American raids. Nonetheless, Colonial guerrilla fighters became an icon of the American Revolution. Of the most popularly known guerrilla fighters were the riflemen or rangers. Riflemen were put to tremendously effective use by officers such as Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene, who knew how to exploit the riflemen’s qualities.

Morgan’s riflemen are an important unit in the American Revolutionary War because they engaged in guerrilla warfare and can represent units of the similar type that made their American tribute by fighting the British in this style of warfare. Their story can be told by following the military career of Daniel Morgan.


After fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army which called for the creation of 10 rifle companies from the middle colonies to support General Washington’s siege of Boston. In late June of 1775, Virginia agreed to send two companies.  Daniel Morgan was chosen to form one of these companies and to serve as its commander. Morgan had served as an officer in the Virginia Colonial Militia since the French and Indian War. He recruited 96 men, and on July 14, he assembled them at Winchester. Captain Morgan then marched them 600 miles to Boston Massachusetts in only 21 days.  Morgan’s group of marksmen was nicknamed “Morgan’s Riflemen”. In their arsenals were rifles which differed greatly from muskets. Rifles had rifled barrels—the lead ball used for ammunition had a much tighter fit in the barrel and spiral grooves in the inside of the barrel would engage the lead ball, giving it a spinning motion as it traveled down the barrel upon firing of the rifle. The tighter fit of the ball allowed for higher pressures to build behind the ball, and allowed the ball to engage the rifling of the barrel. All of this resulted in higher muzzle velocity, longer range, and a much more accurate projectile as the ball’s spinning motion stabilized it during flight. The only drawback was the reloading time. A musket with its looser fitting ball was much easier to ram home and experienced soldiers could fire at least three aimed rounds per minute. The rifle, originally a hunting or sporting weapon and not designed for combat, may take up twice as long to load. In traditional open battle, the musket with an effective range of 50-70 yards was a superior weapon, but specialists such as Morgan’s riflemen could position themselves up to 200-300 yards and pick off targets of high value. At Boston, Morgan used the guerrilla tactics he learned during the French and Indian War. These tactics induced chaos and conflict for the British Army. Morgan put to use the accuracy and range of his marksmen and targeted British officers that led and organized British troops. Morgan’s tactics were viewed as dishonorable by the British, but nonetheless, they were very effective.[6]


Daniel Morgan and his sharpshooters contributed to the invasion of Canada in late 1775. Colonel Benedict Arnold and Captain Morgan lead three rifle companies from Boston and into Canada. The Battle of Quebec ensued, leading up to Benedict Arnold being shot in the leg and Captain Morgan and a good deal of his men captured.


Captain Morgan was a prisoner of war until he was exchanged in 1777. Shortly after being released, he joined General Washington and learned that he had been promoted to a Colonel because of his unit’s efforts in Quebec. Morgan was assigned to raise and command the 11th Virginia Regiment, but later in the year, he was also placed in command of the Provisional Rifle Corps. Morgan used his riflemen to harass General William Howe’s rear guard during their entire withdrawal from New Jersey.[6] Colonel Morgan and his men played a big role in the Battle of Bemis Heights. A key event in this battle is when Benedict Arnold spotted British General Fraser rallying his troops, and called to Morgan and his men: “That man on the grey horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of—direct the attention of some of the sharpshooters amongst your riflemen to him!” Morgan was said to be reluctant to give such an order, but he did. Sharpshooter Timothy Murphy shot General Fraser with a fatal hit. British light infantry then fell back through the redoubts (fort system) occupied by British General Burgoyne.  Arnold, followed by Morgan executed a counter-attack that forced General Burgoyne back into his starting position before he set off his offensive. Burgoyne lost 500 men and General Fraser in that battle. That night Burgoyne withdrew to Saratoga. The British soon became completely surrounded by a larger American force at Saratoga. As Burgoyne set up defensive lines, Morgan and his men cut down British Patrols and convinced the British that they were unable to retreat. On October 17, General Burgoyne was forced to surrender. News of Burgoyne’s surrender was key as it convinced the French to join the war as an ally to the Americans. This American victory also encouraged the Spanish to join the American effort.


Morgan’s unit had rejoined Washington’s main unit at Saratoga. Previously, Morgan had hit British columns and supply lines in New Jersey, but he had not been involved in any major battle. Throughout 1778, Morgan became more and more discontent with the Continental Army and Congress. He was not a politically active man and did not have a developed relationship with Congress. Morgan repeatedly wanted to be promoted to brigadier (a senior military rank above colonel—commands a brigade of three battalions which is about 3000 men overall), but the promotion came to men with less combat experience, but better political connections. While a Colonel with Washington, Morgan had temporarily commanded Weedon’s brigade, which he felt very capable of commanding. In addition to Morgan’s frustration, his legs and back pained him deeply from the abuse taken during the Quebec Expedition. Morgan was allowed to resign on June 30, 1779, and returned home to Winchester. He was urged by General Gates in June 1780 to re-enter service, but Morgan declined. After Gate’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden, Morgan put aside his grievances and joined the Southern command at Hillsborough, North Carolina.



In the Southern Campaign, Morgan met Gates at Hillsborough and was given command of the light infantry corps on October 2, and finally received his promotion to brigadier general on October 13, 1780. Nathanael Greene was in command of Morgan. Greene decided to split his army and harass the British in order to buy time to rebuild his force. Once again, Morgan in the command of around 700 men got the job of foraging and harassing the British in the backcountry of South Carolina. When the British found out what was going on, British General Cornwallis sent Colonel Tarleton to track Morgan down. Morgan and his men were ordered not to engage in direct battle, but Morgan discussed with many of the militia who had fought Tarleton before and figured that Tarleton could be easily lured. Morgan chose to confront the British at Cowpens, South Carolina. On the morning of January 17, 1781, Morgan and his men engaged Tarleton in the Battle of Cowpens.  Morgan was joined by other American militia forces. Morgan formulated his plan around Tarleton’s despise and quick, rash action toward the militia, and his advantage of the longer accuracy and range offered by his riflemen. Morgan positioned his riflemen to the front, followed by the militia, and regulars at the hilltop. The first two units of riflemen were to retreat as soon as they were seriously threatened, but only after they had taken several deadly shots on the advancing British. The strategy behind this caused a reckless charge from the British. The British soon found themselves in a pincer movement where both their flanks were being fired upon as well as their front used to engage the retreating American riflemen. The retreating American riflemen would reload as they ran from the British and fired when the British got too close. In less than an hour, Tarleton suffered severe casualties. Out of his 1,076 men, 110 were killed and 830 captured of which 200 were wounded. Tarleton managed to escape, but the Americans captured all his supplies and equipment. Morgan’s cunning plan at the Battle of Cowpens is widely considered to be the tactical masterwork of the war and one of the most successfully executed pincer movement in modern military history.


The grave of Daniel Morgan, located at Mount Hebron Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia

At this point Cornwallis had lost Tarleton’s legion and his light infantry which offered Cornwallis speed and maneuverability. For Morgan’s grand actions in the battle of Cowpens, Virginia rewarded Morgan with land and estate that had been abandoned by a British loyalist. However the harsh environment conditions of the battlefield had taken a toll on Morgan’s sciatica (health condition—for Morgan’s case, pain in his back and legs). Morgan was now in constant pain. On February 10, Morgan took leave to his Virginia farm, and in July 1781 he joined French General Lafayette to pursue General Tarleton in Virginia, but this time with less success.  Later that year, the British army under Cornwallis became trapped at Yorktown. Cornwallis hoped to be rescued by a British fleet, but a French fleet intercepted it. Cornwallis and his army became trapped in a heavy siege that forced Cornwallis to succumb and surrender to the French and Continental armies under General Washington. After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, the war settled down. The British deep debt and internal problems in Britain persuaded the British Parliament to give the American colonies up. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war with Britain.

The Conclusion of Morgan and his Riflemen's actions.

Daniel Morgan and his riflemen became American icons after their sly tactics and more than capable abilities in battle. Morgan and his riflemen played the role of depleting the British army while it advanced unto direct battle with the Continental army. Had it not been for the guerilla tactics employed by the Americans, the British would have appeared in battle much stronger and less vulnerable. It would have been likely that a less weary and bettered supplied British army absent from the deadly hit and run raids by American guerrilla fighters  would have been able crush the Continental army without much trouble. Morgan and his men, along with others who performed guerrilla tactics, won the Continental Army time to build itself up so that it could match the British in battle and win large decisive victories over the British in open battle. Daniel Morgan and his men are exemplar models of the guerilla fighters of the time, and their success played a pivotal role in defeating the British. 

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