Heroic Reprobate

Remarks on the Re-dedication of the Daniel Morgan Statue
Spartanburg, S.C. – January 17, 2006

Eleven score and five years ago, our forefathers fought a battle—just a few miles east and slightly north of here—that played a decisive part in the founding of this country. Neither army in the field that day, January 17th, 1781, was much bigger than the current Wofford College student body. And yet, far more even than King’s Mountain or any other engagement in the South, it was the battle of Cowpens, midway between the present towns of Gaffney and Spartanburg, that would limit subsequent campaigns by the British and galvanize rebel support throughout the region. As military historian James K. Swisher has put it, “For the first time an American army had tactically confronted and defeated a British army of comparable strength on the battlefield.” Out-thinking, outmaneuvering, and, finally, outfighting his opponent, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, “had matched wits and bested a suave, intelligent, British-trained officer and achieved a significant victory for his country.” According to Swisher, the dramatic encounter at King’s Mountain “could be explained as an ambush by long-riflemen, and by the fact that the British troops were Loyalists not Regulars,” but “at Cowpens, American Continentals and militia beat a British Regular field force for the first time, and so completely defeated them that there could be no denial.” The long-term consequence, according to this same historian, was that, “despite desperate efforts by the British to cancel the setback, Cowpens was the linchpin of American success that led directly to Yorktown and eventual independence for the American colonies.” It was, in short, a battle that changed the world.

So. . . we are gathered today to re-consecrate both the statue and the square that are named for the hero of that battle, Daniel Morgan, and, in doing so, to celebrate something more than 225 years of patriotic ardor and 175 years of communal history here in Spartanburg. That is reason enough for this occasion. But, in a larger sense, we have come together not only to honor the man whose peripatetic effigy has been turned once again to face the place where he won his greatest victory, but to rededicate ourselves to the principles for which he and his band of patriots fought so gallantly.

That latter purpose is more of a challenge than we might assume—because it is all too easy to succumb to what, in our more cynical time, we have come to recognize as the rhetoric and spin of how those who control the present depict the past. Take the statue itself, created in 1881 by the American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward for the one-hundredth anniversary of the battle of Cowpens. It was, according to those who had commissioned it, to be “of heroic size, and in the uniform of the rifleman of the period,” fashioned in bronze and placed upon a column. Ward himself, commenting at some length on the finished work, would note that, “after reading the biography of General Morgan, and studying the history of his military career, I felt it essential to a proper portrayal of his character, that the statue should represent a man of action—intrepid, aggressive, alert—at the same time I wished to indicate, by certain movements of the head and left arm, that there was a sympathetic quality, even a tenderness, in the nature of the daring general. I represented him with drawn sword, advancing with his troops, his attention for the moment attracted by some movement of the enemy on his left. The costume. . . agreed with all recorded descriptions. The coat or tunic was a fringed hunting shirt, a garment adopted from the Indian costume, and much worn by the frontiersmen of that time. The fringed leggings and moccasins belonged to the same costume, which was used by Morgan’s Riflemen. The cap, a peculiar one of fur, with a cluster of pine leaves as a sort of pompom, was loaned to me by a gentleman of Charleston. . . This was an original cap, preserved from the Revolutionary War. Although the sword and sash which belonged to his rank were used, yet I added the powder-horn, as an indication of Morgan’s characteristic disposition to use his rifle whenever the occasion admitted. Of course, the manner of wearing the hair, the cravat and ruffled shirt front are all in the mode of his time.”

Needless to say, the sculptor’s concern was to bestow an appropriate dignity and symbolic import to his depiction of this hero, just as the intent of those who had hired him only a decade and a half after the end of the Civil War was as much to emphasize national unity as to celebrate regional pride. “One hundred years ago,” read the plaque attached to the west face of the monument, “the men of the North and the South fought together, and by their blood secured the Independence and cemented the Union of the American States. The bond that then bound them together is the bond of their fellow-countrymen today.” Of course, that broadly inclusive sentiment also reflected the fact that, though he lived in Virginia, Daniel Morgan was a native of New Jersey—and the fact that the best, most battle-hardened troops in his command, some five companies of Continentals and former Continentals now serving as six-months men in the militia, hailed from Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. His militiamen from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were, as he well knew, the same sort of skittish, unreliable amateurs who had bolted and run when confronted by British bayonets at the battle of Camden, and much of Morgan’s brilliance lay in how he maximized the use of every resource he had. Suffice it to say the victory at Cowpens was not a parochial affair. . . and that much, at least, the builders of our monument got right. But the depiction of Morgan himself—and its implications for the democracy of his time—is a fundamental distortion.

Let us look again at the figure on its pedestal above us, gracefully poised in natty, almost foppish attire. We are told by historians that the sword he wore into battle was, in fact, the only sign of rank that Morgan displayed—no sash or ruffles. And, throughout the events of that day, he was constantly on horseback—despite the painful sciatica from which he suffered so acutely that it was all but impossible for him to sit in his saddle even at a trot. That affliction was partly the result of what he had endured in previous hard campaigns, including heroic participation in the battles of Quebec City and Saratoga. But, at 45, Morgan, the self-styled “Old Wagoner,” was much older than his years precisely because, for virtually all his hard-scrabble life, he had been anything but the genteel figure on that pedestal.

Born in 1735 to poor Welsh immigrants, Morgan had quarreled in his 17th year with his father and walked away from home and family forever. He was six feet tall and powerfully built, so, making use of his strength, he worked in a saw mill for a while before becoming a wagoner. Within a year, he’d bought his own team and wagon and, in 1754, he was hired to haul supplies for General Braddock’s troops in the French and Indian War. So far as we know, he never met Colonel George Washington or Captain Horatio Gates, who participated in that same campaign, but, given his background and employment, there was no reason to think he would. Morgan then and throughout virtually all his early career was, according to all accounts a brawler and an inveterate womanizer, “loud, profane, uncouth,” arrested repeatedly for horse-stealing, assault, and resisting arrest. At one point, showing the lack of diffidence for which wagoners were so notorious, he responded to a blow from the flat of a British officer’s sword by knocking the officer to the ground. The punishment for that offense was to be tied to a post in front of the troops and subjected to 500 lashes, a brutal ordeal that killed many and left survivors scarred for life. In Morgan’s case, it also left him with a score to settle that would be paid in full in the course of the War for Independence.

Two years after his encounter with the lash, having joined a group of rangers organized to defend his new home of Winchester, Virginia, he was ambushed by hostile Indians while carrying dispatches. His companion was killed and scalped, and, in the opening volley of the encounter, a musket ball entered the back of Morgan’s neck and passed through his mouth, knocking out all the teeth on one side of his jaw and exiting through his cheek, leaving a jagged scar on that side of his face—a disfigurement ignored in the statue above us. Miraculously, Morgan kept his saddle and out-rode his pursuers.

In subsequent years, Morgan won considerable notoriety as both a gambler and a fighter, winning two near-legendary bouts with a bare-knuckled opponent named Bill Davis. In 1763, when he was in his late twenties, he took up co-habitation and had two daughters with a 16-year-old girl whom he eventually married. Still only partially domesticated, Morgan was to all appearances on a career path that would lead to long stretches in jail and possibly the gallows. But, then, as has so often happened in the history of such men, war intervened and he found his true calling.

As the leader of a group of riflemen that he himself had helped recruit, he fought for the rebellious colonies with spectacular valor in both the defeat at Quebec City and the victory at Saratoga. But, in an era when officers were almost invariably educated gentlemen, Morgan, who could barely read or write and who was less than a gentleman by anyone’s definition, was passed over for promotion. Seething with resentment, he returned to Virginia until, in the darkest days of the Revolution, he was reactivated by a no-longer-finicky Congress and made a Brigadier General under Nathaniel Greene, facing off against the British General Lord Cornwallis and his ruthless young Oxford-educated protégé Banastre Tarleton.

The culminating moment of Morgan’s remarkable career would come in that stretch of pasture land in upstate South Carolina, known locally as Hannah’s Cowpens, where Morgan would prove himself both an inspired leader and a brilliant tactician. The assessment of John Buchanan, historian of the War of Independence in the South, is eloquently to the point: “This untutored son of the frontier was the only general in the American Revolution, on either side, to produce a significant original tactical thought.” As noted already, that innovation involved not only a shrewd understanding of his opponent but an ingenious disposition of his weakest troops that took advantage of their strengths while minimizing their shortcomings.
But the most significant thing for us to remember as we rededicate this monument today is not so much the tactical ingenuity of Daniel Morgan as the fact that he was a prototype of the frontier leader who, throughout our history, has repeatedly emerged from unprepossessing and sometimes even disreputable circumstances—men like Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, whose heroic careers confirm that American democracy has always drawn its greatest strength from the opportunities afforded the humblest among us.
One might suppose that, in a city named for the place in ancient Greece where discipline was a paramount virtue, the lesson of Daniel Morgan would be that a citizen’s duty is, first and foremost, obedience. But I would argue that the example of this heroic reprobate affirms a more democratic notion. Atop his column here in a square that bears his name—and despite its non-historical details of pompom, sash, and cravat—Morgan’s effigy should remind us each time we look at it that what he fought for was, more than anything else, the determination never to grow so haughty or indifferent that we willingly waste our human resources. Daniel Morgan fought for the common man because he was the common man.

And yet, for all its drawing-room distortion, the statue’s aristocratic posture is not entirely a lie. We are told that, on the eve of battle, Morgan moved among his men with the eloquent self-possession of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the night before Agincourt. As John Buchanan so vividly evokes the scene, “he dragged his rheumatic-ravaged body from campfire to campfire to explain personally to the militia what he expected of them. One story has it that an aid helped him raise his shirt so the men could gaze on the ridges of scars that covered his back while Morgan told the tale of the terrible lashing he had received from the British over twenty-five years before.” A youthful partisan, Thomas Young, then roughly the age of Morgan himself when he ran away from home, would recall in old age how Morgan had gone “among the volunteers, helped them fix their swords, joked with them about their sweethearts, told them to keep in good spirits, and the day would be ours. And long after I laid down,” Young would remember, “he was going about among the soldiers encouraging them and telling them that the old wagoner would crack his whip over [“Benny” Tarleton] in the morning, as sure as they lived. ‘Just hold up your heads, boys, three fires,’ he would say, ‘and you are free, and when you return to your homes, how the old folks will bless you, and the girls kiss you for your gallant conduct.’ I don’t believe he slept a wink that night.”
According to another eye-witness account, at a critical point in the heat of battle, when confusion among the troops had put the outcome in doubt, fully exposed to enemy fire, “Morgan rode up in front, and waving his sword, cried out, ‘Form, form, my brave fellows! Give them one more fire and the day is ours. Old Morgan was never beaten.’”

And he was right. The men responded, and the victory was complete.

Thanks to the battle of Cowpens, the tide of Revolution in the South would now be irresistible. Morgan himself had played his destined role, and, wracked by the physical toll of his exertions, he would retire to western Virginia—not to die, but to speculate in real estate, amassing parcels of land that eventually amounted to some 250,000 acres. . . and to father another illegitimate son, who would in turn become a hero in the War of 1812. During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when he was nearly 60, Morgan came out of retirement to lead a group of Virginia militia against the rebels, and when, in the course of that campaign, he encountered a tavern keeper who persisted in selling whiskey to the soldiers at exorbitant prices, Morgan flattened him with a single blow.
That same spirit was in evidence on his deathbed when Morgan was informed by his physician that he had better attend to any worldly matters that remained unsettled.

“Doctor,” Morgan is reported to have said with consternation and alarm, “do you mean that I am about to die?”
“I do.”
“Why, won’t I live some time, a month or so?”
“I think not, sir.”
“Well, a week?”
“I don’t think you can possibly last a week.”

There was a long silence.

“Doctor, if I could be the man I was when I was twenty-one years of age, I would be willing to be stripped stark naked on the top of the Alleghany Mountains, to run for my life with the hounds of death at my heels.”
None who had ever known him would have doubted such an assertion. When Morgan died as the doctor had predicted, Light Horse Harry Lee, a gentleman if there ever was one, had this to say of his old comrade-in-arms: “No man better loved this world, and no man more reluctantly quitted it.”

Even at 45, when he’d fought the battle of Cowpens, Daniel Morgan had given the hounds of death the sight of his heels. Think of that when, passing through this square, you give his statue a casual glance. And think of what we are and what we yet might be in this democracy of ours for which he made such a huge down-payment.

©2006, Benjamin B. Dunlap, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC