February 24, 2022
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
Morgan's Sharpshooters, also called Morgan’s Riflemen and Morgan’s Rifles, were elite light infantry units commanded by Daniel Morgan during the American Revolutionary War. These riflemen were equipped with cutting-edge long rifles (known as Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles) instead of typical smoothbore muskets, and that allowed them to double their effective range. Some historians credit them with turning the tide of the war.
Morgan was born in July 1736 and started out in 1775 as the captain of a small rifle unit comprising 80 men and 16 officers that was established by the State of Virginia. It was one of 10 such units commissioned by Congress. Captain Morgan and his men marched some 600 miles to Boston, where they gave what sounds like a thrilling shooting exhibition. Accounts of the event describe it as follows: “A man held between his knees a board five inches wide and
seven inches long, with a paper bullseye the size of a dollar. A rifleman at 60 yards without a rest, put eight bullets in succession through the bullseye.” And: “The company, on a quick advance, placed their shots in seven-inch targets at 250 yards.”
Morgan’s Sharpshooters, dressed in hunting shirts instead of standard uniforms, distinguished themselves in several skirmishes and battles throughout the war by using hit-and-run guerilla tactics. In late 1775, during the ill-fated Battle of Quebec, Morgan and his men fought valiantly and seized the British barricade, but despite their heroics, they were eventually captured.
Then in early 1777, after being freed from captivity, Morgan was commissioned as a colonel and assigned command of the 11th Virginia Regiment. A few months later, George Washington instructed him to form a Provisional Rifle Corps, made up of
men from his regiment and other nearby regiments who were especially skilled in the use of the long rifle. Morgan accomplished that and was then tasked with harassing British rearguard troops as they withdrew from New Jersey. By virtue of their increased effective range, Morgan’s 500 riflemen sniped at the retreating troops from the cover of nearby trees and bushes.
Later, Morgan and his men joined the northern army headed by Gen. Horatio Gates and conducted a series of successful quick attacks on the Indian allies of the British. Those skirmishes confounded British intelligence efforts and created an advantage for the American troops in the subsequent Battle of Bemis Heights and the Battle of Saratoga. During the battles, Morgan and his riflemen proved to be pivotal in several engagements, including driving back an advance unit all the way to the enemy’s main forces and later helping turn the main battle by attacking from the right flank and forcing the British retreat.
One of Morgan’s sharpshooters in particular was credited with some outstanding shooting. Timothy Murphy was his name, and he employed a unique Golcher double-barreled long rifle. During the siege of Boston, Murphy is said to have sniped a group of British soldiers rowing a flat-bottomed boat in the harbor near Boston at a distance of a half-mile from an overlooking hilltop, dropping them one by one. In another instance, during the Battle of Saratoga, Murphy, perched in the branches of a tree, shot Brit- ish Gen. Simon Fraser in the center of his chest from a distance of 330 yards. Then with the second shot from his unique two-shot rifle, Murphy dropped Fra- ser’s senior aide, Sir Francis Clerke. By the end of the war, Murphy was credited with 42 confirmed kills.
After a series of similar successes, but disillusioned by political machinations, Morgan left active service for a year. But in October 1780 he accepted a promotion to brigadier general and joined the southern army with Nathanael Greene. In the January 1781 Battle of Cowpens, Morgan led Continental troops to a major victory that resulted in the near-total destruction of British Col. Banastre Tarleton’s force.
After the war, Morgan and his riflemen became American icons. Their superb marksmanship and sly tactics helped the ragtag Colonial Army defeat the British forces.