Researchers bringing Md. Revolutionary War heroes to life
By Matthew Hay Brown | The Baltimore Sun | Published: January 24, 2014
A month after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, some 400 Marylanders saved the Continental Army from near-certain annihilation.
A superior British force was poised to finish off the Americans at the Battle of Brooklyn — a disaster that likely would have snuffed out the new nation. Then the Marylanders turned and attacked.
Nearly 260 of the 400 were captured or killed. But their sacrifice allowed the rest of the Continental Army to escape, regroup and ultimately win independence for the Colonies.
Now a team of young researchers, urged on by the present-day commander of the Maryland National Guard, aims to bring the Maryland 400 back to life.
Working at the State Archives in Annapolis, they have been poring over yellowed pay abstracts and muster rolls, handwritten letters and wills to learn who served in the 1st Maryland Regiment, who fought at the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), and what became of them.
Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the adjutant general of the state guard, kick-started the effort last summer with a $1,000 check.
"It's a tremendous story of not only service, but sacrifice," he said. "Some people have dabbled in the Maryland 400 story, but I didn't think they'd really done it justice. It's one of those hidden pieces of Maryland history and our nation's history that really has not been covered."
Just why the story of the Maryland 400 isn't better known is something of a mystery. The battle in August 1776 made the men famous in their day; Gen. George Washington lauded them as saviors of the new nation. Their stand at the Gowanus Swamp in Brooklyn is what gave Maryland the nickname Old Line State. They are the subject of at least one book, and are discussed in others.
When state historian Owen Lourie began the research project, he figured it would largely be a matter of compiling material from published sources.
"These are guys who were recognized as heroes, more or less, since the battle happened," he said.
But Lourie said he and his team of three interns found "surprisingly large holes in what we know about them."
Working largely from 230-year-old documents from the State Archives and other collections, the researchers have identified 850 of the roughly 1,000 members of the 1st Maryland Regiment. They've written biographies of more than 80.
The roster reads like a who's who of 18th century Maryland. With officers drawn from the state's most prominent families, the 1st Maryland Regiment included three future governors, the state's first four adjutants general, several future congressmen and many state legislators and other officials.
All signed on to fight for a nation that, at the time, was little more than an idea. In the days before the confrontation in New York, the British believed they would make quick work of the American volunteers — and they were very nearly right.
"The British had determined that they were going to put an end to what they called the Rebel upstarts," said Linda Davis Reno, author of "The Maryland 400 in the Battle of Long Island 1776." "They figured that by taking New York, they could cut off the shipping of goods and materials to the Southern colonies, and in that way they would put an end to things."
The British sent the largest fleet since the Spanish Armada to New York. On the ground, the lead division was led by Lt. Gen. Lord Cornwallis.
Washington, meanwhile, still was assembling the Continental Army from the widely varying militias of the disparate colonies.
Among them, the Marylanders had better arms and more training. Washington, a Virginian familiar with his neighbors' potential in battle, had planned to hold them in reserve as a comparatively elite force.
But at Brooklyn, that turned out to be a luxury he couldn't afford.
The British sent 30,000 troops into the battle, including several thousand Hessians, the feared German mercenaries who earned bounties by killing Americans.
The Americans are said to have sent 10,000 troops to Brooklyn. Reno believes the number was closer to 5,000.
Washington's young farmers and tradesmen were no match for the well-organized, better-equipped, battle-hardened and much larger enemy. The Battle of Brooklyn quickly turned into a rout.
"It wasn't long before the British were overrunning everybody concerned," Reno said. "The soldiers from many of the other states, primarily the New England states, were just dropping their weapons and running for their lives.
"And you can really understand that in the heat of battle. There were cases that men would try to surrender and the Hessians would surround them with their bayonets in place and simply walked forward in a circle and until they killed everyone. It was just slaughter and bloodshed all over the field."
Cpl. William McMillan, a Marylander of 19 or 20 at the time of the battle, described the carnage.
"My captain was killed, first lieutenant was killed, second lieutenant shot through the hand, two sergeants was killed; one in front of me," he wrote in a letter uncovered by the researchers. "Two corporals killed. All belonged to our company."
Washington, watching from a distance, decided to withdraw his soldiers. He had Brig. Gen. William Alexander send companies from Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland to cover the American retreat.
Eventually, the Delawareans and Pennsylvanians joined the pullout, leaving four or five companies from Maryland — about 400 men — to attack the British at a stone farmhouse on elevated ground between the Gowanus Swamp and safety.
"The British had cannons up there and were firing on the men as they tried to run by," Reno said. "The Americans charged the house six times. Each time they retreated, they stepped over more and more bodies of their comrades."
'An incredible sacrifice'
That engagement would remain the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War. Of the 400 Marylanders, nearly 260 were killed or captured. But their stand would allow the rest of the Continental Army to escape, and Washington to rethink his tactics.
After Brooklyn, he would avoid open confrontation with the British in favor of quick strikes followed by equally rapid retreats. The Americans fought for five more years before Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
"The Declaration of Independence was signed in ink in Philadelphia and ratified in blood in Brooklyn," one pundit wrote. The 19th century historian Thomas Field wrote that the Marylanders' stand was "an hour more precious to American liberty than any other."
Today, however, the Maryland 400 might be better known in New York than in their home state. There are memorials and plaques around Brooklyn and a commemoration each August (Adkins and Gov. Martin O'Malley have attended in recent years). The farmhouse, Old Stone House, was rebuilt as a museum and receives thousands of schoolchildren each year.
"It's one of the great stories of Brooklyn history, and it's also about what commitment to country means," said Kim Maier, the museum's executive director. "This was an incredible sacrifice. They took this upon themselves. It was a sacrifice mission."
The Old Stone House, on what is now 3rd Street in Brooklyn, flies two flags: an early version of the Stars and Stripes and, in honor of the Marylanders, the familiar black-and-gold standard of Lord Baltimore.
At the Maryland State Archives, Lourie's team has included a recent college graduate and two students.
Emily Huebner, who graduated from Goucher College last spring, was struck by the youth of Maryland's officer corps. She pointed at one list.
"Just this group, they're all the same age as when I started college. And here they're drawing up wills and preparing to die."
"What's amazing is that none of these guys would ever have fought before," he said. "No one had military experience at all.
"There's this sense that the British walk, they shoot, then we stand up and we shoot, and that's what's going to happen. And then everyone suddenly is dead."
Still — and to the frustration of the British — the Americans turned the military defeat into a moral victory.
"They interpret it in such a positive way: 'These men are heroes,'" Huebner said. "Instead of, 'this revolution might be a terrible idea.' It could have been interpreted as a sign that the Americans had no hope. But instead, it was seen as proof that the Americans were brave enough to see it through.
"That's sort of magical thinking. But it ended up working out."
As the researchers uncover information, one mystery endures: Where are the fallen Marylanders buried? The British would have ordered that they be interred quickly, probably by area residents. But records are unclear, different plaques make conflicting claims, and the actual burial site has become something of a grail for professional and amateur historians.
At a recent event to commemorate the War of 1812, Adkins gave materials on the Maryland 400 to visiting Royal Marines and asked if British archives might contain clues. They were unable to find anything.
Lourie is skeptical that graves can be found. He doesn't believe there was a single, mass burial. And the geography of Brooklyn has changed so much over the last two centuries — what was once hilly, swampy farmland is now flat and densely developed — that there might be no remains left at all.
But he hopes, at least, to be able to provide the number who died, and their names.
The Old Stone House doesn't take a position on where the bodies might be buried.
"From our perspective," Maier said, "the question is really important because it keeps the conversations about the Marylanders at the forefront."
Adkins has ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and both sides of the Civil War. He said those conversations are important.
"My effort here is to help tell the story, to do what we can to make every effort to honor these Marylanders who had such a significant impact," he said. "In the history books, we talk about Yorktown or we talk about Boston. But this is where it could have all been lost."