EASTON — It was the battle that rescued the American Revolution.
In the thick of the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, the first large-scale fight in the American Revolution — and bearing the brunt of its casualties — were Marylanders, including many valiant young patriots from the Eastern Shore.
They suffered a resounding defeat. They were outgunned, outmaneuvered and outflanked. But despite the devastating results, “many historians have argued that those troops helped to save the Revolution itself,” says historian and New York Times bestselling author Adam Goodheart.
These soldiers later became known as the “Maryland 400.” Military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell calls them “Washington’s Immortals” in a 463-page book that chronicles their valor.
They were “Maryland’s first Revolutionary War soldiers, who saved (Gen. George Washington’s) Continental Army in 1776,” according to the Maryland State Archives’ website dedicated to the “Finding the Maryland 400” project.
“At the Battle of Brooklyn, the heroic stand of the ‘Maryland 400’ held back the British Army, allowing the rest of the Americans to escape total destruction, at the cost of many Maryland lives,” states the MSA.
“If Washington’s army had been obliterated at that point — which they certainly might have been — if the British had been better able to press their advantage, if they had managed to surround and kill or capture Washington’s army and its leadership — at that moment, the war which was right after independence had been declared (and there were still Americans who were working towards some kind of negotiated resolution with the British) — I think it’s quite possible that the Revolution might have collapsed,” Goodheart says.
Goodheart is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center For The Study Of The American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown.
“The contributions were especially significant” from Marylanders on the Eastern Shore who fought in the New York campaign “and sacrificed their lives — some say gave their lives — to help save Washington’s army,” Goodheart says.
In fact, it was the heroic stand that gave the (First Maryland) regiment the nickname of the Old Line,” writes Burkely Hermann, Maryland Society of the Sons of American Revolution Research Fellow. Maryland itself became known as the “Old Line State.”
“There were about 1,000 Marylanders who went up to New York … right around the same time that Congress was declaring independence in Philadelphia,” Goodheart said. “They went to the aid of Washington’s army … that was preparing to defend New York City against a British attack, a British invasion.”
“The British landed July of 1776, and then in August attacked the American lines to try to capture the city and sweep Washington’s army out of Brooklyn where most of (his) forces were gathered,” Goodheart says. “It was an overwhelming assault by the British and Hessian troops who considerably outnumbered the Americans and were trained and equipped much better than the Americans were as well.”
“The British troops, totaling nearly 15,000 men, and the British Royal Navy arrived with the intention of ending the war with this single battle. Meanwhile, General Washington was determined to defend New York,” according to the MSA.
“Washington’s army ended up basically trapped with the British and Hessians closing in on them from three sides, and the East River at their backs, separating them from any escape route,” Good heart says. “Washington’s army might possibly have been caught and obliterated by the British and Hessian forces if it weren’t for a group of Maryland and Delaware soldiers who ended up between the enemy forces and the rest of Washington’s army. (They) were surrounded, and hundreds of them were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but in the process it helped to slow the British advance long enough for Washington to get his army to safety and eventually across the East River into Manhattan and then out of Manhattan (after some more fights with the British) and escaping into New Jersey and surviving to fight another day.”
According to the MSA, “During the retreat, the Marylanders found themselves unfortunately positioned between enemy fire and the Gowanus Creek. About half of the Marylanders, including the First Company, attempted to cross the creek and reach their allies. The other half of the Maryland regiment had no other option but to turn back and face the enemy, allowing their fellow countrymen to reach safety.”
The Finding the Maryland 400 Project of the Maryland State Archives is sponsored by the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Washington College has been “teaming up for several years to document the names and life stories of Maryland soldiers who were there at the Battle of Brooklyn,” Goodheart said. Many of the biographies were written by Goodheart’s students.
“It’s an amazing history that I think is really just beginning to be appreciated, or at least is just beginning to be understood,” Goodheart says.
Historian Owen Lourie is the director of the Finding the Maryland 400 project which began in 2013 with the goal of “coming up with the names of the 400, and writing and publishing their biographies.” he says. “It turns out there were 900 to 1,000 Maryland soldiers.”
“The Maryland 400 are famous as a group, more so in New York because that’s where the battle took place, but very little is known about them as individuals,” Lourie said. He’s spearheaded the research project for six years. “It’s been really nice for us to spend time trying to hunt down as much as we can about average, ordinary people from Maryland.”
The “Maryland 400” moniker originated long after the heroes returned from war. While its origin isn’t entirely certain, it seems to have gained currency in the late 19th century. it was meant to evoke the Spartan 300 of ancient Greek fame. Lourie says it may also allude to the New York 400, the who’s who of the Gilded Age, a foil which, by contrast, highlighted the significance of the Maryland heroes’ sacrifices.
They were recruited into companies organized mostly by counties. Of the 12 companies in the Maryland First Regiment, “which included rich merchants, tradesmen and free blacks,” according to O’Donnell.
Three of the companies were comprised entirely or mostly of Eastern Shore soldiers.
“One of (the three) is actually the only company that we haven’t finished yet,” Lourie says. There are about 100 soldiers whose biographies are yet to be researched and written who were members of the Fourth Independent Company.
This company was made up mostly of Talbot County residents who saw “only a little fighting — they seemed to have been positioned somewhere off to the side and didn’t get into the main part of (the battle),” Lourie says.
The Sixth Independent Company, comprised primarily of soldiers from Cecil and Harford counties “suffered heavy casualties,” as did the Seventh Independent Company which attracted fighters from Kent and Queen Anne’s counties.
The Sixth Company alone lost 58 men, or 80 percent. By the end of the battle, Maryland losses totaled 256 men killed or captured. “Barely more than a dozen escaped death or captivity,” the MSA states.
One of the soldiers with the Sixth Company was Sgt. Thomas McKeel who is believed to have been from Caroline or Talbot County.
Captured at the Battle of Brooklyn, McKeel “left a first-hand account of his experience as a prisoner of war. Although his army service consisted of only one battle, he served his country by working as a cooper for military contractors. He continued as a tradesman later in life, while also successfully investing in the early development of Easton, Maryland,” according to the MSA.
Sgt. Daniel Dwigens and his brother Samuel from Caroline County were both members of the Maryland 400, “signing on as corporals in (Caroline County native) Capt. Peter Adams’s Sixth Company. The company was drawn from across the Eastern Shore, an area which was largely not supportive of the Revolution,” states the MSA.
Daniel and Samuel were both “taken prisoner, as were at least eight other men from their company (including Crisenberry Clift, probably of Caroline County); only 16 men from the Sixth Company escaped death or captivity at the battle,” states the MSA. McKeel and the Dwigenses were all returned to Maryland by February 1777.
Pvt. John Kerby, who may have been from Talbot County, fought several battles until he was taken prisoner during the Battle of Staten Island on August 22, 1777. He was kept on a British prison ship like that described by Connecticut soldier Rober Shefield who left this account, recorded on the MSA’s Finding the Maryland 400 website:
“The heat was so intense that (the hot sun shining all day on deck) they were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,—all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days.”
Pvt. James Carmichael of Kent County survived several battles and may have been discharged July 10, 1777, as the result of an injury. “He received a disability pension beginning in 1781, which gave him money every month to help with his living expenses,” states the MSA. He died in 1785.
Cpl. John Lynch of Kent County received a state disability pension, starting in 1786, as a result of wounds he sustained during his service because he had “‘spent the prime of his life, and nobly shed his blood, in [the Revolutionary] cause,’” according to the MSA.
Also from Kent County, was Benjamin Chambers, a young officer in the First Company. About half of the Maryland troops were able to safely retreat during the Battle of Brooklyn, including the First Company. Those who could not escape were the “Maryland 400.” Chambers lived in Chestertown and returned after the Revolution to become one of the founders of Washington College.
Benjamin Quimby was born in 1747, probably in Queen Anne’s County. He was 29 years old and five feet, eight inches tall when he enlisted as a private in Edward Veazey’s Seventh Independent Company in early 1776. Veazey, probably from a prominent Cecil County family, recruited from Kent, Cecil and Queen Anne’s counties.
Early in 1776, half of the Seventh Independent was stationed on Kent Island, while the rest were sent to Chestertown. “In these first months, the company had great difficulty obtaining supplies, including uniforms and weapons,” writes Lourie on the MSA website.
“In the summer of 1776, Congress requested additional troops from Maryland to help reinforce the Continental Army, and the state agreed to shift the independent companies to that duty,” writes Lourie. “When the First Maryland Regiment marched for New York in early July, it was accompanied by the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh independent companies; the rest followed later that fall.”
During the retreat (after the British had outflanked the Continental Army), the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, but were blocked by the swampy Gowanus Creek. Half the regiment was able to cross the creek to safety. The rest, the Seventh Independent Company among them, were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British,” Lourie writes. “Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, these men, ... the ‘Maryland 400,’ mounted a series of daring charges, which held the British at bay for some time, at the cost of many lives, before being overrun.”
Quimby’s fate, as well as that of many of the soldiers, remains uncertain.
Of Veazey’s company, 68 percent were killed or captured. “Specifically, Captain Veazey was killed while Second Lt. Samuel Turbett Wright and Third Lt. Edward De Coursey were captured,” Lourie writes. “As a result of Veazey’s death, First Lt. William Harrison took charge of the company. After the battle, only 36 men remained out of the original force of over 100. The loss of life confirmed the assessment of the British Parliament’s Annual Register which described how “almost a whole regiment from Maryland … of young men from the best families in the country was cut to pieces.”
The Finding the Maryland 400 project has discovered about 850 names, but the project has “100 biographies left to go,” Lourie says. “They were famous as a group but very little was done to tell the stories of individual soldiers.”
Historical records alone, while helpful, don’t supply all of the information the project needs. Military records are one thing, but learning more about the soldiers as they returned to civilian life is important.
“They had no Social Security numbers, no vital records — so it’s hard to tell people apart,” Lourie says. Sometimes names were spelled differently across written records and sometimes the same name appears in more than one location — is it the same person, or someone with the same name?
“People who have studied their family history are going to have a leg up on us,” Lourie says. “There are family stories that come in that can help us untangle some things. We learn wonderful stories that way.”
On March 7, the Maryland Senate unanimously passed a resolution honoring the First Maryland Regiment for its heroic and dedicated service during the Revolutionary War.
Sponsored by State Sen. Jack Bailey, R-29-Calvert and St. Mary’s, the resolution states, “the Senate of Maryland offers its sincerest congratulations to the Men of the ‘Maryland 400,’ Maryland’s 1st Regiment, in recognition of the brave Marylanders who lost their lives in the Battle of Long Island during the Revolutionary War, and contributed greatly to our nation’s independence.”
The resolution was formally presented to Maj. Gen. James Adkins, president of the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution and former Adjutant General of Maryland.
For more information about the Finding the Maryland 400 Project, visit msamaryland400.wordpress.com.