The SAR Magazine

Spring 2018

The SAR MAGAZINE is the official quarterly publication of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution published quarterly.

Issue link: https://sar.epubxp.com/i/985202

Contents of this Issue

Navigation

Page 21 of 47

12 SAR MAGAZINE By Jonathan M. Pitts, The Baltimore Sun E ight months after the founders signed the Declaration of Independence, Maryland sent its most battle-hardened fighting unit to the Eastern Shore to deal with a nest of British sympathizers. Col. William Smallwood, commander of the 1st Maryland Regiment—the Maryland 400—knew he'd be facing a recalcitrant bunch. But the depth of the Loyalists' treacheries appalled him. There in Worcester County, he met men who had chopped down the Americans' Liberty Poles and replaced them with the British flag, who helped British prisoners escape, and who openly drank to the Crown and the death of the Patriot movement. "I am daily discovering persons who are not only now disaffected, but whose conduct has been criminal, and [who by] their influence have injured the Comon Cause," Smallwood wrote to one of his superiors from Snow Hill on March 14, 1777. The letter, and others Smallwood wrote or received during the war, are part of a growing archive that's revealing long-lost details from Maryland's history—and the nation's. For five years, scholars at the Maryland State Archives and history mavens from the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution have worked on "Finding the Maryland 400," a research project that aims to illuminate the daily lives of the soldiers who served in the 1st Maryland. Historians say it's no exaggeration to consider the regiment—a band of citizen-soldiers from across the Colony, led mostly by upper-class officers—the most important the state has produced. It was the 1st Maryland whom Gen. George Washington called on at his moment of direst need at the Battle of Brooklyn in New York, a savage conflict that saw the British nearly kill the American Revolution in its cradle. A mere six weeks after the Declaration was signed, on the morning of Aug. 27, 1776, a force of nearly 30,000 soldiers led by British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surprised the vastly smaller and less experienced American Army on western Long Island. The Brits were on their way to annihilating the entire Continental force when Washington chose the 1st Maryland to save the day. The unit had never seen combat, but many of its core members had been training independently since the group's unofficial founding in Baltimore in 1774, and its generally affluent officer corps had helped ensure it would be one of the best equipped in the Continental Army. About 400 of the nearly 900 Marylanders who were present on Long Island that day covered Washington's retreating army by repeatedly charging a critical British gun emplacement. Nearly 260 of the 400 were either captured or killed, but their sacrifice allowed the rest of the American troops to escape to fight another day—and ultimately to win independence for a new nation. The 19th-century historian Thomas Field called the stand of the Maryland Line "an hour more precious to American liberty than any other." But the lives of its soldiers have long been shrouded in mystery. James A. Adkins, vice president of the Maryland Society SAR and a backer of the project, says that's because it's easier for scholars to capture the broad strokes of military history than its narrative details—particularly when chronicling events so far in the past. It was a time when ordinary citizens' names rarely appeared in government documents, newspapers were few in number, and the illiteracy rate was high. "We do a good job [chronicling] units and generals," says Adkins, a retired Army major general who commanded the Maryland National Guard from 2008 to 2015. "We wanted to identify and tell the stories of the soldiers. We want to remember and honor these great Americans who served and sacrificed for our nation." To that end, a team of historians and research interns from the Maryland State Archives and several members of Adkins' organization have been trying to learn as much as possible about the men. Led by project director Owen Lourie, a historian with the state archives, and Adkins, about a dozen researchers have combed documents from the era to unearth the names of the men, most of which had been lost to history, and write biographies of as many as possible. Since starting in 2013, they've pored through enough enlistment papers, muster rolls, pay records and military supply requests to identify 870 of the soldiers—nearly 97 percent of the regiment. The information provided a platform from which to investigate further. Armed with names and hometowns, researchers tracked down and studied property records, wills, family accounts, letters and newspaper clippings to produce more than 550 relatively detailed biographies. They resurrected the stories of hundreds of Marylanders who had all but disappeared from history—even after risking or giving their lives to preserve the liberty Americans still enjoy today. Most were ordinary individuals— farmers, traders or small merchants who hailed from locations across the state. Many were first- or second- generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland or Germany. Some were still in their teens. William Sands, a 19-year-old sergeant from Annapolis, sent two letters home from the front. (He was probably made a sergeant, Lourie says, in part because he could write.) In the first letter, posted from Philadelphia six weeks before the Battle of Brooklyn, he sounded more concerned about petty gossip than he did about combat. "As for your advise, I am very much obliged to you, but am very sorry anybody should raise such false reports," he wrote his parents. "The girl is not in company with me … I have nothing to say to her, and I hope you will not think any more of it." His tone was darker a month later. Aug. 14 found him watching grimly from an encampment outside New York as the largest fleet of warships since the Spanish Armada poured into New York Harbor. "We are ordered to hold ourselves in readiness," Sands wrote. "We expect an attack hourly. We have lost a good many of our troops. They have deserted from us at Philadelphia and Elizabethtown, and a great many sick in the hospital … We expect, please Newly Acquired Letters Illuminate the Lives of Maryland's 'Old Line' Soldiers Maryland 400 monument in Brooklyn 22 SAR MAGAZINE

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The SAR Magazine - Spring 2018