The Maryland Line Saves Washington's Army
In the closing days of June 1776, British troops under General William Howe, having evacuated Boston, sailed into New York harbor. In substantial strength they embarked on Staten Island where they were soon reinforced by the additional fleets under Admiral Lord Howe and Sir Peter Parker. By August 12, the British army stood at 27,000 men, most of whom were disciplined veterans, while the Americans numbered approximately 17,000, practically all of whom were ill-equipped and inexperienced. It became clear to General Washington that within a short time a decisive engagement must be fought with the British for control of strategic New York. To hold the city, the possession of Brooklyn Heights and Long Island was essential.
Col. William Smallwood and his Maryland regiment arrived at Philadelphia on July 17 where John Hancock, President of Congress, directed them to report immediately to General Washington at his flying camp in Amboy, NJ. About 450 Marylanders under Smallwood reported to General Washington for his disposal in the defense of New York. Upon receiving word that the British were marching to Gravesend, Flatbush and Flatlands, Washington anticipated that Brooklyn Heights would be the point of the attack and hurried reinforcements to a series of entrenchments and redoubts enclosing the high ground which extended from Gowanus Bay to Wallabout Bay.
General Israel Putnam commanded the defensive positions. He entrusted his right wing to General Lord Stirling and his left wing to General John Sullivan. The Marylanders under Stirling were commanded by Maj. Mordecai Gist while both Col. Smallwood and LTC Ware were sitting on a court martial in New York.
Early on the morning of August 27, the British approached the American right and Stirling ordered Smallwood’s regiment, Atlee’s Pennsylvania battalion and Haslet’s Delaware battalion to advance beyond the entrenchments and repulse the invaders. Gist would command the Marylanders in their first encounter with the enemy.
Stirling moved out Gowanus Road to the vicinity of the Martense Lane, saw the British vanguard and immediately formed a battleline with his right paralleling a sand hill and resting on Gowanus Bay. Under Stirling’s personal command the center of the position consisted of the Maryland regiment and the Pennsylvania and Delaware battalions, while the left was unsupported. Facing Stirling was Howe’s left wing under General Grant in command of two brigades, a Highland regiment and two companies of New York Tories.
For about two hours the opposing lines skirmished sharply with no appreciable decision in sight. Then, at 11:00 AM, 2,000 men from the British fleet reinforced Grant and Stirling offset the increased enemy strength by sending forward his reserves. As they advanced, they received and unexpected onslaught on their left flank by Hessian forces newly arriving in this sector of the battlefield.
Stirling commanded only the right wing of the American army and was ignorant of the progress of events under General Sullivan. The abrupt appearance and attack of the Hessians, however, could only mean that the British had turned the American left. Through a fatal oversight the Jamaica Road, one of the three main routes by which the enemy could advance, had been left unguarded. The British easily flanked Sullivan and threw reasonably optimistic but green troops into headlong flight.
An officer of Fraser’s British battalion wrote: “The Hessians and our brave Highlanders gave no quarters; and it was a fine sight to see with what alacrity they dispatched the rebels with their bayonets, after we had surrounded them so they could not resist….We took care to tell the Hessians that the rebels had resolved to give no quarters to them in particular, which made them fight desperately, and put to death all who fell under their hands.”
Hard pressed and his lines thrown into confusion by the onrushing survivors from the broken left wing, Stirling clearly saw that the disorganized and fleeing army was doomed to annihilation unless he could cover its retreat with a delaying action. The only escape route was through morasses and thickets near Freeke’s Mill, a swampy area bordering Gowanus Creek, which was 80 yards wide, deep and swiftly running with the incoming tide. Once across the creek, however, the defeated army might be able to reform under the guns of Forts Box and Greene. (The American retreat route roughly paralleled Brooklyn’s present day Third Street.)
Determined to save as many men as possible, Stirling quickly placed himself at the head of 400 Marylanders - four of Smallwood’s companies and Veazey’s independent company from the Eastern Shore of Maryland – and ordered the rest of his force to retreat. Near the modern Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street the men formed hurriedly. With Mordecai Gist, Nathaniel Ramsey and David Plunkett in the lead, they charged the British. A fearful fire of lead and iron decimated their ranks, but the Marylanders pressed their attack with their leaders’ shouts of “Close up! Close up!” rising above the din.
Stirling’s objective was Cortelyou House, the command post of General Charles Cornwallis, and as the Maryland bayonets drove in the out-posts the building seemed doomed. But the resourceful British general ordered two cannons to a position near a corner of the house, and their furious hail of canister and grape brought the seemingly irresistible line to a halt. Momentarily immobile, the Marylanders clung stubbornly to their ground, unable to advance, unwilling to retreat. Then, doggedly and slowly, they retired.
Peering through the battle smoke hanging over Gowanus Creek, Stirling dimly saw that the bulk of the American army had not yet crossed to safety. Again, he ordered a charge against the enemy – an enemy overwhelmingly superior in numbers and constantly augmented by the arrival of fresh reinforcements. The Marylanders’ second charge penetrated to Cortelyou House, drove the gunners from the battery at the corner of the building and nearly seized the objective.
A withering fire from within the house and from adjoining high ground compelled another slow retreat. The attempt marked the high tide of a magnificent and utterly hopeless effort, but heedless of their heartbreaking casualties, the Marylanders charged four more times. In the space of a fearful hour they lost 256 men. Flesh and blood could do no more. The sole recourse of the ragged remnant of the Marylanders was flight. Gist and nine men were the last to leave the field.
Washington and Smallwood, meanwhile, had arrived from New York too late for the latter to join his regiment in battle, but in time to join his commander-in-chief on a hilltop and watch the desperate attacks. According to an observer, once during the bitter charges Washington had cried, “My God, what brave men I must lose today!” Smallwood begged his general for troops to cover the retreating Marylanders as they struggled across the creek.
For a few moments the commander-in-chief hesitated to risk additional men in such a venture, but, moved by Smallwood’s pleading, he gave the colonel a Connecticut unit, Captain John Allen Thomas’ newly arrived Maryland company and two artillery pieces. Quickly, the force advanced to the west bank of Gowanus Creek, opened fire on the British and dragged to firm ground the mud-covered Marylanders who had fought so gallantly to cover the retreat of the entire American army. No statement of the losses can better convey the Maryland record at Long Island than the final returns of the original 400 men: original muster- 404, returned- 96, fit for duty- 35.
Smallwood’s men had bought in blood what Washington, with rare but appropriate eloquence, called “that hour more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.” They had saved the army. In another way, too, they made history, for Long Island saw the first use of the bayonet by the American army, and the Maryland Line was to become famed for its willing and forceful use of the weapon.