A Precious Hour in American History
The Maryland 400 at Long Island
Photographs by Tom Milmore
On August 27, 1776 the Continental Army fought its first major battle of the Revolution.
The battle was predictable by both sides. After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Washington reasoned that they would invade the New York area. He was right, for the British saw New York as the place to gain a decisive victory and turn sympathies away from the revolutionary cause. Thus, when the Continental Army moved South from Boston in the spring of 1776, the confrontation was inevitable. For the Maryland soldiers who hurried North in July to join the American army gathering in New York, it would be a severe test indeed -- one in which they would prove themselves more than worthy.
In all, there were roughly 3,900 Marylanders with the army, although not all were directly involved in the Long Island action. In this brief article, we will focus on the so-called Maryland 400; five companies from Smallwood's battalion that were thrust into a critical role and performed heroically.
The events that placed the Maryland 400 in that critical role on that August day in 1776 were unusual. Washington's Continental Army was outnumbered, outgunned, and outsupplied. It was sorely lacking in ability to collect and use intelligence information, divided in the face of a superior foe, and meeting a well-disciplined, well-supplied enemy on their terms.
Although Washington had over 30,000 men on paper, roughly one-third were absent or too ill to fight, and better than half were militiamen with various terms of service and uncertain capabilities. Altogether he had perhaps 20,000 ready for duty, with three of his four divisions bivouacked on Manhattan while the fourth was partly on Governor's Island at the mouth of the East River and partly on the Long Island side of the river to protect the left flank. The Long Island contingent fortified themselves on Brooklyn Heights (site of the present Borough of Brooklyn) and established strong outposts along the heavily-wooded, five-mile ridge that lay about a mile and a half to their front.
The British force, based on Staten Island, had nearly 27,000 men (including 7,000 Hessian mercenaries) under General Sir William Howe, and 400 ships of war manned by 10,000 seamen under his older brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe.
General Howe recognized Washington's isolated left wing on Long Island and decided to attack it. On August 22, he landed 15,000 men in Gravesend Bay on the southern shore of Long Island. Washington expected a two-pronged attack and considered Manhattan to be the primary objective. He did send 1800 reinforcements across the East River to Brooklyn Heights but held to his belief that the Long Island attack was only the beginning of a large-scale invasion on Manhattan. By 26 August 1776, however, Howe had landed 20,000 and Washington was convinced that the main thrust would be against Brooklyn Heights. Eventually the Americans placed a total of 10,000 troops on Long Island under the divisional command of General Israel Putnam. The advance positions along the ridge were manned primarily by two brigades; Sullivan's on the left (to the NE) and Stirling's on the right (to the SW). Lord Stirling, (actually the title assumed by William Alexander) had Haslet's Delaware Continentals and Smallwood's Maryland Regiment in his command. At the time, however, Smallwood was on Manhattan Island attending to a court's martial matter, and command of the Maryland Regiment fell to Major Mordecai Gist, the young, sharp-eyed Baltimore merchant.
The full story of this critical period is replete with brilliance, mistakes, luck and heroism. In this review, however, we will try to highlight only the key elements to provide a context for the heroic actions of the Maryland 400.
In the early hours of 27 August, the British sent two diversionary columns against Sullivan's and Stirling's brigades to occupy them while a third, led by Howe, moved secretly through the night to envelop Sullivan's left flank. At sunrise, the Hessians probed key passes in the center while Howe's 10,000 completed their surreptitious flanking movement through the virtually unguarded Jamaica Pass. Then at 8:30 a.m., Howe sent his men charging into the rear of the American center and left flank. Sullivan turned to meet them, but the unexpected thrust caused great confusion and, with the Hessians breaking through the American center behind them, Sullivan's entire left wing collapsed and rolled South in shattering defeat.
Meanwhile, on the American right, Stirling also came under heavy pressure. Gist had awakened his Marylanders at 3:00 a.m., when word of the enemies advance was received, and quickly moved them out to take up defensive positions with Haslet's Delawares to their left, and wait. Soon, the advancing red line appeared in the cold, gray dawn and a heated exchange began, continuing four hours until 11 o'clock, as Stirling's troops stood fast.
Finally, the British commander, resupplied and reinforced to 9,000 men, launched his all-out attack, applying heaviest pressure to the Marylanders on the right. Stirling realized his 950 could not hold and that the enemies flanking thrust on his right could shut off his only remaining avenue of retreat across the Gowanus Salt Marsh to the primary American positions in Brooklyn Heights. As his men withdrew toward the Mill Dam road and bridge (the only solid ground over the swamp) Stirling realized that another British force was coming upon his left around Cortelyou House, a two-story house that commanded the escape route. Acting to save what he could, Stirling promptly detached half of the Maryland element and ordered the Delawares and remaining Marylanders to retreat across the creek. Stirling formed Gist and his 250 Marylanders and moved directly to meet the British in and around Cortelyou House in a desperate effort to hold them while the rest of his command escaped. The British met them with a devastating volley. Under intense fire, the Marylanders halted, fell back and reformed to rush the house again. Again, heavy British fire cut them down, forcing them to withdraw and regroup. In spite of heavy casualties, the heroic Marylanders rallied for three more gallant but futile charges. Their 6th attack was shattered by British reinforcements, and the survivors scattered, desperately seeking a way back to their lines.
With the British in control of the Cortelyou House, the survivors were denied the Dam Road crossing. Discarding weapons and equipment, they stumbled through the marsh and into the swamp. Their flight was observed from the Brooklyn defenses by Washington, now joined by Smallwood, who acted to bring up two light artillery pieces and a few infantrymen to deter the pursuing British on the far side of the swamp. He was successful, and the few remaining Americans who could swim made their way to safety. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and the fight was over. Stirling had been captured and only ten (including Major Gist) of the 250 heroic Marylanders in his gallant counter-attack force had returned.
The result of the brief battle was stunning for the Americans. More than a thousand men were killed, captured, or missing. Generals Stirling and Sullivan were in the enemy's hands. The battalion lost more than 250 of their number. Most of the Marylanders' casualties occurred in the retreat and desperate covering action at the Cortelyou House. Of the original Maryland 400 muster, 96 returned, with only 35 fit for duty.
The Marylanders performance at Long Island began a long and proud reputation, and the heroic stand and counter attack by the members of the Maryland 400 is still recognized as the State's major contribution to the struggle for independence. Washington recognized the gallant performance and included the men from Maryland in his rear guard to cover the remarkable evacuation of the American force back to Manhattan on the night of the 29th.
Thomas Field, who wrote of the Battle of Long Island in 1869, called the stand of the Marylanders an hour more precious to liberty than any other in history. And well it might be! They stood as the final anchor of the crumbled American front line, and their heroic action not only saved many of their fellows but afforded Washington critical respite to regroup and withdraw his battered troops to Manhattan and continue the struggle for independence.
Mordacai Gist ultimately became a Brigadier General and distinguished himself as an exceptional leader. A strong patriot, he named his two sons States Rights and Independence. The states' rights issue today still includes the use of National Guard troops outside of the individual states. In 1776, the Province (States) felt strongly that the militia existed to protect the province, in accordance with the King Charles Charter of 1632, and should not be deployed beyond state boundaries. As a matter of historical fact, few militiamen joined the Continental Army. Smallwood's command was converted to Continentals and the earlier-formed units in western Maryland were organized as Continentals. For the most part, states kept their militiamen inside the state boundaries and formed new units to answer the call of the Continental Congress for support in the Revolution.
The importance of the Maryland 400 effort at New York during the Battle of Long Island can hardly be overstated. Their heroic stand was truly a precious hour in American history.