Maryland Battalion at the Battle of Long Island
Tuesday, August 27, 1776. Since dawn, four hundred young men from Maryland exchanged volley for volley with some of England’s finest troops. Colonists from influential families, the former Baltimore Independent Cadets were experiencing their baptism of fire. In company with soldiers from Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, they made up the far right wing of the American defensive line on Long Island. They faced their enemy on field and in forest south of Brooklyn Heights and behind the breastworks of Fort Greene. Their wing was the first under assault. Before the sun set that day, the Marylanders were involved in a heated action that proved to be one of the most selfless displays of valor in the entire war.
Mostly boys in their late teens, the Marylanders were organized into a battalion in the spring of 1776. The battalion consisted of eight companies with an additional light infantry company under the command of Colonel William Smallwood. Captain (later Colonel) Mordecai Gist had formed the original companies two years earlier when the soldiers were still cadets. On the sixth of July, the battalion was assigned to the Continental Army and ordered to report to New York City. Upon arrival at New York City on August 12th, they were assigned to General William Alexander from New Jersey, commonly referred to as Lord Stirling, as his title was based on claims to a Scottish estate. They were in the city only a week before being transferred to Long Island to counter a possible British landing.
By way of explanation: every regiment had a light infantry company – though some regiments were made up entirely of light infantry. Light infantry were the soldiers sent out as pickets, or skirmishers, in front of the main body of troops. They were usually the best equipped and most dependable troops who engaged the enemy first and allowed time for the main body of soldiers to form before attacking or defending. In a sense, the regiment of light infantry was used as storm troopers. These men were quick and fierce*.
At home, the Marylanders were affectionately labeled the ‘Dandy Fifth’ while the rest of the army called them ‘macaronis’, a common word for dandies. They were the ‘flower of the American army’, sporting blue coats with red trim, buff hunting frocks with buckskin breeches, splatterdashes, and tricorn hats. The officers wore red coats similar to those worn by English officers. Their muskets were of excellent quality, and each had a bayonet attached to the channel below the barrel. Both uniform and bayonet was a rarity in the rebel army; the only other unit in proper uniform and similarly armed was the regiment from Delaware. According to a Hessian soldier after the battle, the Marylanders were “very tall and very fine young men,” and he added that they were among the few in the rebel army who looked and handled themselves in battle like soldiers.
Four roads led from the south shore of Long Island to Brooklyn and the Heights where the Americans had dug their entrenchments. Two of these roads were located in the center and cut through natural passes in a long ridge that stretched from Gowans Heights near the bay towards Jamaica, another five miles to the east. The center pass was north of Flatbush on the Flatbush Road near where the Porte Road intersected its run to Brooklyn. The other center pass was south of the town of Bedford. It was on the Bedford Road which ran north to Bedford and intersected Atlantic Avenue, which flowed east to hook up with the Porte Road. The third road skirted the ridge of hills along its eastern edge and made a detour farther east toward Jamaica. The fourth (and strategically the most important) road ran along the western foot of the Heights of Gowan and swung around through Gowanus. This was called the Gowanus Road or Shore Road because it followed the bay from Gravesend north to the narrows and Brooklyn.
Gravesend Bay was five and a half miles due south of the American position and where over fifteen thousand British and German troops had landed five days before. Another five thousand Hessians arrived four days later bringing the total enemy count to twenty thousand. Against these numbers, General Washington posted nine thousand men. Six thousand were stationed within the forts and entrenchments around Brooklyn Heights. Three thousand troops were positioned outside the fortifications as a defensive ring and strung out over six miles. Since the Gowanus Road was the main approach from Gravesend Bay to Brooklyn Heights and the American forts, it was thought that the British would make a determined strike there first; therefore Lord Stirling was given the bulk of the troops outside the forts to guard against such an attack.
The British troops facing the Americans were divided into four divisions. The Shore route to Gowanus facing Lord Stirling was given to General Grant with his Highland regiments. East, along Flatbush Road that crossed the Prospect Range, the Hessians were deployed under General von Heister, who faced General Sullivan. The third, by way of Bedford road and Bedford Pass, was entrusted to General Cornwallis, who faced Colonels Miles and Knowlton. The remainder and the largest division of the army, ten thousand strong, proceeded in a flanking maneuver by way of Jamaica Road and Jamaica Pass. That force was led by General Clinton along with General Percy and General Howe accompanying. Only five rebel militia horsemen guarded this route.
Lord Stirling, guarding the right, had a total of sixteen hundred men to face General Grant’s four thousand British regulars and another sixteen hundred Royal Marines. Early on in the battle and for several hours, these outnumbered American forces had been successful in halting the enemy’s advance up Gowanus Road. They were so successful in fact, that right up until the moment of crisis, it seemed that they were winning the day.
Unknown to Lord Stirling, General Grant was intentionally stalling. Told to make a ‘spirited’ display, they waited for a cannon signal from their main army to the north of the American line before attacking in earnest. General Clinton, with the main force, had spent all night flanking the American left and by morning were preparing to attack from the rear. General Grant, upon hearing the signal, ordered a full advance; the combined units, along with General van Heister, who commanded four thousand Hessian troops advancing towards the center, entrapped and encircled the rebel forces outside the breastworks of Brooklyn Heights.
Two heavy field pieces, twelve pounders, were sounded at nine AM by Clinton and Howe’s troops which were then converging on the site from the north. Starting from the left, the entire American line crumbled like dominoes and raced for the safety of the forts in their rear. By eleven AM, Lord Stirling learned that the center, under the command of General Sullivan and Colonel Samuel Miles, who defended the far left, had collapsed under the vice like onslaught of British and Hessians. Stirling was able to disengage from Grant’s forces and raced his men north. He soon discovered that his retreat was blocked by General Cornwallis, whose men had poured through the Bedford pass and were now stationed around a stone house on the Vechte farm. Both bridges across Gowanus Creek had been set ablaze, and Cornwallis’ men blocked the Porte Road which was now the only escape by land to the forts. General Grant was then in Stirling’s rear and, with Hessians pouring in from the east, the noose was quickly tightening. The entire right wing, over fifteen hundred men, was in danger of annihilation.
Lord Stirling’s decision was detailed and quick. He would retain a portion of the Maryland regiment and lead them against General Cornwallis, hoping to break through the British line and make for the safety of Brooklyn Heights. Succeed or fail, he planned to give the rest of his command time to escape over the tidal or mill pond to the west of the Vechte farm. The mill pond was about eighty yards wide, but with the tide coming in, the water depth was rapidly increasing. He ordered Colonel Huntington’s Connecticut troops and Colonel Atlee’s Pennsylvanians, including Haslet’s Delawares, to save themselves and escape through the eoncoming tide. Stirling then turned to Acting Colonel Mordicai Gist of the Maryland Brigade. Colonel Smallwood, as well as Colonel Haslet (who commanded the Delawere Regiment), were in New York on court-martial duty. Stirling instructed Gist to maintain four companies, a little over two hundred and fifty men, and send the rest of his command through the pond. The remaining Marylanders and their general knew what was expected of them. They runderstood the sacrifice Lord Stirling was expecting them to make. Though the odds were in excess of ten to one, not one flinched when the order was given to attack.
The Marylanders under Lord Stirling made five courageous charges into a hail of bullets and grape shot. Twice they drove the British back, only to relinquish the ground as more and more English troops made the field. Each time they were driven back, Stirling rallied his men around the colors for yet another go. Finally, with defeat looming, he asked his decimated troops for one more attack. It was a last desperate attempt to stave off the British onslaught and allow those men still trudging through the mill pond’s morass the precious time to reach safety. Lifting their muskets with bayonets thrust forward, not one failed to follow their maddened commander into the jaws of certain death.
After the final attack, Lord Stirling told those few who remained to save themselves. Only nine of the original two hundred and fifty made it to Brooklyn Heights. Some of those lost were captured, while most lay dead or dying on the field and bog surrounding the Vechte House. During the battle, General Washington could see the selfless determination of the Marylanders while he was perched high on Cobble Hill Fort. Legend has it that he was in such despair as to cry out, “Good God, what brave fellows I must lose this day!”
During the entire war, the Maryland Battalion’s percentage of killed in one action was among the highest of any other regiment either, American or British. Lord Stirling made his way through the forest and surrendered to the Hessians, turning his sword over General von Heister. He had vowed he would die rather than relinquish his blade to General Grant who had boasted that, with five thousand troops, he could march at will through all the colonies unopposed.
It is believed that British soldiers, with the aid of local residents, buried the Marylanders’ dead in a mass grave on farmer Adrian Van Brunt’s land on the outskirts of the marsh. Over the years there have been various organizations determined to locate the mass grave to memorialize the sacrifice those soldiers made. The mill ponds were filled in nearly two centuries ago; however, soldiers would have been buried on slightly higher ground. The Rawley Post at Third Avenue and Ninth Street with the NYS historical marker above the post sign and behind the flagpole points to one possible location of the mass grave. The sign reads, “Here lies buried 256 Maryland Soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn, August 27, 1776. State Education Department, 1952.
Based on old sketches and prints of hills in the Gowanus Creek area, it is believed that the mass grave may be in the vicinity of 3rd Avenue between 7th and 8th Street. The use of ground penetrating radar and sonar and electrical resistivity may enable investigators to pinpoint promising sites for digs. However, with so many structures present and land owner’s reluctance for such exploratory procedures, it has become a difficult process. The most current theory for the site’s location is a vacant, concrete-covered lot studded with weeds at the intersection of Third Avenue and Eighth Street in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. It was from this battle that Maryland gained its nickname “The Old Line State.”
*General Howe used a regiment of light infantry at the Battle of Bunker Hill – using them to try and flank the Americans down by the beach. Unfortunately for Howe, he hadn’t counted on Colonel Stark positioning his men in three ranks behind the hastily thrown up breastwork. Each rank fired while the other two loaded, mauling and mowing down the British as they advanced up the beach. It was common at that time to have two ranks fire alternately, but unheard of to have three. This unique tactic devastated the British charge and Stark held out until the collapse of the fort when he had to retreat losing few men.
Fraser, Georgia. The Stone House at Gowanus. 1909: Witter and Kintner Publishers, New York, NY.
Furman, Robert. Marylander Burial Site (Park Slope/Gowanus) Web Article. January 26, 2013.
Gallagher, John J. The Battle of Brooklyn 1776. 1995, 2009: Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA.
McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
Reno, Linda Davis. The Maryland 400 in the Battle of Long Island 1776. 2008: McFarland Company Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, NC
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. 2002: Walker & Company, New York, NY.