Mordecai Gist and the Maryland Line by Harry Schenawolf

We do most Solemnly pledge

ourselves to Each Other

& to our Country, and Engage

ourselves by Every Thing held

Sacred among Mankind to

perform the Same at the Risque

of our Lives and fortunes.

                                                                           Committee of Observation, Hartford County, Maryland, March 22, 1775

Early Life – Formed Cadets

Mordecai Gist.
Mordecai Gist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mordecai Gist actively recruited some of the finest young men from good Maryland families to form a regiment which, like the famed Highlanders of the Black Watch, were to forge its own legend in a war of rebellion that gave birth to a new nation.

He was born in Maryland on February 22, 1743  to Thomas and Susannah Gist.  The family was one of the earliest settlers in Maryland. Subsequent generations obtained a considerable wealth and they became well known in social circles throughout the counties of Maryland and northern Virginia. Part of the southern elite, Mordecai’s great-great-grandfather was reported to have been Lawrence Washington, an English rector of Northampton, England, who was also the great-great-grandfather of American general George Washington.

Bancroft, an early scholar of American History, states that Gist was trained in mercantile commerce and took a leading role in growing patriot sentiments. He describes Gist as commanding a “tall and graceful figure, [with] symmetrical proportions, great strength, and expressive features lighted by an eye of singular brightness… indicated one of those chivalric characters… created to lead others.”  Gist must have been quite successful for in 1774, he used his own money to assemble and equip a company of Baltimore Independent Cadets.  In exchange, he was voted to be their captain and began training the cadets in earnest.  In the spring of 1776, Maryland was called upon by Congress to supply a regiment of regular soldiers to the newly formed Continental Army.   The cadets formed the core of a battalion raised from among the finest young men of the most respectable families of Maryland.   The regiment consisted of eight companies and one light infantry company under the command of Colonel William Smallwood.  Major Gist served as Smallwood’s second.

Arriving New YorkBattle of Long Island

1st Maryland at the Battle of Long Island
1st Maryland at the Battle of Long Island

The battalion, one of the few that garnished full buff and scarlet uniforms, marched to New York City arriving on August 12th.  They showed up in time to reinforce General Putnam’s Division stationed in and around Brooklyn.  Known as the ‘Dandy Fifth’ or ‘macaronis’ (the current word for dandies) to the other soldiers, they, along with Haslet’s Delawares, were ferried over the Hudson River to support the right wing of the American line.  This consisted of Colonel Huntington’s Connecticut troops and Colonel Atlee’s Pennsylvanians, commanded by General Lord Stirling.  Shortly after, the British forces landed on Long Island, and at the time of the ensuing battle, Colonel Smallwood was engaged in court-martial proceedings in the city.   Command of the Marylanders was given to Smallwood’s second, Major Gist.

The Battle of Long Island opened up on August 27th, 1776. Unknown to General Putnam and his subordinates, General Howe ordered General Clinton to engage the bulk of the British forces in an all night flanking maneuver through Flatbush that brought them to the rear of the American line by 9 AM that morning. Lord Stirling spent the early morning morning hours in a heated battle with British General Grant’s forces who played their part as a decoy.  Generals Clinton and Cornwallis, attacked from the rear and quickly routed the left and center of the American line.

400 Marylanders charge Cornwallis at Gowanus Creek
400 Marylanders charge Cornwallis at Gowanus Creek

With the rest of the American line in shambles and panic stricken; in complete flight as they ran for safety behind the rebel fortifications around Brooklyn Heights, the British surged to the west cutting off all retreat for Lord Stirling’s forces.  Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Lord Stirling’s troops thought that they were winning the fight.  After Cornwallis’ artillery opened up from their rear, Lord Stirling realized that he was in jeopardy of losing his entire command.  He sent the bulk of his troops over a morass and tidal millpond called Gowanus Creek (the bridge had been burned), he commanded five full companies of Marylanders numbering two hundred and fifty-six men in a bold attack against General Cornwallis’ Highlanders and Grenadiers.  Major Gist lead his Marylanders in charge after charge against the British, one instance driving them back. However, each charge had diminished their numbers as General Grant continued to press from the south and further reinforcements arrived from the north.

Lord Stirling at the Battle of Long Island
Lord Stirling at the Battle of Long Island

Lord Stirling realized they could no longer continue the fight and told what troops he had left to save themselves.  Only nine Marylanders including Major Gist made it to safety. The rest of his command were either killed or captured.

Given command of Regiment – Brigadier General

The Maryland Battalion, known as Smallwood’s Marylanders (with Major Gist as second), was still considered among the most capable soldiers in the American Army, though greatly reduced in number. Prior to the Battle of Harlem on the evening of September 15th, 1776, it held off General Clinton’s forces at McGowan’s Pass on the Boston Post Road. Later, during a critical moment in the Battle of White Plains, on October 28th, 1776, the Marylanders and Haslet’s Delawares were rushed to the summit of Chatterton’s Hill after the militia fled in the face of attacking Hessians. They continued to beat back the Hessian’s bayonet attacks until they were outflanked and had to retire from the field.

On December 10th,  1776, Gist was promoted to Colonel and given command of what became the Third Maryland.  After White Plains, Washington was chased across New Jersey into Pennsylvania.  The Maryland regiments were depleted by expiring enlistments and Colonel Gist played a minor role in Trenton and Princeton. A rejuvenated Maryland regiment rejoined the Continental Army in the spring of 1777. In May, 1777, Washington assigned Colonel Gist’s regiment to the 1st Maryland Brigade together with the 1st, 5th, and 7th Maryland including the 1st Delaware Regiment. During the Battle of Brandywine, though Gist’s Marylanders distinguished themselves, he and Smallwood were on detached duty recruiting the Maryland militia. Colonel Gist returned in time for the Battle of Germantown where the Marylanders held their own once more.

Battle of Monmouth - Washington arrives the field
Battle of Monmouth – Washington arrives the field

While the main army wintered at Valley Forge, Colonel Gist and his Marylanders resided in Wilmington, Maryland to counter any southern inclination by General Howe’s forces quartered in Philadelphia; later that winter by his replacement as supreme commander, General Clinton. Gist and his regiment joined the main army in the spring of 1778 and participated in the Battle of Monmouth on June 28. The 3rd Maryland remained under Brigadier General Smallwood’s 1st Brigade and formed part of the right wing commanded by Major General Greene. During the battle, Gist lead an advance guard under the command of General Lee. He was present when Washington rushed among Lee’s retreating division and ordered them about. Gist then led his men into the fray. He continued to command the 3rd Maryland until January 9th when Brigadier General Smallwood was promoted to Major General and the leadership of the 1st Brigade was handed over to newly commissioned Brigadier General Gist.

Southern Theater – Camden

Battle of Camden
Battle of Camden

The theater of war shifted to the south by the end of 1779. Major General Henry Clinton sailed from New York with 8,500 British troops and captured Charleston. He immediately began subduing the south. By April of 1780, all of Georgia and South Carolina was in British hands. Clinton sailed back to New York, leaving Major General Cornwallis in command of the southern troops.  During Clinton’s siege of Charlestown, Washington ordered a force of Marylanders and troops from Delaware commanded by Major General Baron de Kalb south to join then Major General Lincoln’s forces.  After General Lincoln’s capture with most of his army, Major General Gates (hero of Saratoga) was given command of the southern department. The Marylanders joined General Gates in North Carolina in late July and promptly marched another one hundred miles to Camden, arriving August 15th. Fatigued and famished from days on end with little or no food, the American army was posed to suffer a resounding defeat at Camden.

1st Maryland Regiment at Camden
1st Maryland Regiment at Camden

On the morning of August 16th, 1780, General Gist’s second brigade, composed of one Delaware and three Maryland regiments, formed the American right line. The center was commanded by General Caswell’s North Carolina militia and the left was composed of General Steven’s Virginia’s militia. General Smallwood commanded the 1st Maryland Brigade as support. The chosen field of battle was lined on both sides by swamps.

As the British were deploying, Gates gave the order for the Virginians to attack. Colonel Stevens asked for volunteers to move forward into a section of woods to harass the forming troops. Only fifty or so advanced; most of the men holding back. By then the British were already in line. As the British Welsh forces approached, those rebels who’d volunteered to move forward released a harmless volley before running to join the others. Cornwallis, seeing this, ordered an immediate volley and bayonet charge. The raw Virginians had never seen an enemy before, let alone a line of glistening steel driven forward by howling scarlet clad troops in all their fierceness. Unsettled by the volunteers now pushing through their midst for the rear, the Virginians, to a man, panicked and flung their muskets aside, flying before the British onslaught. The North Carolina militia, seeing the Virginians sprinting for the rear, also fled the field, not a one having fired a shot. Only one regiment of North Carolina militia, those posted next to the stout men of Delaware, held their position by example.

General Horatio Gates
General Horatio Gates

Because the collapse of the American line was hid by the smoke of cannon and musket fire along with and a deep early morning fog seeping in from the surrounding morass, Gist’s Brigade had no idea that they now held the field alone: six hundred men against Cornwallis’s thousands. After repeated attacks by General Rawdon’s troops, General De Kalb called for the Maryland First Brigade to come up. General Smallwood’s forces attempted to move forward, but were blocked by the surging British, now flanking Gist’s Brigade. After repeated attempts, Smallwood’s men were overwhelmed and left the field, leaving only Gist’s Brigade commanded by De Kalb to face Cornwallis’ entire army.

Death of DeKalb
Death of DeKalb

As the battle raged, Gist and De Kalb stood firm like a rock and held their men in line ordering them to attack. One charge broke through Rawdon’s troops and captured over fifty men. After an hour of fierce, hand to hand combat, the Delaware regiment and Marylanders began to falter.  De Kalb, ever relentless, was seen rushing along the entire front encouraging the men. Though wounded several times, he refused to leave the field, still believing that the rest of the American line held and that they had a chance. After receiving eleven wounds, he still fought on, driving his saber through an enemy just before collapsing. Gist was also relentless in rallying his troops. Their decimated numbers continued to close ranks and attack their foe. But by the fall of De Kalb, their numbers were so few that they began to fall back. Tarleton’s cavalry, after having chased down the fleeing militia, turned and swept down upon Gist’s remaining troops and was able to break their ranks. Seeing no chance of continuing the fight, Gist rounded up the men he could, around a hundred.  They formed a compact body and retreated in orderly fashion. The rest of the command had either fallen, were captured, or fled into the swamp.

End of the War and Settling in Charleston

Marylanders at Guilford Courthouse
Marylanders at Guilford Courthouse

General Nathanael Greene replaced Gates after Camden and reorganized the southern army. What was known as the Maryland Line was restructured into five regiments under the command of Major General Smallwood and Brigadiers Gist and Otho Holland Williams. These men participated in most of the battles of the southern army’s campaign, including Guilford Courthouse. General Gist’s brigade was detached from the south and were present during Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in October 1781. On January 4, 1782, Gist’s Brigade became the Maryland Brigade and was ordered south once more. Later that year, Greene, while staying near Charlestown, reorganized the army and Gist was given command of the light corps. On August 26th,1782, during the Battle of Combahee in a skirmish between Gist’s light corp and a large British foraging party, Gist rallied the broken forces under John Laurens and gained a decisive victory. Regrettably,John Laurens,  an up and rising star among both military and political forces within the new American nation, was killed during this action. This proved to be one of the last major conflicts of the war.

When peace was declared, Gist resigned his commission and retired to a plantation he purchased near Charleston, South Carolina. His first wife was Cecil Carnan Gist (1742-1770) who gave him a daughter, Cecil Carnan.  Carnan died during childbirth and the infant Carnan perished less than a year later (1770-1771). Gist remarried Mary McCall Gist (1749-1812) who gave him three children; a son, Independent (1779-1821), a daughter Susanna (1784-1785), and another son named States (1787-1822).

Order of Cincinnati
Order of Cincinnati

Gist kept in close touch with former comrades in arms and was active in the Society of the Cincinnati, serving as the first Vice President of the Society’s Maryland branch. He died at home at the age of 49 and is buried among his family in the Church Yard of Old Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church, Charlestown, South Carolina.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES:

Bancroft, George.  Washington and The Generals of the Revolutionary War. 1848:  Carey & Hart, Philadelphia, PA.

Gordon, William D. D.  History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America including an account of the Late War and of the Thirteen Colonies Vol 1I.  1801:  Third Ed. Printed for Samuel Campbell by John Wood, New York, NY. 

Schulz, Emily L.  Maryland in the American Revolution, An Exhibition by the Society of the Cincinnati2009:  Anderson House,  Washington D.C.

Trevelyan, Sir George Otto.  The American Revolution Vol. 2.  1922:  Longman’s Green & Co., London, UK.

Ward, Christopher.  The War of the Revolution.  1952:  McMillan Company, New York, NY:  2011:  Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY.

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