At the beginning of this project one our first tasks was to establish which companies were actually present at the Battle of Long Island. This reason for this is obvious enough: so that we do not waste too much time tracking down men in those companies that were not there and thus could not have been a part of the Maryland 400. As far as we know all nine of Smallwood’s regular companies were present along with three of the independent companies: Veazey’s, Hindman’s and Thomas’. Although I have mainly focused on the three above independent companies, one of the others, the third independent from Worcester county under the command of Captain John Watkins, could not escape my attention. The story of Captain Watkins’ ill-fated company is worth mentioning because it illustrates an aspect of the war (an indeed of all wars) that often gets retroactively glossed over by popular depictions. That is, the unfortunate occurrence of dysfunction amongst the ranks. Of course heroic narratives like the stand of the Maryland 400 will be favored in our collective memory, but the less flattering tales are important and, I would suggest, entertaining as well.
Like all the other Captains of the independent companies, John Watkins was elected to the position in January 1776 and received the third most votes from the convention.1 There is not much information about the company in the first half of that year, but it is clear that all the independent companies suffered from a lack of adequate clothing and other supplies. It should come to no surprise that the companies on the eastern shore faced the most challenges in this respect due to the shore’s natural isolation. To make matters worse, British vessels regularly harassed the coasts of the Chesapeake. Indeed the perceived lack of support created a sentiment among the eastern shore companies and militia that the Maryland Council of Safety favored the companies of the western shore. Sometimes this sentiment seemed to give way to mild resentment. In a letter to the Council of Safety Thomas Smith writes “Captain Veazey, as well as some other of the independent Captains on this shore, are very uneasy that they are not yet furnished with any arms or ammunition, more especially as they understand the troops on the Western-Shore are generally well armed, and provided with clothes.”2 If Captain Veazey in Kent and Queen Anne counties was having difficulty obtaining supplies, Watkins all the way down in Worcester must have found it a near insurmountable task. Even as late as September his company is described as being “in a very bad situation for clothes.”3 and also required blankets.4
Captain Watkins however cannot be reduced to a mere victim of circumstance. As aforementioned, all of the independent companies faced these logistical problems, yet none of them fell into disarray as Watkins’ did. To the contrary, Captain Veazey’s company went on to earn distinction at the Battle of Long Island. The Company’s principal problem was Watkins himself. Multiple sources indicate that John Watkins was a belligerent drunk, who earned the contempt of his men for his incompetence and foul temperament. Watkins’ company left for Philadelphia later than any other company and seemed to remain there throughout September. They saw no major action (if any) for the duration, yet one may think otherwise upon seeing a return for the company. According to a letter to the Council of Safety on September 20th only 37 of the 87 privates remained in the company. The large majority of these men did not die of sickness or combat, but simply deserted. The author writes “Capt. Watkins and his men we are sorry to inform you are on very ill terms, the Capt. has beat some of them, he says he had great cause, they say he had none, some of them have said nothing shall induce them to continue in the company under Capt. Watkins.” The author goes on to state that Watkins “is addicted to Drink and his appearance at several Times we have seen him bespeaks it.”5 Nonetheless at this point the Delegates still hoped that by supplying the company adequately some of the discord could be quelled.
Such hopes, however, were quickly dashed. Barely a week later, Watkins still had failed to take the initiative to cloth his company. In a letter to the Maryland delegates in congress the Council of Safety stated that “Watkins sometimes assented, at others made excuses, and appeared undetermined; and to say the truth, we firmly believe that he renders himself incapable of taking proper care of his company, by drinking to excess…the men, we doubt not, have suffered from the inattention of their Captain; his removal, perhaps, would be the best method of promoting the publick service.”6 Finally on October 3rd, 1776 John Watkins resigned his commission and one can only assume that it was a forced resignation. Lieutenant Solomon Long, being an officer that the men did respect, took the company over as Captain.
1. Persons commissioned in the regular forces cannot serve in the convention, or hold public office. 1775-01-02. American Archives Series 4 Vol. 4 Pg. 0728.
2. Letter from Thomas Smith to Maryland Council of Safety: The Militia on the Eastern-Shore are dissatisfied that they have not some proportion of Ammunition sent them. 1776-04-09. American Archives Series 4 Vol. 5 Pg. 0826.
3. Letter from Maryland Council of Safety to Thomas Stone. 1776-09-05. American Archives. Series 5 Volume 2 Pg. 0177.
4. Letter from Maryland Council of Safety to Colonel Hollingsworth. 1776-09-05. American Archives. Series 5 Vol. 2 Pg. 0177
5.Letter from Maryland Delegates in Congress to Maryland Council of Safety. 1776-09-20. American Archives. Series 5 Vol. 2 Pg. 0407.
6. Letter from Maryland Council of Safety to Delegates in Congress. 1776-09-26. American Archives. Series 5 Vol. 2 Pg. 0541.
7. William Bartlett Townsend discharged from confinement. 1776-10-03. American Archives. Series 5 Vol. 3 Pg 0114.