Earlier this summer, I wrote a post about a letter I had found in a pension file. The letter was a firsthand account of a Revolutionary War veteran’s experience in the war, written many years after the fact. The man who wrote it, William McMillan, told an amazing story about fighting at the Battle of Long Island, being captured, escaping, and rejoining the army to fight again. His account gave the battle a soldier’s perspective; he was in the field amongst other men fighting to death to save the army. When we were given the opportunity to write an extended biography for a member of the Maryland 400, I immediately knew that McMillan would be the subject of my study. I was fascinated by the story that McMillan had told and wanted to explore his life further. This post includes a shortened account of his biography; you can go to his bio page to read the full version.
McMillan was probably born in Scotland, and came to America with his brother shortly before the war. They settled in Harford County, Maryland, and joined the militia, later enlisting in the Continental Army. On August 27, 1776, they both fought in the Maryland Line at the Battle of Long Island, and they were two of the Maryland 400 who fought bravely to save the Continental Army that day. They were captured by the British and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but managed to escape. After journeying through the wilderness, William and his brother both enlisted into a Massachusetts regiment in Boston. William McMillan eventually rejoined the Maryland troops, but his brother, Samuel, remained with the Massachusetts regiment.
When the war ended, William moved to Mercer County, Pennsylvania, where he became successful by working and buying and selling land. This must have been new to him, for he likely had never owned land in America before. Despite his success, McMillan eventually became unable to provide for himself and his family and applied for a pension from the government, which he was granted. He died neither rich nor poor in the late 1830s, having gone from a landless immigrant worker to an American hero and a successful businessman.
The story of the Maryland 400, and the Revolutionary War in general, is often told with a mythical quality, and usually comes from a famous officer’s point of view. I felt that it was important to see the Battle of Long Island and the war as a whole through a field soldier’s real experience, and McMillan’s account allowed me to do exactly that. For this reason I chose to focus on him and his account of the Maryland 400; his perspective was unique and told it in a way that felt much more real than an officer’s field report or a polished letter to Congress. Our goal for this project was to identify the men of the 400, not only find their names, but who they really were. For William McMillan, I feel that this was successful.
To read William McMillan’s full biography, click here.