The American colonies’ direct relationship with Britain meant that there were many colonists who did not support the Revolutionary War, and even the act of enlisting into the Continental Army did not mean that a person was devoted to the American cause. Throughout the war, men deserted for a number of reasons (as seen in an earlier post), and some of these deserters even defected to the British army. Even the First Maryland Regiment experienced this, and one example comes from a member of the Maryland 400.
William Chaplin was born in Colchester, England, but migrated to Maryland and ran a plantation near Baltimore before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He enlisted into the Maryland Line as a private in the Fourth Company in January of 1776.1 Later that year, he marched with William Smallwood‘s First Maryland Regiment to New York and fought at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, as one of the Maryland 400. His company was in the middle of the action, and many of his fellow soldiers were taken prisoner at the battle.2 Just fourteen men from his company, including Chaplin, escaped capture or death.
When the army was reformed in December, 1776, Chaplin remained in the First Maryland Regiment as a private and continued to serve for another year before being stationed in Wilmington, Delaware in early 1778. It was from there that he would make his escape.
Maryland records list Chaplin as a deserter, and he was formally discharged on March 6, 1778.3 A London newspaper tells a much more detailed version of what happened: Chaplin “and sixteen others deserted from Wilmington, and came in to Gen. Howe, at Philadelphia, where they took the oath of allegiance, were treated with great humanity by the British officers, and, at their own request, suffered to leave America.”4 The identities of the sixteen men he deserted with are not known, but it is possible that some of them were also members of the Maryland 400. According to the paper, he arrived in Whitehaven, England in May of 1778, but that is where his trail ends.
Interestingly, Chaplin reported that more than 200 other deserters of British and Irish origin sailed to England in the same fleet. These would have all been men that not only deserted, but also swore the oath of allegiance to Britain. As we have already seen (and will discuss again), desertion was not uncommon in the Continental Army, but Chaplin and the other men he mentioned were not the typical deserters who got sick of the war and returned home. They made a conscious decision to not only leave the army, but to change loyalties and leave the country they had been fighting to create.
Though incomplete, William Chaplin’s story shows that even men who fought with valor and earned prestige were susceptible to becoming fatigued of the war. He turned from one of a small number fighting to the death to save the American cause at Long Island to a lowly deserter who would rather swear allegiance to England than continue fighting. His case is by no means typical for the Maryland 400, but it is something to keep in mind when trying to discover who these men were.
You can read Chaplin’s biography page here.
1. The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, London: June 2, 1778, 2; Muster Rolls and Other Service Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, 1775–1783, Archives of Maryland Vol. 18, p. 12.