In Their Own Words: An Oral History of the Battle of Brooklyn

Next week marks the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. Beginning Friday, we will be provide updates of the battle as it unfolded.

In preparation for that, over the next two days, we are publishing a compilation of several personal accounts of the battle by members of the First Maryland Regiment. These accounts offer unique insight into the terrible defeat the American suffered, and the heroism of the Marylanders. This is the first part; part two will run tomorrow.


The Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island) was fought on August 27, 1776. After being forced to withdraw from Boston in May, the British spent the summer preparing to push the Americans out of New York. By August, both sides had assembled large armies near the city, preparing for a battle they knew would happen soon. The Continental Army included about 1,000 Marylanders, few of whom had ever been in combat before, and most of them had seen only a handful of small skirmishes.

This is the story of that battle, as told by some of the Marylanders who fought in it.

William McMillan
Corporal, 4th Company, 20 years old

The British came to New York, and parts of our Regiment lay in Annapolis and parts in Baltimore. Hand bills was sent in every direction for volunteers and our Regiment turned [out] to a man that was fit to march. We had about twelve hundred men in the Regiment and we marched for New York, I believe we arrived there about the First of August 1776…On the evening of the 26 of August we left New York and landed on Long Island.

On the eve of the first full-scale battle of the American Revolution, General George Washington convened a court martial to try Lt. Col. Herman Zedwitz, who had been caught trying to sell American information to the enemy. Washington insisted that a number of high-ranking officers serve as the jury.

William Smallwood
Colonel, 1st Maryland Regiment, 44 years old

Lt. Col. [Francis] Ware and myself were detained on the Trial of Lt. Col. Zedwitz, and tho’ I waited on General Washington and urged the Necessity of attending our Troops, yet he refused to discharge us, alleging there was a Necessity for the trial…after our dismissal from the Court Martial it was too late to get over [to the battle].

With Smallwood and Ware hearing the case against Zedwitz, command of the Maryland troops fell to Major Mordecai Gist, a 33 year-old Baltimore merchant who had led revolutionary activities for several years, but like the Marylanders he now led, had never seen combat.

Mordecai Gist
Major, 1st Maryland Regiment, 33 years old

We began our march to the right [side of the battlefield], at three o’clock in the morning, with about thirteen hundred men [from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware], and about sunrise… discovered the enemy.

The Marylanders were positioned at the far right of the American lines, across the Gowanus Road, which ran from the coast where the British had landed to Brooklyn. Facing them was a regiment of Jaegers, part of the contingent of feared Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British.

Unnamed soldier
5th Company

The enemy then advanced towards us, upon which [American General] Lord Stirling… immediately drew us up in a line, and offered them battle in the true English taste. The British army then advanced within about three hundred yards of us, and began a very heavy fire from their cannon and mortars, for both the balls and shells flew very fast, now and then taking off a head.

Our men stood it amazingly well; not even one of them showed a disposition to shrink. Our orders were not to fire until the enemy came within fifty yards of us. When [the British] perceived we stood their fire so coolly and resolutely, they declined coming any nearer, although treble our number. In this situation we stood from sunrise to twelve o’clock, the enemy firing upon us the chief part of the time.

McMillan
We had a pretty severe fight with Jagers and it was a draw battle. There was a good many on each side killed. They retreated and we did not pursue them.

Gist
Our men behaved well, and maintained their ground until…the enemy retreated about two hundred yards and halted, and the firing on each side ceased.

To the Marylanders, it seemed as if they had demonstrated their discipline and skill in combat: they had faced the enemy, and the enemy had backed down.

Next: The British afternoon response

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One Response to In Their Own Words: An Oral History of the Battle of Brooklyn

  1. Pingback: In Their Own Words: An Oral History of the Battle of Brooklyn, Part II | Finding the Maryland 400

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