This is Part II of our compilation of personal accounts of the Battle of Brooklyn by members of the First Maryland Regiment. If you missed Part I, you can read it here.
Around midday on August 27, 1776, the British troops who had been firing on the Marylanders pulled back. Major Mordecai Gist, the commander on the ground, judged that “Our men behaved well, and maintained their ground.” As the British withdrew, the Marylanders felt they had weathered their first test as soldiers.
In truth, however, the attack the Maryland troops had faced was only a diversion. The rest of the British army, including a large number of Scottish troops, was in the process of slipping around the left end of the American lines, attacking them from the rear.
Unnamed Soldier, 5th Company
The main body of their army, by a route we never dreamed of, had entirely surrounded us, and…scattered all our men, except the Delaware and Maryland battalions.
We were surrounded by Healanders [Scottish Highlanders] on one side, Hessians on the other.
Being thus surrounded, and no probability of a reinforcement, his Lordship [Lord Stirling, American general] ordered me to retreat with the remaining part of our men, and force our way through to our camp.
We were ordered to attempt a retreat, by fighting our way through the enemy, who…nearly filled every field and road between us and our lines. We had not retreated a quarter of a mile before we were fired upon by an advanced party of the enemy, and those upon our rear were playing upon us with their artillery. Our men fought with more than Roman courage, and I am convinced would have stood until [we] were shot down to a man. We forced the advanced party, which first attacked us, to give way.
Captain, 8th Company, 24 years old
When the Regiment mounted a hill, a British officer appeared…and waved his hat, and it was supposed that he meant to surrender. He clapped his hands three times, on which signal his company rose and gave a heavy [fire].
We soon fell in with a party of the enemy, who clubbed their firelocks [turned their guns upside-down, a sign of surrender], and waved their hats to us, as if they meant to surrender as prisoners; but on our advancing within sixty yards, they…fired.
They entirely overshot us, and killed some men away behind in our rear. I had the satisfaction of dropping one of them the first fire I made. I was so near I could not miss. I discharged my rifle seven times that day as deliberately as I ever did at a [target], and with as little perturbation.
As the Marylanders fought their way back, they arrived at the swampy Gowanus Creek (now the Gowanus Canal).
We got a passage down to the side of a marsh, seldom before waded over, which we passed, and then swam a narrow river, all the time exposed to the fire of the enemy.
There then remained no other Prospect but to surrender or attempt to retreat over this Marsh and Creek at the Mouth, where no Person had ever been known to Cross.
I took my company through a marsh, until we were stopped by the dam of a …mill…that was too deep for the men to ford. I and a Sergeant swam over and got two slabs [of wood] into the water, on…which we ferried over all who could not swim.
Half the regiment was able to escape through the swamp, including the 5th and the 8th companies, before more British soldiers returned and attacked. Five companies were left to contend with the British: the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th, and 7th Independent.
We were then left with only five companies of our battalion, when the enemy returned… After a warm and close engagement for near ten minutes, our [troops] became so disordered we were under the necessity of retreating to a piece of woods on our right…
We formed and made a second attack, but being overpowered with numbers, and surrounded on all sides, by at least twenty thousand men, we were [pushed back in] much…confusion.
My captain was killed, first lieutenant was killed, second lieutenant shot through the hand, two sergeants was killed; one in front of me…my bayonet was shot off my gun.
The Marylanders twice charged the British near the Old Stone House, trying to get through to the American camp on the other side, before scattering.
The impracticability of forcing through such a formidable body of troops, rendered it the height of rashness and imprudence to risk the lives of our remaining party in a third attempt, and it became necessary for us to endeavor to effect our escape in the best manner we possibly could. A [portion of us] immediately retreated to the right through the woods, and Captain [Benjamin] Ford [of the 9th Company] and myself, with twenty others, to the left, through a marsh; nine only of whom got safe in.
Many of those who could not escape with Gist were captured.
My brother and I and 50 or 60 of us was taken…The Hessians broke the best of our guns over their cannon and robbed us of everything we had, lit their pipes with our money… gave us nothing to eat for five days, and then [only] moldy biscuits…blue, moldy, full of bugs and rotten.
More than 80 percent of William McMillan’s company was killed or captured. All told, the Marylanders lost 256 men, captured and killed. The five companies who did not go through the Gowanus Swamp were decimated. The 3rd Company lost 60 percent of its men, the 6th lost 78 percent, the 9th lost 54 percent, and the 7th Independent Company lost 69 percent.
The charge by the Maryland troops against an overwhelming British force allowed the rest of the Continental Army to get away. The Battle of Brooklyn was an absolute disaster for the Americans, with failures of logistics, intelligence, and leadership. The Marylanders fought with courage that belied their inexperience, and suffered mightily.
Spelling and grammar have been altered in places for readability. Smith’s account comes from his autobiography, which he wrote in the third person; it has been converted to first person here for purposes of uniformity.
Letter to “Secretary of Treasury,” ca. October 1828. Pension of William McMillan, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 2806, p. 33-35.
Note: It is unclear exactly when or where during the battle McMillan was captured. It was likely after the Marylanders initial retreat towards the swamp, probably during the stand at the Old Stone House.
Letter to Matthew Tilghman, President of the Council of Safety, 12 October 1776. Printed in Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July 7-December 31, 1776. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, p. 338-343.
“Extract of a letter from an officer of the Maryland Battalion: giving a short account of the late engagement on Long-Island,” 30 August 1776. American Archives, 5th series, vol. 1, p. 1212.
Note: Although the letter was published anonymously, it has long been ascribed to Gist, since it is worded as if written by the commanding officer.
Unknown Soldier of the 5th Company
“Extract of a letter from New-York: Account of the Battle on Long-Island,” 1 September 1776. American Archives, 5th series, vol. 1, p. 1232
Note: Attribution of this letter to a member of the 5th Company comes from Mark Andrew Tacyn, “’To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 56, 58-59; fn25.