Today’s object, as we move closer to the beginning of combat at the Battle of Brooklyn, is the portrait of Mordecai Gist. As the First Maryland Regiment’s major, Gist was the third-highest ranking officer, and the man who led the Marylanders at the Battle of Brooklyn. At the end of the battle he joined American general William Alexander, Lord Stirling, in the final stand at the Old Stone House, and also left behind a vivid and detailed account of the battle.
Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait around 1774. The painting in the Archives’ Artistic Properties collection is actually a copy by Peter Egeli, one of several such reproductions commissioned by the state in 1975 to commemorate the United States Bicentennial. It hangs in the Old Senate Chamber Committee Room in the Maryland State House (the original is at the Maryland Historical Society). Peale had also painted Gist a few years earlier, a portrait now at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Gist was a wealthy Baltimore merchant who was among Maryland’s most militant revolutionary leaders. He played a leading role in the 1774 burning of the Peggy Stewart, a ship defying the boycott on imported tea. Later that year he raised a pro-independence militia, the Baltimore Independent Cadets.
Despite his leadership of the Independent Cadets, Gist had never seen combat before he took command of the Maryland troops at the Battle of Brooklyn. Both of his superiors, Colonel William Smallwood and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Ware, were taking part in a court martial when the battle began, leaving it to Gist to lead. The Marylanders showed remarkable discipline during the battle, which must have stemmed in part from the abilities of their officers to hold the men together, including Gist.
Gist’s description of the battle, written a few days afterward, gives a clear picture of what happened to the Marylanders (although the numbers of troops he cites are all exaggerated). After “the main part of our force retreated…and got in safe…the enemy returned.” Then, wrote Gist,
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….
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. 
You can read Gist’s whole letter, as well as other first-hand accounts of the battle, in An Oral History of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Gist served in the Continental Army until the war’s end in 1783, rising to brigadier general. He led the Maryland troops in the campaigns around Philadelphia in 1777-1778, and in the Carolinas in 1780-1782, where they gained renown for their skill and bravery. He left Maryland not long after the war’s conclusion, settling in South Carolina, where he died in 1792. Read more about his life here.
Several other officers who fought at the Battle of Brooklyn also have portraits in the State Art Collection, reflecting their prominent roles in Maryland in the years after the Revolution. All four are on display in the Maryland State House.
William Smallwood (1732-1792), a colonel in 1776. He was promoted to major general in the Continental Army, and governor of Maryland 1785-1788.
Samuel Smith (1752-1839) was a captain at the Battle of Brooklyn, later a lieutenant colonel, who held many public offices after the war, including U.S. Senator 1803-1812 and 1822-1833. As major general of the Maryland Militia, he played a key role in the defense of Baltimore against the British in 1814.
John Hoskins Stone (1750-1804) began the war as a captain, but was made a colonel, commanding the First Maryland Regiment 1777-1779, and sustained serious wounds at the Battle of Germantown in 1777. He later held many political offices, including governor 1794-1797.
Levin Winder (1757-1819) rose from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel, and was governor during the War of 1812.
If you missed the other objects in this series, click here to view them all.
1. Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures by Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1952), 87-88.
2. For Gist’s account of the battle, see: [Mordecai Gist], “Extract of a letter from an officer of the Maryland Battalion.” American Archives Series 5, Vol. 1 p. 1232.