The Mystery of the Maryland 400, Part I

Today is the two-hundred forty-second anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. The main goal of this project is to learn the names of the Maryland soldiers who fought at the battle and to determine their fates, especially the men killed in the famous stand of the Maryland 400 that saved the Continental Army. Because of lost records, we know the names of only about 850 of the roughly 1,000 Marylanders who were at the battle, and we have nearly 700 biographies of soldiers online.

However, there is a lot that we still have to learn about the soldiers’ fates at the battle. Two-hundred fifty-six Marylanders were either killed or captured at the battle, but we can only identify four men who died in the fighting: Captain Daniel Bowie, Lieutenant Joseph Butler, Sergeant William Sands, and Captain Edward Veazey. Similarly, we know the names of 73 captured Marylanders (including Bowie and Butler, who died in captivity). You can see their names here: Battle of Brooklyn Roll of Honor.

Nearly all of the imprisoned soldiers were identified through records documenting their release in prisoner exchanges during late 1776 or early 1777. This raises an important question: what about the Marylanders captured at the Battle of Brooklyn (or later in the New York campaign) who weren’t exchanged? Records of prisoners, particularly ordinary soldiers, were not kept well, and the British destroyed their records of prisoners at the war’s end. At least three Marylanders–Private Jacob Harman, Private John McClain, and Sergeant Peter McNaughton–were coerced into joining the British Army, and their captivity was learned about from other sources (read their biographies to learn more about their stories!)

There were doubtless Maryland prisoners who didn’t survive long enough to be exchanged. Conditions in British prisons were horrible, rife with disease and starvation. In his landmark study of American prisoners of war held in New York, historian Edwin G. Burrows estimates that at least half of the Americans captured at Brooklyn died in captivity by the end of 1776. [1] How many of the men from the First Maryland Regiment met that fate will never be known. However, if that ratio was true of the Marylanders, then more than 150 were captured, about two-thirds of the total Maryland losses at the battle.

However, while we know that 256 men were killed or taken prisoner, we know very little else about them. We don’t know who they were, or even how many were killed versus captured. The best we can say is that people used to know. To learn more about that, read Part II of this post tomorrow.

–Owen

Notes:

1. Edwin G. Burroughs, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 64. Burroughs also notes that “if we count prisoners who died of malnutrition or disease soon after their release, the overall mortality rate probably reached 60 or even 70 percent.” Burroughs, 281 n40.

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