The amazing story of Charles Thompson, who “agreed to enlist with the Enemy–and by that Means made his escape”

The life and career of Charles Thompson is perhaps the most remarkable that we have come across in all of our biographical research for this project. Thompson showed immense courage and determination during his time in the army. In addition, piecing together the facts about his life was possible only with the assistance of some amazing partners. We’re very fortunate that we were able to work with them to bring Thompson’s story to you.

He enlisted as a private in the Fifth Independent Company in early 1776. The company was raised in St. Mary’s County, and was led by Captain John Allen Thomas. There were seven independent companies, which were initially raised to stay in Maryland and guard the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay. By the summer of 1776, however, they were dispatched to join the rest of the First Maryland Regiment in New York.

St. Mary’s County. Detail, Map of the State of Maryland, Dennis Griffith, 1792

Thompson was just fifteen years old when he volunteered. It was unusual for someone that young to enlist, and he was one of the youngest Marylanders who volunteered in 1776. However,  Thompson joined with his older cousin, Electious Thompson. Electious’s parents had died when he was very young, and he was raised by his uncle Robert–Charles’s father. Charles and Electious may well have been more like brothers than cousins.

Both Thompsons survived the Battle of Brooklyn–their company had only a limited role in the fighting–and fought through the rest of the 1776 campaign. Electious fell ill around November, and went home to recuperate, but Charles reenlisted, signing on with the Second Maryland Regiment for three years. The regiment had many soldiers from the independent companies, who Thompson had fought with in 1776.

Thompson was with the Second Maryland on August 22, 1777, when it made a landing on Staten Island. The Americans thought there was a small Loyalist militia on the island, which could be easily subdued. They were surprised to instead discover a large contingent of British regulars, who routed the Americans. The Marylanders were ordered to cover the American retreat, and they took heavy losses, including Charles Thompson, who was taken prisoner.

British prison ship

Americans captured during the Revolution were held in horrible prison conditions, where disease and starvation were rampant, and thousands died. Thompson, “after being some Time in Jail…agreed to enlist with the Enemy–and by that Means made his escape.” It was not unheard of for captured American soldiers to be impressed or coerced into joining the British Army. In fact, at least three Marylanders captured at the Battle of Brooklyn suffered that fate: Peter McNaughton, Jacob Harman, and John McClain. Joining the British Army offered a way out of confinement in prison, and for some men, a chance to escape back to the Continental Army. Such was the case for Thompson, who managed to return to the American lines in late November 1777, just three months after being captured.

Detail of muster roll, Davidson’s Company, Second Maryland Regiment, April 1778. From Fold3.com.

When Thompson rejoined his unit, however, the American commanders needed to decide what his fate should be. In April 1778, Thompson was “directed…to [headquarters] for that purpose, but the Army moved before he could get to [headquarters],” and so “he returned home.” In the meantime, while Thompson had been given permission to leave his unit for his trip to meet with the army’s high command, he was declared a deserter in July, having never returned to the army.

In February 1779, Major John Steward of the Second Maryland Regiment, included Thompson in his report of deserters who had returned to Maryland.

List of Men Deserted from the 2nd Maryland Regiment, 22 February 1779.

Steward had been a lieutenant in the Fifth Independent Company and served with Thompson in 1776. Thompson met with him in 1779 about returning to his regiment, but Steward recommended that Thompson “ought not continue in the Army, because if he should happen to be captured, he would be treated by the Enemy as a deserter,” rather than as a prisoner of war, and thus liable for execution. Around the end of 1781, Thompson again approached Steward about rejoining the service, but was rebuffed a second time.

John Allen Thomas’s letter to William Smallwood, 10 March 1782. Click to view letter and transcription.

Others in the army took a less sympathetic, or perhaps less informed, view of Thompson. In the spring of 1782, just a few months after his second meeting with Steward, Thompson was arrested as a deserter. Thompson sought out John Allen Thomas, his captain from 1776 and a respected community leader, to intercede on his behalf. Thomas testified to his former soldier’s exemplary service in the war’s first year, and to his efforts to return to active duty. A number of Continental Army officers had known where Thompson was for several years, Thomas noted, “but they never intimated to him that he ought to join [his] Regiment, for if they had, he would without Hesitation have done it.” Thomas thought that, in light of Thompson’s “Manner of making his Escape, and his Situation if again captured,” he should have received a formal discharge. If, however, the state’s military authorities “are of Opinion that he ought to be considered still as a soldier,” Thompson should have been allowed to enlist or to furnish a substitute in his stead.

The situation’s resolution is not recorded, but given Thompson’s particularly hard fate, and his influential friends, he was most likely allowed to go free, and he was not bothered further by the army. He lived out the rest of his days in St. Mary’s County as a farmer, with modest land holdings, until his death around 1824.

Learning so much about Thompson’s military career and family life was possible because of help that we got from two sources. There are no surviving enlistment records for the Fifth Independent Company, and Thompson’s service in 1776 is documented only in the 1782 letter that John Allen Thomas wrote. That letter was part of the collection of William Smallwood papers that the Maryland State Archives acquired in early 2018 with the help of the Maryland Sons of the American Revolution, and its president, James Adkins, along with Washington College professor Adam Goodheart.

However, finding that letter was only one part of the puzzle. Charles Thompson was a fairly common name in Revolutionary-era Maryland, and I was having a hard time figuring out which was the right one. Fortunately, I already had reached out to Linda Thompson Jonas, a professional genealogist who has spent decades studying the Thompsons of St. Mary’s County. I had contacted her about Electious Thompson, one of her ancestors. She shared information about both men, and patiently explained which Charles Thompson I wanted, distilling years of research to show me how she knew which was the right one, no small feat.

I am so grateful to Linda for marshaling all of her knowledge to help me expand Charles Thompson’s biography, which had only been a description of his military career. It is particularly nice to be able to connect him to Electious–while there were probably lots of people who enlisted with cousins and brothers, it’s rare that we can know for sure. And while the fact that Thompson escaped from the British and tried to rejoin the Maryland Line is amazing, it’s all the more remarkable that he was barely seventeen year old at the time!

There’s more information about Charles Thompson and his cousin Electious, who traveled the country as a Baptist minister after the war, in their online biographies. Click on their names to learn more about them!

–Owen

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