The end of the year was often an anxious time for the leaders of the Continental Army. As the end of 1780 approached, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne spoke for many when he wrote “I sincerely wish the Ides of January was come & past.”
The cause of Wayne’s “disagreeable ideas about that period” was that the soldiers’ enlistments often expired at the end of December, and there were few guarantees that they would reenlist or that they would be replaced soon—or at all. At the end of 1776, when the Continental Army had seen just one victory, at Trenton on December 26, and many months of defeat, a great many soldiers walked away when their terms ended on December 31.
Later in the war, the end of the year brought on the threat of mutiny. Sometimes, soldiers grew tired of the unrelenting cold, poor shelter, meager rations, and nonexistent pay. Diarist Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut recalled that in January 1779 he and his regiment “organized ourselves” with the plan that “if we could not be better accommodated, [we would] march into the center of the state and disperse to our homes.” Although they were eventually convinced to stay in camp, a large contingent of Massachusetts soldiers came to the decision that their enlistments had ended, and marched out of camp on New Years’ Day in 1780; they were subdued and brought back.
At other times, soldiers turned against their officers when they felt that their enlistments were being unjustly extended. On January 1, 1781, close to two thousand soldiers from Pennsylvania rebelled upon being denied the discharges they had expected. Their commanders had informed them they had enlisted for the “duration of the war,” not three years as they had believed. Soldiers from New Jersey were dispatched to quell the uprising, but they joined the Pennsylvania troops instead. Only through protracted negotiations was the situation resolved. Many of the soldiers were discharged, in part to prevent them from spreading their grievances to the whole army.
For the Marylanders at the end of 1776, the situation was different. The members of the First Maryland Regiment returned to the army at a fairly high rate. From our research, we know that about 350 men reenlisted–close to 40 percent of the regiment’s original strength—and there were probably a number of others who we can’t identify.
These enlistments ran from December 10, 1776 until the end of 1779. And on December 27, 1779, 239 years ago today, at the Marylanders’ camp at Morristown, New Jersey close to seventy members of the First Maryland Regiment, in service since the regiment’s inception in early 1776, were issued their final pay and their discharge papers.
It was quite a feat for these men to have remained in the army for four full years—surviving disease, hunger, and combat. The Maryland Line took heavy casualties throughout their time in the army, and they saw many colleagues fall at Brooklyn, White Plains, Brandywine, Germantown, Monmouth, and dozens of other, smaller battles.
Losing so many experienced men all at once was surely a blow to the Maryland Line. Still, about 100 men from 1776 stayed in the army after 1779, and about half of them were still in service at the war’s end in 1783. The longest serving of these men was Peter McNaughton, who enlisted on January 12, 1776, and was discharged on November 29, 1783. McNaughton was captured at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776 and conscripted into the British Army. He escaped in November 1778 and rejoined his old unit. Just three months later, McNaughton volunteered to serve for the full duration of the war.
Men like McNaughton were the exception, though. When the Marylanders gained their greatest renown during the Southern Campaign of 1780-1782, few of the 1776 men remained. But if most of the original recruits left the army at the end of 1779, how should we think about their legacy?
Perhaps the greatest significance of these experienced soldiers was as non-commissioned officers. A number of the men who reenlisted in December 1776 were promoted during their term, and as sergeants and corporals they had key roles. These experienced men ensured continuity and stability within their companies, and could bring a stalwart presence to the battlefield and in camp. They helped build unit cohesion and provided the experienced leadership that were large factors in the Maryland Line’s battlefield success late in the war, as the Marylanders again and again held their position on the field even as regiments from other states retreated.
Of course, while American commanders felt dread at the approach of the new year in some years, the beginning of 1777 was a moment of great hope, as the Continental Army earned two crucial, revitalizing victories at Trenton on December 26, 1776, and at Princeton eight days later.