Happy Birthday Mordecai Gist

Although we formally celebrated the life of George Washington on President’s Day, which was on Monday, his actual birthday is today, February 22. Closer to home, today is also the birthday of Mordecai Gist, the distinguished soldier and Revolutionary leader who lead the Marylanders at the Battle of Brooklyn.

Mordecai Gist (1742/43-1792) Peter Egeli (b. 1934), after Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), 1975 MSA SC 1545-1066

Gist was born in 1743, the son of Thomas and Susannah (Cockey) Gist. Mordecai was the fourth of their eight children. The Gists were a wealthy family of Baltimore merchants, with roots in Maryland going back to the 1670s, when Mordecai’s great-grandfather Christopher Gist immigrated from England. [1]

By the early 1770s, Mordecai Gist was operating as a merchant in his own right, and had acquired substantial land holdings. By the middle of the decade, he owned nearly 1,000 acres in Frederick and Baltimore counties, and likely a substantial number of slaves. He married Cecil Carnan in 1768, but she died in childbirth two years later, in July 1770; their daughter, also named Cecil, died a short time afterwards, in February 1771. [2]

In the opening days of the American Revolution, Gist showed himself to be deeply committed to American independence, and to be a particularly militant supporter of the cause. In the fall of 1774, for example, a ship called the Peggy Stewart landed in

A member of the Baltimore Independent Cadets. [5]

Annapolis, carrying a cargo of tea, in violation of the boycott imposed in protest of British taxes on tea. The moderate revolutionary leadership in Annapolis thought that destroying the tea itself was sufficient punishment. However, more radical forces arrived from Baltimore, where “the most violent incendiaries resided,” as one contemporary lamented. Prominent among the Baltimoreans was Mordecai Gist, whose forces advocated burning the tea, the rest of the cargo, the ship it was on, and home of its owner, Anthony Stewart. Stewart eventually agreed to burn the ship and its cargo, in order to save his house; “nothing but the destruction of the vessel [at the least] could satisfy the violent part of the people,” noted one observer. [3]

Later that year, Gist lead the formation of a militia unit called the Baltimore Independent Cadets. Their intention was to “form ourselves into a body or company in order to learn the military discipline,” and they equipped themselves and trained in preparation for an armed clash with the British Army. As Gist later described, “prompted by the regard I owe my country, I did, at the expense of my time and the hazard of my business, form a company of militia…composed of gentlemen, men of honor, family and fortune…animated by a zeal and reverence for the rights of humanity.” [4]

The Cadets hoped they would be accepted into the state’s formal military organization as an independent company. When this did not occur, many of them took on leadership positions in the First Maryland Regiment when it was formed in early 1776. Gist was named one of the regiment’s majors, while Samuel Smith was made a captain, William Sterrett and David Plunket were commissioned as lieutenants, and Bryan Philpot was named an ensign. Their military training paid off, and was undoubtedly one of the factors which lead to the successful efforts of the Marylanders at the Battle of Brooklyn and the rest of the 1776 campaign.

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Gist also brought slaves with him when he was in the army. Read more in this post: Maryland’s African American Troops.

Gist went on to a long career in the Continental Army, rising to brigadier general and receiving an award for bravery at the Battle of Camden in 1780. After the war, he was instrumental in the formation of the Society of Cincinnati. Read more about his life and career here.

You can also read about Gist’s role at the Battle of Brooklyn and his first-hand account of the battle in this post, The Battle of Brooklyn in Five Objects: Number 2, Mordecai Gist’s Portrait.

–Owen

Notes:

1. Edward C. Papenfuse, et al. A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 354.

2. Land Office, Debt Books, Baltimore County, vol. 9, 1771, p. 49 [MSA S11-38, 1/24/2/9]; Frederick County, vol. 26, 1773, p. 70 [MSA S11-115, 1/24/2/28]. The graves of Cecil Carnan Gist and her mother Cecil Gist are both listed on FindAGrave.

3. Quoted in Ronald Hoffman, A Spirit of Dissention: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 136-137.

4. “We the Baltimore Independent Cadets,” published in Maryland Historical Magazine 4:4 (1909), 372-374; Mordecai Gist to George Washington, 30 December 1775.

5. Image from Charles M. Lefferts, Uniforms of the Armies in the War of the American Revolution, 1775-1783.

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