‘Maryland 400’ helped turn Revolution’s early tide

Our history, our stories

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

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Photo Courtesy of Linda Reno
Dent Chapel in Charlotte Hall was named to honor Hatch Dent, a colonial soldier taken prisoner by the British during the Battle of Brooklyn in the early days of the Revolutionary War. After the war Dent became an Episcopal priest and was named the first principal at the Charlotte Hall School.

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Photo Courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society
A display at the Brooklyn Historical Society in New York shows visitors how colonial soldiers from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania battled British soldiers at a stone farmhouse in Brooklyn, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War.

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Artwork Courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society
An artist’s pre-war vision of the Brooklyn, N.Y., farmhouse where, on Aug. 27, 1776, colonial volunteer soldiers battled British regulars in the first major battle of the Revolutionary War.

On Aug. 27, 1776, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Brooklyn, N.Y. Known as the Battle of Brooklyn or the Battle of Long Island, it was where Maryland would earn her nickname ‘‘The Old Line State.”

Few are aware that the war could have ended that day had it not been for the ‘‘Maryland 400” who sacrificed themselves to allow the colonial army to escape. Even fewer are aware of the involvement of the men from St. Mary’s County.

The colonists, numbering less than 13,000, faced 30,000 British forces. Within a few hours they were surrounded. Gen. George Washington ordered a retreat with the men of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware left behind to provide cover. The only escape was past an old house and across a creek.

The Delaware and Pennsylvania lines gave way and they were ordered to retreat, leaving six Maryland companies, totaling about 400 men, who were ordered to take the old house where cannons were killing escaping colonists. The Marylanders attacked five times, losing more men with each attempt.

Gen. Washington said to Gen. Israel Putnam, ‘‘Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose,” as he watched the Marylanders being slaughtered.

As the Marylanders continued to charge and the killing continued, Washington called up the 5th Independent Company from St. Mary’s County to provide relief. In the sixth attempt, the remnants of the 400 successfully took the house and stopped the carnage for a brief time, but were soon overwhelmed and ordered to retreat.

The men of St. Mary’s stationed themselves at the mouth of the creek. With only two pieces of artillery, they silenced the six cannons of the enemy.

After the retreat of the 400, the men of St. Mary’s spiked their cannons and crossed the creek to safety.

By the end of the battle, 256 of the Maryland 400 lay dead. More than 100 were wounded or captured. One of those prisoners, Hatch Dent, spent two years on a British prison ship. He later became an Episcopal priest and eventually the first principal of the Charlotte Hall School. Dent Chapel, on the school’s grounds — now at the entrance of the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home — was erected in his memory.

Only a few of the men of St. Mary’s have been identified. They include:

* Lt. John Blackistone, who was given a pass to return home after the army went into winter quarters. He was pursued by the British, broke a switch from a pear tree to spur his horse on and, once at home, planted the switch and it survived. He requested burial under the tree because ‘‘it saved me from a prison ship.”

* Cadet Henry Carberry, who served in the Pennsylvania Line. In 1783 he was one of the leaders of a dispute involving Pennsylvania soldiers attempting to get paid for their service. In 1794, he became Maryland’s first adjutant general. Carberry died in 1822.

* Cadet Robert Chesley would ultimately reach the rank of captain. He resigned his commission in 1781 after seeing action in both the Northern and Southern campaigns.

* Pvt. Charles Chilton died, unmarried, in 1824.

* Lt. John Davidson would later attain the rank of major, serving in both the 2nd and 5th Maryland Lines. In 1783 he was appointed comptroller of Maryland.

* Pvt. Anthony Davis enlisted in the spring of 1776, transferred to an artillery company in 1777 and was discharged in 1778. He was living as late as 1825.

* Pvt. John Gardiner was discharged Dec. 5, 1776, after serving in the army ‘‘for the past four and a half months.”

* Pvt. Thomas Lynch applied for a pension in 1818, deposing that he had been in the Battle of Long Island. He was discharged in 1777.

* Lt. Henry Neale enlisted again in 1777 and was commissioned a captain in the 2nd Maryland Line. Neale died in 1815.

* Pvt. John Pratt, an invalid, was discharged Nov. 22, 1776, and died prior to February 1778. His widow, Susanna, and their children moved to Christian County, Ky.

* Cpl. Thomas Simpson moved to Muskingum County, Ohio, after the war. In 1821 he deposed that he could not earn a living due to ‘‘a partial loss of my limbs.”

* Pvt. Aaron Spalding would later attain the rank of sergeant in the 1st Regiment of the Maryland Line. He served in the Northern and Southern campaigns. After the war he moved to Washington County, Ky.

* Pvt. Henry Spalding also served in the battles of White Plains and Monmouth Court House. He died in 1829.

* Lt. John Stewart would eventually attain the rank of lieutenant colonel. In April 1777 he was taken prisoner on Staten Island.

Shortly after the Battle of Long Island, Stewart was arrested for striking an ensign named Phelps and threatening the life of a colonel named Silliman, both of the Connecticut Line.

While out scouting, the Marylanders joined forces with a troop from Connecticut and attempted to take a British advance guard. Gunfire was exchanged and Phelps ran, despite Stewart’s threat to shoot him. The next day, Stewart confronted Phelps for ‘‘behaving like a damned coward” and said that he was not fit to be an ensign. Phelps responded saying he was as fit to be an ensign as Stewart was to be lieutenant. Stewart smacked Phelps in the face.

Silliman ordered Stewart’s arrest, who then threw his hat on the ground saying, ‘‘I’ll go to my tent. All you can do is take my commission, but I am a gentleman and will put it out of your power, for I will resign it, and in less than two hours will be revenged on you, God damn you.”

Stewart was found guilty of striking Phelps, but with provocation and deemed not guilty of threatening the life of Silliman.

Stewart died in 1782.

* Pvt. Jeremiah Tarlton moved after the war to Scott County, Ky. His wife, Eleanor, deposed in 1828 that Jeremiah enlisted in January 1776, was promoted to corporal in 1778 and was discharged in 1780. He died in 1826.

* Capt. John Allen Thomas was born in Talbot County, but moved to St. Mary’s as a young man. He died here in 1797. Thomas was commissioned captain of the 5th Independent Maryland Company on Jan. 14, 1776. In August 1777 he was commissioned major of the Upper Battalion of St. Mary’s County.

Thomas often used his own funds to obtain clothing and supplies for his soldiers. He was concerned with his men’s well-being and never hesitated to complain to higher authority on their behalf. On Sept. 4, 1776, from Harlem, N.Y., he wrote to the Maryland Council of Safety on behalf of all of the Marylanders there, complaining about the lack of medical care.

* Pvt. Nathan Thomas moved to Kentucky after the war, living first in Mason County and later Fleming County, where he died in 1822. In 1818 he applied for a pension, deposing that he enlisted in February 1776 and served until the following February. Thomas was in the battles of Kingsbridge, White Plains and at the taking of the Hessians at Trenton, N.J. At White Plains, a musket ball broke his left leg and he was also shot through the right leg.

* Pvt. Electious Thompson, who said he was born in 1755 in Prince George’s County, was a resident of Morgan County, Ala. He applied for a pension in 1833, deposing that he enlisted in Leonardtown. His company, he said, joined the troops on their retreat from the Battle of Long Island. He was also in the Battle of White Plains.

When the main army retreated from Philadelphia, Thompson became ill and after three weeks was taken to a hospital in Philadelphia, where he stayed until Christmas.

He made his way to Annapolis and, after some time in the hospital, returned to Leonardtown, where his enlistment ran out.

In 1777, he enlisted again and was in the Battle of Germantown. After the war he lived in St. Mary’s County; Loudon County, Va; North Carolina; Floyd County, Ky.; and then Morgan County, Ala.

* Pvt. Jesse Thompson applied for a pension in 1820. In February 1776, Thompson deposed, he enlisted as a private in the company commanded by Capt. John A. Thomas. The next year he and Anthony Davis were transferred to an artillery company, where he served until he was discharged at Annapolis at the end of the war. He was in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Camden, Guilford Court House, and Eutaw Springs. He died in 1836.

* Pvt. Charles Turner enlisted in 1776. He died in St. Mary’s County on Jan. 4, 1796, leaving a widow, Mary Cartwright Turner, and 10 children.

* Pvt. Raphael Wimsatt also served in the battles of White Plains and Monmouth prior to his discharge in 1780. He married Susanna Cissell (Cecil) in 1783. After the war, they moved to Nelson County, Ky., where Raphael died in 1828.

Charlotte Hall resident Linda Reno has written a number of articles about the history of Southern Maryland for the St. Mary’s County Historical Society and other outlets, and has also published a book, ‘‘Images of America — St. Mary’s County,” that is available at the historical society’s book store.