Somewhere deep beneath the bustling streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., lie the remains of perhaps the most important, yet most forgotten, citizen soldiers in American history: the heroic young men from Maryland whose suicide mission against an overwhelming British Army on Aug. 27, 1776, bought the precious time needed for General George Washington and the Continental Army to escape certain annihilation and a probable end to the revolution.
A mere six weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the bravery of this Maryland Regiment — who have been compared, by contemporary commentators as well as more recent ones, to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC — galvanized the young country at a time it desperately needed it. And yet their story has been largely lost to history since.
In July of 1776, the British, infuriated by their humiliation in New England, deployed the largest armada in military history. Their mission: to destroy the Continental Army, capture General Washington and his officers, subdue the colonial uprising, and restore order.
Led by their most storied military leaders, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe, the British landed in New York with more than 30,000 troops and a sizeable number of Hessian mercenaries. They attacked an out-matched, out-maneuvered and inexperienced Washington in late August in Brooklyn and quickly surrounded the Continental Army on the east, west and south flanks. With 475 British ships anchored in the East River to the Americans’ backs, the question for Washington was not: Do they escape? But could they escape?
Commandeering whatever would float, Washington’s only hope was to use the strong East River current and an unexpected blanket of fog to his advantage and evacuate as many men as possible from Brooklyn Heights to the safety of Manhattan before the British could mobilize and reposition their Navy. Washington was quickly running out of time to retreat and the American Revolution was on the verge of being extinguished.
The First Maryland Regiment was deployed to bring up the rear and, sensing imminent disaster, it did the unthinkable. Rallying his remaining 400 men, Major Mordecai Gist turned them toward the massive British war force. Believing the British commanding general was stationed in a stone house at the army’s center, the regiment shocked the overwhelming British war force with an unexpected, targeted assault. The Marylanders attacked the British six times, losing scores of men with each surge, then regrouping and hurling themselves again and again at the dazed Brits, in what can be best described as a bloody street brawl.
In the end, only a handful of Marylanders managed to escape; the majority were killed. The rest were captured or mortally wounded. Washington was brought to tears as he watched the selfless bravery of his young soldiers. He was heard crying, “Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!”
But the young patriots had succeeded in diverting British attention long enough for Washington and the army to escape. The British found Brooklyn Heights abandoned.
So, who were these young soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the liberty of future generations? What motivated them? Why isn’t this pivotal moment more celebrated?
When I began the research for my book Saving Washington, I assumed that the regiment was a highly trained unit of battle-tested soldiers. The reality was almost as astonishing as the battle.
The young volunteers were a cross section of the colony of Maryland: wealthy merchants’ sons, dockworkers, school kids and free and enslaved black youth. Of the original 1,200-man regiment, only four had formal military training. Early in the war, Washington had a difficult time keeping enlistees from running off when they heard the first shots of battle, let alone maintaining discipline as a fighting unit. To think that the devotion of these untrained and untested Maryland kids could drive them beyond their personal fears is hard to imagine.
I remembered being taught in school that the American Revolution was sparked by the tax burden imposed on the colonists, which particularly infuriated the merchant class. Merchants underwrote each colony’s militias and state regiments, essentially financing the revolt.
But teenagers wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for taxes. Research conducted by the Maryland State Archivist suggests that peer pressure, a sense of adventure, and growing anti-British sentiment played a role in why the young men enlisted. Mordecai Gist, who led the Maryland 400, even named his two sons Independent and States. But there’s evidence that they were also driven by an even more profound motivation. In many religious circles, the New World was code for the New Jerusalem. The concept that America was special, and that they were chosen by God to create and defend a new type of country, was incessantly preached. They were God’s children, not the King’s, and they were lectured to reject corrupt and immoral leaders. This drumbeat was heard and deeply absorbed by these young men. The boys of the Maryland 400 believed they were fighting with a divine purpose.
So, why has this dramatic act of heroism not been celebrated as one of America’s finest hours?
We celebrate our winners. The battles won. Our championship teams. The gold medals earned.
In spite of the Battle of Brooklyn being the largest and bloodiest battle of the American Revolution, the Americans were completely routed. A humiliated Washington almost lost the war that day. It was not a moment of celebration, but one of desperation. A moment the country wanted to forget.
But in a larger sense, the Maryland 400’s sacrifice at this most pivotal moment in American history now shines through the dense fog of history. Like the legendary Spartans of Thermopylae, America’s most important, yet most forgotten heroes, should serve as a beacon — an illuminating reminder of the selfless devotion of true patriotism.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Chris Formant is the author of Saving Washington: The Forgotten Story of the Maryland 400 and The Battle of Brooklyn, available now.