The Maryland 400

On August 27, 1776, in Brooklyn, New York, a small contingent of Maryland soldiers showed the world what valor and patriotism looked like.  During one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, the actions of these brave soldiers would earn them the venerated name of the Maryland 400.

The Battle of Long Island
At Long Island, the 1st Delaware Regiment (pictured here) fought alongside the Marylanders on the American right flank. (Wikimedia)

At the Battle of Long Island, the American Army was strung out in a long line across modern day Brooklyn facing south, with Washington and his headquarters located at Brooklyn Heights.  However, Washington and the Americans had failed to guard the extreme left flank of the American line.  As a result, British General William Howe divided his army in two, attacked the American main line head on to hold them in position, while British Generals Charles Cornwallis and Henry Clinton marched around the American flank and attacked from the east.

Map of the Battle of Long Island. (Author’s photo)

As the battle played out during the day of the 27th, the men of the 1st Maryland Regiment, under the temporary command of Major Mordeci Gist, were positioned on the right flank of the American Army, near present day Green-Wood Cemetery.  Gist’s men were in General William Alexander’s (Lord Stirling’s) brigade.  Stirling’s men were engaged heavily that morning as they fought the diversionary force in their front.  The battle raged on what is today known as Battle Hill, and the Americans felt confident they were winning the day’s battle.

The view of New York Harbor from Battle Hill in Green-Wood Cemetery.  Today, a statue of Minerva stands with one hand placed on the Altar of Liberty, while her other hand salutes the Statue of Liberty, visible in the distance. (Author’s photo)

Late in the morning though, the Marylanders began to hear the sounds of musketry and cannon fire coming in from their left and rear.  They soon realized that the American position had been flanked and that they would soon be totally surrounded and annihilated.  They were immediately ordered to retreat.  They fell back to the banks of Gowanus Creek, which had to be crossed to reach the relative safety of Brooklyn Heights.  The bridge across the Creek had been burnt and the Americans would have to swim across to escape.  As the Americans stood looking at the Creek, Cornwallis and his Light Infantry appeared and began to fire on the retreating American soldiers.  Cornwallis sent some of his men to occupy an old stone house (the Vechte-Cortelyou House) near the creek and fire into the panicking men.  At this critical juncture, with the whole of Stirling’s brigade about to be crushed, Stirling ordered Gist’s men to charge the British line.

The Vechte-Cortelyou House.  Today it is known as the Old Stone House in Brooklyn.  This is a reconstruction of the original building, using the original materials.  While most of the Brooklyn battlefield is unrecognizable from 1776, this building stands as a reminder of the borough’s Revolutionary War history and has a museum located inside it. (Author’s photo)

It was an impossible task, and Gist and his soldiers probably knew it too.  Gist, with less than 400 men was to assault the vanguard of an entire British division, numbering at least 2,000 men with artillery.  But, Stirling needed something to allow his division to escape into Brooklyn Heights.  He himself would stay and fight with this rearguard.  The Marylanders, in their first real battle, didn’t hesitate at all.  Closing up their ranks, the Old Line pushed forward into the hailstorm of lead numerous times.  As musket balls thinned their lines, the Marylanders would fall back, reform and strike again.  On a hill at Brooklyn Heights, Washington watched the action in his spyglass.  “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!” he exclaimed as he witnessed the sacrifice of some of his best soldiers.

In this painting by Alonzo Chappel, American troops frantically cross Gowanus Creek as the 1st Maryland attacks the British army in the distance. (Wikimedia)

The brash and bold attacks had the exact effect Stirling needed.  The British, temporarily stunned by the attacks, paused to fight this small contingent of soldiers.  Meanwhile the remainder of Stirling’s men successfully crossed Gowanus Creek and arrived in the main American lines.  General Stirling, still fighting from horseback was eventually surrounded and captured by some Hessian soldiers.

After a sixth and final charge by the Maryland troops, Gist’s command had been effectively destroyed. Gist and a handful of his men finally fell back and crossed Gowanus Creek themselves.  The Marylanders had helped many American troops escape capture and death, and also caused a diversion that stopped any possible assault on the main American position at Brooklyn Heights.  Gist and a few dozen survivors had made it back to the main army, but back on the fields around the Vechte-Cortelyou House 256 Marylanders lay dead or dying.  It was one of the highest number of casualties a regiment would lose in the war.

An old metal sign at an American Legion post in Brooklyn denotes the possible burial location of the 256 Marylanders. (Author’s photo)

The battle was all but over.  It appeared that the 9,000 Americans who were now holed up on Brooklyn Heights would all be captured, but Washington successfully evacuated the entire army over to Manhattan.  The war would continue for seven more years and end with independence for America, but that may not have been the case had the Maryland troops not sacrificed themselves for the fellow men, and bought the American Army precious time.

Maryland 400 monument in Prospect Park. (Wikimedia)

Today, archaeologists are looking for the graves of those who were killed in the assaults at Brooklyn.  Hopefully, they will receive a proper resting place, as they are due.  Other than a monument located in Prospect Park, it is difficult to find reminders of this important history in modern day Brooklyn.  New Yorkers walk throughout the Park Slope neighborhood, unaware of how hallowed the ground is they tread on.  This August 27, remember the brave men of the Maryland 400 and the freedom they died for.

The author standing at an empty lot many believe to be the burial ground of the 256 Marylanders. (Author’s photo)

4 thoughts on “The Maryland 400

  1. Diane Mcvey

    Thank you,Mark Maloy for educating us on what real heros sacrificed in fighting for the freedom we all take for granted..It is especially poignant as we see statues and memorials being desecrated all over this country by ignorant persons who have no knowledge or understanding of what it took to create this great country that no other compares to.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Is the Mercer Legacy Secure? | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  3. Billy Wiseman

    Thank you for making me really understand what my early ancestor, Thomas Wiseman, must have gone through that awful day as he was one of the survivors where he lost his 2 middle fingers on his left hand. But he kept on fighting for our freedom which seems we are losing today. Thomas ended up in SC sick at the Battle of Camden, SC and did not re-enter the War, Bill Wiseman


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s