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O’Donnell: ‘You Only Live Once’ — The Man of Forlorn Hope

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You might think the phrase “you only live once,” is a modern sentiment, but it was actually also the personal motto of one of the true unsung heroes of the American Revolution — Jack Steward. A tall, handsome, charismatic Maryland officer known for his sizable ego, Steward fought fearlessly in battle for a cause he ardently believed in – the United States.

In late August of 1776, the British Army landed more than twenty thousand troops on Long Island, where they planned to annihilate the Patriot forces. British General William Howe ordered a third of his Redcoats and Hessians to attack Washington’s troops head on, while the remainder circled around behind to trap the Americans.

The battle evolved exactly according to Howe’s plan, and within hours, he had trapped Washington and his men on the Heights of Gowanus in Brooklyn. The end seemed near for the young American army.

To give hundreds of men in Washington’s army time to escape, the Marylanders mounted a series of suicidal bayonet charges against an old stone house occupied by British General Lord Cornwallis and his Redcoats. Flanked by thousands of British and Hessian troops, a few hundred men fought desperately and somehow bought enough time for the bulk of Washington’s men to withdraw. Washington, watching the action unfold through his spyglass, cried out “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”

Many of the Marylanders involved in the charge sacrificed their lives. Most lie in a mass grave somewhere near the epic stand in Brooklyn. The exact whereabouts of the mass grave remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Revolution. But a handful of Marylanders survived. To stay alive, they would have to swim eighty yards across Gowanus Creek while under a hail of fire. Witnessing his brothers in danger, Lt. Steward jumped into action. He provided covering fire as the Marylanders swam for their lives. His valiant actions saved many of his Maryland brothers, who would eventually form the core of the regiment that Washington would call upon time and again in the inflection points of some of the greatest battles of the American Revolution.

The story of Steward and the other Marylanders is captured in the best-selling book Washington’s Immortals, recently released in paperback. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, detailing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.

Steward’s next bold stand arose at the Battle of Staten Island in August 1777, when the Americans mounted a raid against a British outpost. At first, the Patriots caught the British by surprise and quickly captured dozens of prisoners and large quantities of supplies. But the Redcoats regrouped and drove the Continental troops back to their boats. Steward led a desperate rear guard, holding off hundreds of British troops long enough for most of the raiding party to escape.

When all the boats retreated from the island, the enemy surrounded Steward, forcing him to surrender. They placed him on one of the prison ships docked in New York Harbor. Often called “hell ships,” these vessels served as floating concentration camps where prisoners (as many as 15,000 Americans) slowly starved or perished from disease in the cramped, vermin-infested quarters. However, knowing he would “only live once,” the indomitable Steward miraculously escaped via a rowboat he purloined and rejoined Washington’s Army.

By July 1779, the War of Independence had tediously dragged on for more than three years, and the Americans had survived a brutal winter at Valley Forge. After vigilantly gathering actionable intelligence on the British outpost at Stony Point, Washington ordered a raid to assault the fort and remove the threat the British fortification posed to American defenses in the Hudson Valley. Rather than deploy his entire army, which could have played into a British counterattack, Washington unleashed more than 1,000 men from his light infantry, a corps “composed of the best, most hardy and active marksmen.” The volunteer force, unencumbered by baggage and heavy artillery, earned renown for their daring, alertness, and efficiency. Jack Steward commanded a unit within the light infantry.

Steward, now a major, first rode out with the commander of the raid Brigadier General “Mad Anthony” Wayne to spy out the lay of the land and take a closer look at the Stony Point’s defenses. Wayne realized that to have any chance of success he would need a “forlorn hope,” in today’s parlance, a suicide squad. Their mission was to cut through the thick abatis while under fire from the heavily defended fort. The sharpened logs — the eighteenth century equivalent of barbed wire — and multiple cannon made the fort nearly impregnable. Steward volunteered to lead the forlorn hope and the advance guard, the first to pierce the Point’s defenses. He encouraged men to join him, saying, “I want no men but the best, those that are willing to face death for their country.” Steward’s advance guard consisted entirely of volunteers, “desperadoes led by officers of distinguished merit.” The most fervent Patriots volunteered to be part of the forlorn hope, which they considered an immensely honorable post. Steward garnered so many volunteers that the men had to draw lots to determine who would join.

Under the cover of darkness, Steward and his forlorn hope stealthily approached the fort. To preserve the element of surprise, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne ordered, “Should there be any soldier so lost to every feeling of honor, as to attempt to retreat one single foot or skulk in the face of danger, the officer next to him is immediately to put him to death.” The same fate would befall any man who spoke or discharged his musket. The officers carried spontoons — long, menacing, razor-sharp iron pikes on the end of wooden poles — which would be used without hesitation to fulfill General Wayne’s order should the need arise (Wayne didn’t provision “safe spaces” for the light infantry). And the need did arise — at least one man who attempted to flee was run through by an American officer.

Once on the abatis, Steward’s men began hacking away. Within seconds, a British sentry sounded the alarm, and drummers beat the call to arms. As the axes cut a small opening in the British defenses, musket balls and grape shot from cannon tore into Steward’s men. However, the forlorn hope persisted, eventually cutting a hole wide enough for the rest of the American light infantry to infiltrate.

But the forlorn hope was not finished. Steward’s men had to penetrate the second abatis, with the British now fully alert and firing their cannons and muskets. Men fell, cut down by the deadly fire, but the axes finally succeeded in breaching the defenses. Steward and his advance guard poured through the opening, leading the assault on the fort.

The Americans won the day, achieving a crucial victory that boosted morale among the Patriots. General Wayne reported the victory to Washington, noting, “Our officers and men behaved like men who are determined to be free.” For his daring actions at Stony Point, Jack Steward received a Congressional Silver Medal, a precursor to the Medal of Honor — one of only about a dozen medals awarded during the Revolution.

Steward, promoted to colonel, would go on to fight in many more critical battles of the Revolution in the South. Forward-thinking for his day, he petitioned to lead a regiment of African Americans, but the idea never got off the ground.

The Man of Forlorn Hope survived countless battles and witnessed the Yorktown surrender of Cornwallis – the very general that killed so many of his Maryland brothers at the stone house in Brooklyn. The war nearly over, Steward was riding on the outskirts of Charleston, to George Washington’s nephew, William Washington’s wedding party when his horse fell. “And the Colonel pitching on his head in a ditch, dislocated his neck. He lived till Sunday morning about seven o’clock and then died.”

Maryland’s indestructible man, who had survived the Battle of Brooklyn, escaped a prison ship, led the forlorn hope at Stony Point, and fought in many battles in South, including Yorktown, died 234 years ago this week.

The officers of the Maryland Line, Steward’s friends, gathered to mourn. The next day, they interred Steward with every military honor. “This gentlemen, whose untimely death is much to be lamented, had served with great reputation during the war, and was much beloved by the army.”

He only lived once, but made the most of that life, dedicating it to the cause of American freedom.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books. Washington’s Immortals is his newest, which has just been released as a soft cover and has been named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian


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