Where is the mass grave of “Washington’s Immortals,” the men who saved America?
Perhaps the greatest mystery of the American Revolution is the location of the mass grave of “Washington’s Immortals,” one of the most heroic units in the war.
In 2010 during a walking tour of the neighborhood where the Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, took place, I encountered a neglected piece of history in the form of a rusted, scarred sign. Suspended from a piece of corroded iron, it marks a mass grave:
Here lie buried 256 Maryland soldiers
Who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn
August 27, 1776
Today this sign is in an urban area near a well-worn, decades-old American Legion post. Somewhere beneath the surface, in an empty lot or below a paved street, are the Marylanders’ undiscovered bodies. Their remains lie intermingled in what should be hallowed ground.
In the revolutionary summer of 1776, these courageous patriots, known as “gentlemen of honour, family, and fortune,” gave their lives in a desperate series of bayonet charges against British troops. Their assault on that house arguably remains one of the most important elite small-unit engagements in American history.
The story of that charge is recounted in a new bestselling book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of the Maryland Line — those who perished in the Battle of Brooklyn, and the men who survived to have a major impact on the rest of the war. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence. The Marylanders would play a decisive role in the war in the South.
Days before the Battle of Brooklyn began, the British Armada had delivered more than twenty thousand British troops to Long Island. General George Washington led approximately ten thousand Americans in opposition. These citizen-soldiers were snidely described by one British officer: “Their army is the strangest that was ever collected: old men of 60, boys of 14, and blacks of all ages, and ragged for the most part, compose the motley crew.” Washington arrayed about three thousand of his men in forward positions along the Heights of Gowanus, while most of the rest defended the fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. But, fatefully, he left a key pass undefended.
Taking advantage of that blunder, the British sent a force to meet the Americans head on, while the rest marched around through the pass, flanking the Americans and penetrating deep behind their lines. The maneuver succeeded brilliantly, cutting off a wing of the Patriot Army from the relative safety of the defenses in Brooklyn Heights. The Redcoats were poised to deliver a crushing blow, when a group of Marylanders stepped forward to buy precious time for the Patriot cause, allowing hundreds of Washington’s troops to retreat through a gap in British lines.
Over the crackle of musket fire and boom of cannon, the indomitable Major Mordecai Gist and his officers ordered the Marylanders forward. Shots tore through the ranks. Undaunted, the men continued to surge toward an old stone house occupied by British General Charles, Earl Cornwallis and his Redcoats.
Cornwallis’s men trained a light cannon and musket fire on the advancing Marylanders, who launched a preemptive strike aimed at protecting their brothers-in-arms. The British “[continued] pouring the canister and grape upon the Americans like a shower of hail.” In the melee, “the flower of some of the finest families of the South [were] cut to atoms.”
Defying the carnage unfolding around them, Gist’s men “closed their ranks over the bodies of their dead comrades, and still turned their faces to the foe.”
The boldness of the Marylanders’ charge initially unhinged Cornwallis’s defenses as his gunners nearly abandoned their artillery, but intense fire from the house and fresh reinforcements compelled the Marylanders to retreat and then mount yet another charge.
From a distant hill, General George Washington watched the gallant display through his spyglass. As the Marylanders began to fall, he cried out, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”
Yet not all was lost. Scores of Marylanders, led by Major Gist, held off the British long enough to help save a corps of Washington’s troops, and arguably the bulk of the nascent American army, from destruction. The Marylanders’ forlorn assaults delayed a British attack on American fortifications at Brooklyn Heights and allowed hundreds of Americans to escape to the temporary safety of their entrenchments. The soldiers who participated in that unorthodox assault would become known as the Immortals. With their blood, these men bought, in the words of one American, “an hour, more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.”
The actual burial site(s) of the Immortals who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn remains unknown to this day. An early written mention of a mass grave dates back to 1869, when Henry Field, who wrote an early history of the Battle of Brooklyn, identified the block near the sign (3rd Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets) as the resting place of the Marylanders. The claim was based on testimony from Adrian Van Brunt, who bought the property soon after the Revolution and “was often heard to say that the ground was sacred . . . because it held the remains of the Maryland Regiment.”
More accounts followed. In the early 1900s an apartment house was built near the site, and the landowner claimed that there were fifteen burial trenches, each one hundred feet long, on the lots. The son of the contractor later stated that his father had found “the bones of some thirty bodies, in regular or military order.”
The Marylanders’ bodies may yet be under a city street or in an empty lot. Every month, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conducts the noble work of finding the lost remains of American service members in locations around the world, including remote islands in the Pacific. Surely its attention can be drawn to Brooklyn. Funds should be raised to find these heroes and purchase this hallowed ground.
It is a national tragedy that the Immortals—whose collective sacrifices changed the course of the Revolution and, ultimately, this nation— have yet to receive the full honor they deserve.
A pockmarked sign simply isn’t enough to commemorate a mystery, the unknown resting place of so many Americans who willingly gave their lives for a nation yet to be born.
Listen to the audio of O’Donnell discussing this on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM this morning:
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 bestselling book featured at Barnes & Noble. 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