Patrick K. O’Donnell: How an Elite Unit of Iron Men Saved George Washington’s Army and Changed History

Military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow for a special Independence Day edition of Breitbart News Daily.

Washington’s Immortals tells the story of a heroic regiment that saved the Continental Army from destruction at the Battle of Brooklyn by holding the British at bay. Despite the pivotal importance of their sacrifice, the regimental dead are buried in a mass grave with only the most minimal markings, their story largely unknown to the modern public.

O’Donnell said the story of the Immortal 400 came looking for him and demanded he tell it:

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“About 2010, I was in New York City, and the regimental commander I was with in the Battle of Fallujah, Colonel Willie Buell, is assigned there. He’s part of the Council on Foreign Relations. He just called me up and he said, ‘Hey, Pat, what do you want to do? Do you want to go the Met?’ I said, ‘No, how about we do a battlefield tour of Brooklyn?’” he recalled.

The tour began at Battle Hill in Green-Wood Cemetery, where one of the largest battles of the Revolution began in August 1776.

“We walked up and down the hills at Green-Wood, and then we walked through some alleys in Brooklyn. We found this old stone house park that’s still there. The original house that was in 1776, they took the stones from that house and reconstructed it,” he said.

“At that house was really one of the epic small unit engagements in American history that nobody knows about. It’s the stand of the Maryland 400 – or the Marylanders or Washington’s Immortals or the Immortals – against the British Army. Their stand, which was a series of epic bayonet charges, literally saved a large portion of Washington’s army on the Battle of Long Island,” O’Donnell said.

“They charged into a house that was occupied by Cornwallis and nearly unhinged all of his defenses,” he elaborated. “Their charge created a gap in the lines, which allowed a portion of Washington’s army – which was on Green-Wood Cemetery, the Heights of Gowanus it was called – to escape through that gap, through some fortifications.”

“The other thing it did is, it tied up the British and Hessian army, which was allied with the British at the time, and didn’t allow them to strike these fortifications. As one historian put it, ‘an hour more precious to American history than any other.’ Their delaying action allowed the army to escape but also didn’t allow the British army to unite all its wings, including the Hessians, who could have then delivered a crushing blow on the forts, potentially, that contained nearly 10,000 of Washington’s troops, including Washington himself,” he said.

“We don’t know what would have happened, but it’s likely that if the British attacked, they would have taken the forts, and most of the army, and even Washington,” O’Donnell speculated, noting that such an outcome would have been “an absolutely crushing defeat” for the American Revolution.

He said he was amazed so little attention has been paid to this pivotal small-unit action. Only what he described as “a rusted old sign” that said, “Here lie 256 Continental soldiers, Maryland heroes” marked the place where these men died to defend their newborn country. As O’Donnell noted, the precise location of the mass grave containing their bodies is still a matter of speculation.

“I looked at the sign, I looked at the Colonel, and I’m like, ‘What’s the story here? What’s the story behind the sign? Who were these men?’” he recalled thinking.

O’Donnell provides the answer to that question in the book he went on to write, Washington’s Immortals, telling an epic story of heroism and devotion that begins with the formation of the unit in Baltimore during the winter of 1774.

He said the men who signed up for the Immortals were motivated by a “variety of factors.”

“Liberty, freedom – they believed in a cause, and they were willing to throw their entire fortunes down the drain to do it,” he said. “That’s what I think was fascinating. One of the survivors – there were a couple of handfuls of survivors from this epic charge, we don’t even know the full number of Marylanders that were killed that day or the ones that were captured and subsequently died on British hell ships – but Mordecai Gist, Samuel Smith who is the hero of Baltimore, and several others escaped. Gist was sort of the ringleader, along with Samuel Smith. Both of these men were extremely wealthy. Gist was a multi-multi-millionaire, if you consider that in his time, a merchant, and he literally put his entire career, his ships, everything on hold in mothballs and threw most of his fortune into the Revolution to outfit his men for what he believed in.”

O’Donnell added that modern audiences may forget that aiding the Revolution was considered a high crime of treason against the British crown, a fact that weighed heavily on the consciences of the revolutionaries. They were also well aware that many of their friends and neighbors preferred to remain loyal to Britain.

“As time unfolded and British atrocities piled up, the call for America became very clear,” he said.

“Gist and his men basically formed a 60-man company called the Baltimore Independent Cadets, later renamed the Baltimore Independent Company,” O’Donnell continued. “They’re quite interesting. They call themselves ‘gentlemen of honor, family, and fortune. They agree to a contract that there won’t be any corporal punishment with their members. They also agree to defend any colony, and they decide to outfit themselves with the best equipment, uniforms, and arms that money can buy.”

“They start to drill, and they catch the attention of Baltimore City, which at the time is a merchant city. It’s kind of like a Western town in the West, if you will, but it’s on the East Coast. It’s kind of got a seedy undertone to it. But inside the city, there are also many, many loyal Americans, people that really still believe in the Crown and think that what Gist is doing is unconscionable,” he said.

“Gist and his men catch the attention of most of the town, and even an admirer who sends a letter that basically compares Gist in 1775 to the Spartans and the 300. I thought that was amazing. I found this in the archives, that literally 15 months before the battle of Long Island, somebody foreshadows what these guys are going to go through in a letter, and they say they’re going to go up against thousands, just like the Spartans did against the Persians. It’s signed ‘Agamemnon,’ who was the king of Greece at the time. It’s just fascinating,” said O’Donnell.

He said it was not quite accurate to describe the Baltimore Independent Company, which eventually grew to almost a thousand men, as America’s first special forces unit, but they were definitely an elite unit whose superior equipment, training, and morale were precursors to the elite warfighters of today. General Washington came to rely upon them for many pivotal missions, taking advantage of their superb mobility as a “light infantry” unit without cannons or other heavy equipment to lug around.

“They were basically put into situations where they could lead a charge or an assault,” he said, explaining the unit became known as “something of a suicide squad” because they were called upon to assault enemy fortifications under heavy fire with axes, a duty known by the depressing nickname of “forlorn hope.”

“These guys drew lots just to get the opportunity to be part of the forlorn hope,” O’Donnell noted with astonishment at their bravery. “They considered it a post of honor.”

“The Immortals pioneered an American way of war. That’s a way of war that begins in many ways back in the French and Indian War, and it continues through the Revolution, and it’s strengthened. That way of war is an artifact that exists to this day, and it’s been evolving,” he said.

O’Donnell said he wrote Washington’s Immortals from the perspective of his own military service in Iraq, as a combat historian with a Marine rifle platoon in the Battle of Fallujah.

“I witnessed the carnage – to see so many American heroes, great individuals die in front of me,” he testified. “After I got back, I spent years thinking about what we did right, and what we did wrong, and looked at it through the lens of the history of the OSS, and then through Washington’s Immortals – the prism of counter-insurgency and what we’ve learned.”

“At the very basic level, it’s about fighting for an idea,” he explained. “The idea that the American Revolution created was one of the greatest ideas in American history. That idea has blossomed and flourished in many other revolutions and democracy around the world. That idea was extremely powerful. We are dealing with ideas to this day. One aspect of that idea is sovereignty. People are fighting for sovereignty to this day in Iraq and Syria.”

He said Washington’s Immortals teach us that “when people are empowered by sovereignty, they can do amazing things,” like the house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, which led to the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, an uprising of Sunni tribesmen against al-Qaeda.

“There’s a lot to be learned there. There are lessons we can apply in Syria and Iraq to this day,” said O’Donnell.

He emphasized the importance of the individuals in the legend of Washington’s Immortals, saying he intended his book to be a “character-driven” story of the Revolution, much as the famed Band of Brothers was a character-driven story of World War 2.

“It focuses on the main officers and enlisted men who were the boots on the ground during the American Revolution, and it follows them through the war,” he said. “It kind of does it in a cinematic fashion. But at the same time, it’s very – there is a lot of detail that comes out, but it’s not overwhelming. It’s something that is extremely readable. It allows you to be immersed in our most important war, the American Revolution.”

Of course, one of the most important characters in any Revolutionary saga is George Washington. O’Donnell said he wanted to bring Washington alive for a generation that knows him mostly in mythic terms, as “something that’s on our currency or in a fading oil painting.”

“He is the real deal in every way,” he said of Washington. “His leadership is imbued throughout the Revolution. It takes the values that are being promulgated by our Founders and puts them on the battlefield. Something like the ‘spirit of humanity,’ which John Adams coined, but it’s like how you treat prisoners. It’s sort of what we were all about. Washington’s leadership brings that to not only words, but to reality on the battlefield.”

“In the eighteenth century, a leader can really change the course of history on the battlefield himself, by his own personal leadership,” he pointed out. “These guys weren’t chairborne. They weren’t like 50 miles behind the lines in a command bunker, looking at a map, telling people where to go. They were right there, and Washington in many cases is in the vortex of battle. It’s unbelievable that he wasn’t killed.”

He offered an example of Washington’s incredible leadership at the Second Battle of Trenton, where the infamous Hessian force of German mercenaries was defeated.

“He sets up on this thing called Assunpink Creek. The line is about a mile or two long. The Continental Army is behind the creek,” O’Donnell recalled. “There’s only a couple of crossing points, including a stone and wooden bridge near the town of Trenton. This is where the British try to force a crossing. It’s crucial because they throw their best units at the bridge.”

“Washington is rallying his men, and he’s so close to the bridge his horse literally touches the wooden railing on the bridge. That’s how close he is,” he continued. “They charge multiple times with fixed bayonets, and we hold them off three or four times. Bodies just mount up right on the bridge itself.”

He noted that even though some of the stones of that bridge exist to this very day, the site has not yet been marked with commemorative signs, although he has been told signwork is in progress.

“This is one of those inflection points in American history that nobody knows about,” he lamented. “Literally, the war could have ended had they broke through on the bridge and captured the army.”

O’Donnell agreed with Marlow that “resilience” is the perfect word to describe Continental soldiers who endured terrible hardships and deprivation to fight on.

“These soldiers for the American Revolution not only were fighting arguably one of the greatest land armies in the world at the time, the British Army, but they were fighting fellow Americans in our first civil war,” he noted. “Many of those Americans were loyal to the Crown.”

“So they had those handicaps, and, additionally, most of these guys were never paid, or they were paid in worthless Continentals. They didn’t receive uniforms hardly ever. Their shoes constantly wore out. They were oftentimes barefoot, hungry, starving. There’s a lot of stories in the book, which I found just stunning,” he said.

Washington’s Immortals covers not just the Battle of Brooklyn, but seven years of the Revolutionary War, including major battles such as Princeton, Trenton, Germantown, Brandywine Creek, and action in South Carolina through the eyes of the men in the Maryland regiment. By the time they reached South Carolina, their supply situation had become absolutely appalling, but they fought on nonetheless.

“Here the army is just threadbare. There are accounts of these guys naked,” he marveled, calling them “men of iron.”

“There are small groups of men like Gist and Smith, enlisted men that hold the masses together, but the masses are also extremely tough Americans that endure unbelievable hardships,” he said, citing a diary entry from one of the Immortals who said the unit marched more than 4,500 miles barefoot over the course of two-and-a-half years. The diarist, a member of the Delaware Blues who became part of the Immortals regiment, wrote of marching home barefoot from Charleston, South Carolina.

“They did the impossible,” O’Donnell stressed. “A lot of times, these guys didn’t even have tents. They slept out in the open. It’s unbelievable. No food, and then fighting the British Army and loyalists the whole time!”

Marlow said today’s readers might find the importance of alcohol to both sides of the Revolutionary War somewhat amusing, noting that rum was used as everything from medical anesthetic to “liquid courage” rationed out before a battle. O’Donnell compared the British Army’s careful management of rum as battlefield fuel to the Americans’ more “hit and miss” supplies.

He hoped readers would also come to a new appreciation of Washington’s opposite number on the British side, General Charles Cornwallis, whose historic impression upon Americans mostly consists of throwing in the towel at the end of the war.

“The British Army under Cornwallis, who was a great battlefield commander and extremely courageous – most Americans have their conception of him through Yorktown, but it’s not the case. This guy is as heroic as Washington on the battlefield. He personally would lead charges when things were going wrong like at Guilford Courthouse and other places. He literally was out there in front,” O’Donnell noted.

“He was obsessed with following Nathaniel Greene,” he said of Cornwallis. “The book is about Greene’s army. The Marylanders and the Delaware Blues, Washington’s Immortals, are the bedrock or the backbone of that army. They are desperately trying to chase Greene all over South Carolina and North Carolina.”

“Cornwallis converts his entire corps to a light corps, light infantry. They get rid of their baggage, they get rid of their cannons, their tents, et cetera – and then they get rid of the rum,” he said with a chuckle, suggesting that was the moment when everyone realized just how serious Cornwallis was.

In addition to suffering from hunger and exposure to the elements, as in the legendary hell of the Valley Forge winter, O’Donnell said the Continental Army had to contend with the terrible battlefield medicine of the day.

“The medical instruments that they had at the time were these brutal things: hacksaws, and a scalpel,” he explained. “If you got hit by a musket ball, it’s like a .50 bullet. It would shatter your limb, and there was no way to do surgery, for the most part. The only thing to do was hack it off, and then you had to deal with infection.”

O’Donnell described how the poor state of medical care turned the inaccurate muskets of the day and their bayonet attachments into fearsome weapons, saluting the courage and determination of soldiers who returned to battle even after suffering multiple wounds.

“In many cases, they joined their fellow brothers-in-arms and continued to fight,” he said, pointing out that many of the survivors swore testimony of the wounds they and their comrades received after the war, creating stunning accounts from both officers and enlisted men of the hardships they endured.

O’Donnell expressed his belief that “every generation is a great generation of Americans,” but with all due respect to the others, he judged the Revolutionary War veterans to be the “greatest generation” of all.

“What I mean by that is just what they had to overcome,” he explained. “It looks impossible. The American Revolution is a miracle. The idea itself that was born is one of the greatest in all of world history. The sacrifices that they had to make to complete that idea is insurmountable to most listeners in this age.”

“They were unpaid, for the most part. Many of them were volunteers. They had to deal with the coercion of fellow Americans, a civil war. They had to fight a civil war and fight one of the greatest armies of the world at the time. That was not what you read about in your grade school books. This is a highly adaptable, flexible army that is there to win – and by the way, the British Empire up until this point had never lost. They had always crushed and conquered any insurrection. And then usually what happens is they crush them, and then they amalgamate them into the Empire and their forces.”

O’Donnell said both the leadership of the Founders and the courage of average Americans rising to the challenge of defeating the unbeaten British Empire changed the course of history. With Washington’s Immortals, he strives to ensure that history will not forget these rank-and-file members of the Continental Army. Marlow was pleased to announce O’Donnell’s book has been awarded the 2017 National Daughters of the American Revolution Excellence in American History Book Award.

Like many other historians, O’Donnell found himself circling back to George Washington’s leadership as indispensable to the success of the Revolution.

“One of the great moments in the book was after the Battle of Long Island where the Marylanders fought, this ‘300’ moment; there’s kind of a two week pause in the fighting. There’s this little peace negotiation. And the British land again at Kip’s Bay near Murray Hill. It’s here that we see Washington again, right in the vortex of battle. He literally charges out to the British lines, and his whole army is melting away. And what you see is an incredible moment. He’s literally catatonic. He’s willing to die for what he believes in. Somebody has to go and take the reins of the horse and lead him off the battlefield physically,” he said.

He cited another account from the pension file submitted by a Marylander who was pinned down at Fort Washington, on the site of what is now a pillar of the George Washington Bridge. This soldier and a few of his friends appropriated a rowboat and used it to escape the fort, only to land at a coastal mansion and find General Washington himself standing on one of its balconies, surveying the fort and its 3,000 trapped soldiers through a spyglass.

O’Donnell described the grim spectacle Washington witnessed, as Hessian and British troops executed American prisoners by running them through a gauntlet, kicking and beating each man until he died.

“Washington sees all of this through his spyglass. My Marylander sees Washington, and he has tears in his eyes,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s one of those moments in the book where it’s not the Washington you think of on the oil painting or on our currency. It’s Washington the human being.”

O’Donnell urged listeners to contemplate the incredible nation forged from Washington’s courage and humanity, mixed with the wisdom and intellect of the other Founding Fathers. He agreed with Marlow that it was amazing how much the Founders got right from the beginning.

“They got it right in terms of how power is used and abused,” O’Donnell said, noting that modern Americans might be surprised how controversial the Bill of Rights was at the time. “Just putting power back to the people, it’s an incredible thing.”

“They were also paranoid, rightfully so, of a central government that would encroach upon the rights of citizens,” he continued. “These were citizen-soldiers. They didn’t want to have a situation where there was potential tyranny.”

Another underappreciated aspect of the Revolution that O’Donnell’s research taught him to respect was the war in the South, a theater few Americans consider when thinking about the great battles fought by the Continental Army.

“Everybody kind of knows about Yorktown and maybe Trenton, some other little details, but the brutal war, the over three-year-long war in the South, in the Carolinas and even in Georgia and Virginia, is just an incredible story,” he said. “There’s very few books written about it. It’s here that the war is won. It’s here that so many lessons learned today can be applied. It’s striking. Everything from an idea, defeating an idea, to population protection, to supply lines, to the use of irregular forces – everything is there. It’s just striking how what’s old is new.”

“I think that people don’t look at history in the right manner,” O’Donnell reflected. “It’s not necessarily about dates or facts and figures. It’s about stories. It’s about the birth of our nation. It’s about who we are as Americans. It’s powerful stuff. It’s compelling and interesting, and it’s something that we can all get immersed in. Everybody has a family history, and for one, that’s a great place to start.”

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