Two hundred and forty-four years ago this week, “Gentleman of Honour, Family, and Fortune” made a Thermopylae-like stand that saved Washington’s army during the Battle of Brooklyn. Their attack that earned them the nickname “The Bayonets of The Revolution” may have also saved the month-old United States.
In August 1776, America had just declared its independence one month prior. After successfully driving the British out of Boston, General George Washington had marched his army to New York, hoping to prevent the British from capturing the city. During the invasion of New York, British General William Howe landed more than 20,000 troops on Long Island. He sent a third of his Redcoats and Hessians to attack the American defenses head-on, engaging them while 10,000 men looped around and attacked the Patriots from behind in what would become known as the Battle of Brooklyn.
The plan unfolded precisely as the British intended. Within hours, they had pinned down Washington’s army, drawing it to the brink of destruction. Trapped on the heights of Gowanus, the American army’s only route of escape was to cross Gowanus Creek via the gap in the British line held open by the Marylanders.
A single structure, a stone house, and the full weight of an entire dug-in British division led by General Charles Cornwallis separated the American army’s right-wing from the temporary safety of the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights. Several companies of Marylanders known later as Washington’s Immortals or the Immortal 400 made a suicidal charge to free the right wing of the American army.
From the stone house, Cornwallis’s men trained their muskets and a light cannon on the advancing Marylanders.
The fusillade dropped many of the men in their tracks, severing limbs and heads, killing several instantly.
“Close up! Close up!”
Over the crackle of musket fire and boom of cannon, the indomitable Maryland Major Mordecai Gist and many of the founding officers of the Baltimore Independent Cadets ordered their men forward.
Formed on a December night nearly two years earlier in a tavern in Baltimore, the Baltimore Independent Cadets was the first independent company of Patriots in Maryland. Their core leadership would form the backbone of some of the greatest fighting regiments of the American Revolution, later called the Maryland Line.
The charter of the unit, later named the Baltimore Independent Company, called for sixty men—“a company composed of gentlemen of honour, family, and fortune, and tho’ of different countries animated by a zeal and reverence for rights of humanity”—to join voluntarily and tie themselves together “by all the Sacred ties of Honour and the Love and Justice due to ourselves and Country.”
Equipping themselves with the best weapons and gear money could buy, the unit that would morph into several regiments fought united, integrated with African Americans and Native Americans who fought beside their white brothers-in-arms. The Maryland regiments would prove to be one of only a few core units crucial to the continued existence of the entire Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War. The Marylanders’ story is captured in the bestselling book Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, detailing their role in nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.
At Brooklyn, the Marylanders were the right men at the right time and place, and they would change history, as Gist and his men would prove on August 27.
Undeterred by the withering British fire, Gist’s companies formed into lines and charged into the hail of fire coming from the British soldiers in the stone house.
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.”
That scene repeated itself several times as the Marylanders battled to allow their retreating countrymen to escape. “We continued the attack a considerable time,” recalled Stirling, “the men having been rallied and the attack renewed . . . several times.”
Only a few would escape death: The Redcoats and Hessians took few prisoners. Maryland’s finest — rich and poor alike — lay dead and dying all around.
But their sacrifice was not in vain. The Marylanders held off the British long enough to save a core of Washington’s troops and, arguably, the bulk of the nascent American army from destruction. The Marylanders’ forlorn assaults allowed hundreds of Americans to escape to the temporary safety of their entrenchments. With their blood, the Immortals bought “an hour more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.” The Marylanders’ stand chewed up daylight on the afternoon of August 27 and bought Washington time, preventing the British from uniting the various wings of their army to make a combined assault on the Brooklyn defenses during the day. Had Howe had more time to press the attack on the forts that afternoon, his victory likely would have been total. The war might have ended that day. It was one of the few times in the Revolution when all the circumstances were aligned for a crushing British victory. The British would have captured the bulk of the American army, including possibly even Washington and his top commanders, potentially snuffing out the Revolution.
Miraculously, on the night of August 29 and the morning of August 30, over 9,500 men in the army would be evacuated from Brooklyn in an American Dunkirk. A “providential” fog screened the movement of small boats as they repeatedly crossed the East River, bringing Washington’s army to Manhattan.
Gist and several men in his group survived to fight in many crucial battles that changed the fate of a nation. At the height of the Revolution, Mordecai Gist issued an ominous warning about America’s internal politics that threatened the war and morphing into what America fought against: “…if we neglect to support it [United States] with Dignity or to aim at national Glory, if we cease to sacrifice private Interests to public Good, the Blessing will corrupt at our touch and like an affectionate love, worn out by Injuries, grow into a hated Monster.”
Tragically, many of the bodies of the “Gentlemen of Honour, Family, and Fortune,” who died that day remain undiscovered in a mass grave somewhere in Brooklyn, perhaps near the stone house where they fought; their whereabouts are one of the greatest remaining mysteries of the American Revolution.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of 12 books, including Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of An Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution and The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. He is also the founder and host of THE HISTORY HAPPY HOUR via Zoom, open to the public, with dates and links posted on Twitter @combathistorian. O’Donnell and his co-hosts conduct live oral histories and interviews with American heroes from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Modern Wars. PatrickkODonnell.com