During the American Revolutionary War, the soldiers of the Maryland Line rapidly gained a reputation in the Continental Army for reliability in combat, a reputation that has lasted to this day. Contemporaries attested to the Marylanders’ tenacity as early as their first engagement, the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776: “all [the Americans] were driven or scattered except the Maryland and Delaware battalions who kept twice their number at bay.” George Washington exclaimed “What brave men I must lose this day” as he witnessed the Marylanders’ fight. According to Tench Tilghman, the Maryland-born aide-de-camp to Washington, the Maryland troops “bore the palm” by “behaving with as much Regularity as possible” at the Battle of Haarlem Heights the very next month. Towards the end of the war, Maryland troops were the core of the Southern army, achieving a brilliant tactical victory at Cowpens in January of 1781, and strategic victory throughout the Carolinas afterwards. No other state’s forces can claim the same consistent and universal battlefield reliability and at the same time cite such contributions to as many American tactical achievements and strategic victories.
Such an extraordinary battlefield and campaign record deserves an explanation. From the first to the last campaign, Maryland forces were either victorious themselves, or were at least meritorious in defeats that were none of their own doing. Certainly, the whole Continental Army improved as it became more professional, but even by those standards Marylanders excelled. What was it about the Maryland soldiers and their officers that generated such an outstanding combat record, even from the beginning of the war? What elements contributed to their quality? The traditional elements of eighteenth century military efficiency as well as modern combat effectiveness studies of can both be employed to explain the quality of Maryland Continentals. The nearly unique performance of Continentals from Maryland can be partly explained in terms of manpower, materiél, experience, leadership and morale – conditions even Frederick the Great would have appreciated. Beyond such traditional elements also lay social and personal foundations for their military performance. This article examines the men themselves – the role of the rank and file.
Maryland contributed troops to the Continental army from the start of the war. In 1775, the colony provided two companies of riflemen to the First Continental Regiment. Although not state troops, their early service provided officers like Moses Rawlings and Otho Holland Williams with invaluable experience they applied later when in command of Continental regiments from their home state. In 1776, Col. William Smallwood commanded the Maryland Regiment, the first and only at that time. Francis Ware, Thomas Price and Mordecai Gist were the other regimental officers. That unit’s cadre (save Price) served Maryland long and well, in a variety of roles. The regiment had nine companies, originally all at full strength. One company was armed with rifles, providing the regiment with its own sharp-shooters, scouts, and pickets, all very useful in the kind of war they would fight.
In that same year, seven other companies were raised throughout Maryland, outside a regimental structure (“independent” companies), which often served together. At least one of these companies was filled with trained men: the Baltimore Cadets was a militia unit with good training (comparative to other Maryland militia), well led (by Gist among others), which had developed solid unit cohesion, and had been well equipped. Their original uniforms were red faced with buff, covered in 1776 with hunting shirts (which happily avoided confusion with enemy uniforms on the battlefield). When the independent companies were reorganized in 1777 they were kept together, converting the battalion to a regiment, thus strengthening the unit’s cohesion.
Six of Maryland’s original twenty-one line officers rose to the rank of colonel commanding their own regiments, Colonels Stone, Ford, Read, Stricker, Gunby, and Eccelston. Three others were promoted to brigadier general, or served in that capacity with a brevet rank, Brigadiers Ewing, Gunby, and Gist. The officers, even more than their soldiers, became veterans and professionals over course of the war, most serving for its duration. They commanded men who enlisted and reenlisted under them.
When the early Maryland units marched off to join Washington in New York in 1776, an observer in Baltimore described them as the “flower of Maryland … young gentlemen, sons of opulent planters, farmers, and mechanics” who made quite a show as they marched in their hunting shirt uniforms, “from the colonel to the lowest private soldiers.” The whole of Maryland turned out for the war, men of every free class. Marylanders began the war with uniforms, an advantage over many other Continentals. Uniforms were not only useful clothing, but also contributed to esprit-de-corps and morale, not to mention physical well-being. Each man had both musket and bayonet, or rifle and tomahawk. Along with the infantry came two companies of artillery – one gun per hundred troops! Outside of Burgoyne’s Saratoga campaign, even the British would never match that ratio, nor would any other American state. Napoleon himself would have been envious (he rarely achieved half that fraction).
These men of ’76 were raised in the “rage militaire” that swept the new states at the beginning of the war. Men of all socio-economic classes enlisted, as the parade in Baltimore demonstrated, but most were “volunteers, all young gentlemen.”These were the 800 or so men that fought in New York and New Jersey (another 300 were so sick as to not be able to fight). By the end of 1776, however, “the times that tried men’s souls,” according to Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, enthusiasm for the war had worn thin. New efforts were required to rebuild the dwindling Continental Army. Congress assigned Maryland a quota of seven regiments as part of its “88 Battalion Resolve” in late 1776. In addition, the state was called upon to man half of the “German Regiment” (in coordination with Pennsylvania) and to send and maintain militia units for service out of state in the “Flying Camp.” Maryland, a small state indeed, contributed substantially compared Pennsylvania’s thirteen regiments, Virginia’s fifteen, or (more fairly by population or size) to New Jersey’s and South Carolina’s four. Maryland’s political and economic climate was fertile ground for recruitment. Even so, Maryland, like every other state, was only partially successful at meeting these demands.
The Continental Army continually faced the problem of insufficient manpower. Maryland regiments were far under regulation strength, but counting the troops available in the Old Line through muster rolls and brigade returns shows that those units were no worse off than other states’ regiments. Indeed, given the relative populations, Maryland units were quite strong. Gist estimated the state’s military population at 30,000. Of that, approximately 3500 served in the Continental infantry alone, not considering the militia, or Continental cavalry and artillery. Congress estimated the total population of Maryland at 250,000. Maryland thus put a considerable percentage of its man-(literally) power into the field. In 1776, Maryland regiments were larger than those from most states, if not as numerous overall. Throughout 1777, Marylanders were more in line with the norm. However, by June of 1778, six of the eight Maryland regiments were among Washington’s largest, and the Maryland brigades were among the strongest. There was distinct strength in their numbers.
Numbers mattered as well as quality when Washington chose the Maryland troops to head south with Gen. Horatio Gates, and being “southern troops” no doubt factored in as well. Even after the losses from the disastrous Battle of Camden in 1780, Maryland had almost half as many men in the field as Pennsylvania (the third state by population) did after that state’s Continental mutiny. Knowing the small number of men in a regiment’s ranks also shows how important an issue of 450 coats from Maryland could be when a single regiment averaged only 180 men.
The manpower of Maryland units is important for another critical reason: the units retained a high number of veteran soldiers rather than being sustained largely by new recruits. Of the approximately 3500 known rank-and-file soldiers or non-commissioned officers of the Maryland Line, the length of service is known with certainty for 472, after deducting deserters and casualties. Of these 472 soldiers, eight-eight percent (420) served for three or more years! This is a remarkable proportion given casualties from battle, disease, desertion, and terms of enlistment. Many of these same men had enlisted in 1776 and remained in the ranks when those enlistments ended, and continued again after their three-year enrollments in 1777 had expired. Re-enlistment was the norm among Maryland soldiers. Maryland Continentals averaged more than two years’ service for privates and forty-one months for non-commissioned officers.Such continuity and experience among the rank and file is critical to understanding the effectiveness of the Maryland Line. Men who lived and fought together for long periods had the opportunity to develop esprit de corps and unit cohesion that are so important to combat effectiveness and endurance on campaign. Their long service allowed them to master the skills required to face battle and hard campaigning. Just as important, these skills could be transmitted to new recruits sent to reinforce the regiments, minimizing the effect of battlefield errors of new troops.
On the other hand, the fact that Maryland regiments still received (however infrequently) new recruits, even during Gen. Nathanael Greene’s southern campaigns, meant the regiments did not dwindle away due to attrition and combat losses. Feeding the recruits into existing regiments for most of the war also meant those men and those units could benefit from the veterans’ experience and instruction. Whole new units were only raised in the emergency of 1781 when the British invaded the Chesapeake Bay, when the new 3rd and 4th Regiments were created. Such new units could not be as effective as veteran units with replacements. Fortunately, those two raw regiments saw only siegecraft, not open battle.
960 Marylanders are known to have deserted. Twenty-three percent might seem rather high, but the Continental Army as a whole lost approximately twenty-five percent to desertion throughout the war; Maryland’s desertion rate was not out of proportion. Many deserters left the unit within their first three months of service, or never appeared for duty in the first place.Ironically, although this desertion of recruits decreased strength in numbers, it improved performance because shirkers, cowards, and those not committed to the cause left the army.
Maryland’s recruiting methods kept the regiments as strong as they were – solid in comparison to other states’ regiments and even brigades throughout the war. Recruitment was only moderately successful compared to the demand made by Congress or the needs of the army. Total numbers of enlistments were dismally low throughout the new nation. Washington and Smallwood were both disappointed in the turnout from Maryland. Even so, Maryland fared well in comparison to other states.
Maryland used company and field grade officers released from their units to handle recruiting after the rage militaire faded. Smallwood and Gist were both assigned recruiting duties throughout the war. This practice gave those men a break from combat, and also made use of their reputations at home to attract recruits. Most of the enlistments were handled by company captains and lieutenants who (significantly) returned to their home counties to rally their neighbors. This practice began in 1776 with the officers commanding and serving with locals who followed men of reputation in their counties, and who served with men they often knew in civilian life, sometimes even as relatives. The recruiters also received bounties for the enlistments they recorded, giving them extra incentive to encourage their friends and neighbors to enlist. Local connections at home strengthened the units in the field.
Bounties attracted some recruits. New men who volunteered later in the war were offered debt relief in the form of up to 2000 pounds of tobacco (about £12 sterling or 20 pounds current money, which was several months of tobacco income), or exemption from some taxation. Enlistment incentives also included cash bounties and promises of land (one hundred acres for privates; officers received substantially more). The value of bounties increased as the difficulty of finding men to enlist became a major challenge. As the war went on, fewer men wished to enlist to face the difficult conditions that became well known at home. When the enlistment period became three years or the war, yeoman farmers with few slaves or servants could no longer enlist, faced with that much time away from their farms. Likewise, shop-owners and craftsman could not join for such long periods. Although three-year terms made for good soldiers, it filled the rank with men of meager means.
Simple items such as clothes, shoes and stockings supplemented cash bounties and promises of land, all beyond the mandated issue of Continental uniforms for new recruits. The uniform bounties indicate two important aspects of later (1779 and after) service of the Maryland Line. First, the State had sufficient uniform materials for its men. Second, that such mundane goods attracted men at all suggests those men who enlisted were in enough financial need to be drawn by such offers. In the field, it meant the men started with equipment they needed.
Despite gentlemen officers’ frequent complaints of the low status of their men, fiscally disadvantaged men did not actually make militarily poor soldiers, especially when they served long enough to become veterans and then reenlisted. If financial need was a motive for enlisting and re-enlisting, then that personal monetary need coincided with Maryland’s need for military manpower. The social “quality” of the recruits did not imply a lack of quality on the battlefield. Still, even late in the war, not all the recruits were of the lowest social strata, and many “middling sort” men of 1777 enlistments reenlisted in the Maryland Line, serving at least until 1780, and some through 1781.
Less-willing recruits were also enlisted in Maryland. Vagrants could be forced into service for nine months, but received a bounty if they agreed to a term of three years. Thieves received pardons in exchange for enlisting. Maryland eventually turned to a draft from the militia rosters and classification by wealth and age, all supervised by the recruiting officers. Maryland drafted after April of 1778, but only forty-nine percent of the enlistments in 1781 were drafted, seventeen percent volunteered, and the remainder were willing substitutes paid to take place of drafted men wealthy enough to pay their way out of service. Even this late in the war, when Maryland, like the rest of America, was dredging the bottom of the manpower barrel, at least one third of the new men chose to enlist voluntarily (including those willing to be paid as substitutes for unwilling draftees), although the financial motive is obvious. In the case of slaves put forward as replacements by their drafted owners, the substitution may or may not have been voluntary. As a path to freedom for slaves, the chance must have been inviting although the decision was not their own.
Even with these financial and forceful measures, the number of men in the field was unsatisfactory to the military. Gist suggested that all men be divided into class and that each class be held responsible for not only presenting recruits, but maintaining their quota of men in the field, thus arranging for replacement of losses. Maryland did not adopt such a forceful program, but did provide additional incentives. Men in the field who re-enlisted received bounties as did new recruits. Maryland units routinely promoted privates to non-commissioned officers, and NCOs to commissioned ranks; this not only helped insure the quality of experienced and knowledgeable leadership in the units, but made promotion a motive for reenlistment. Officer ranks had been rather closed by class at the start of the war, but were later opened to talented men of lower socio-economic standing, which combined military and social status with financial gain. All in all, Maryland put as large or higher a percentage of its military population into the regulars as any other state (save frontier New Hampshire and tiny Rhode Island), and kept them supplied (Greene’s campaigns excepted).
Maryland Continentals for most of the war tended to be experienced veterans, mostly volunteers who not only joined readily, but stayed in service. This extended experience created esprit-de-corps, and developed expertise on and off the battlefield. Not surprisingly these Maryland veterans made better soldiers.
For a very readable and commendable campaign history, see Patrick O’Donnell, Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016).
Bernard Christian Steiner, ed., Archives of Maryland, Vol. 18: Muster Roll and Other Records of Service of the Maryland Troops in the American Revolution (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1900), 1-28.
William Hand Browne, ed., Archives of Maryland, Vol 11, (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1892), 110-111; J. Thomas Scharf, The History of Baltimore City and County (Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1874), 70 ff.
On uniform details see Dorothy Barck, ed., Uniforms of the American Army, 9, www.srcalifornia.com/uniforms/p9.htm, accessed January 5, 2012, taken from Lt. Charles M. Lefferts,Uniforms of the Armies in the War of the American Revolution, 1775-1783(New York: New York York Historical Society, 1926).
The quote is from Thomas Paine, The Crisis(Philadelphia, 1776), 1, but readily available from www.gutenberg.org/files/3741/3741-h/3741-h.htm, accessed January 6, 2012.
The finest study of Continental Army desertion is still Thad W. Tate’s “Desertion from the American Revolutionary Army,” MA thesis, University of North Carolina, 1948. Tacyn, however, showed that the First Maryland’s deserters tended to be more of those at the end of long terms and at times of great privation. “To the End,”Appendix I, 307-309.