“The Unhappy Situation”

It rained constantly for two days after the Battle of Long Island. The defeated Americans did not have enough tents or clothes, and the soggy troops could only wait for the storm to end. The Continental army’s ranks were depleted by disease and desertion; the Revolutionary struggle was at a discouraging juncture. However, the exhausted and ill-equipped troops had no time to recover from the loss at Long Island. After the Battle of Brooklyn, the British had a stronger position in New York than ever before.

Colonel William Smallwood would write later that the Marylanders had served “without respite of duty… I may justly say our corps have had a greater proportion of this duty than any in this army, for we have generally acted in brigade under northern Brigadier-Generals, who have seldom failed to favour their own and put the labouring oar on our regiment; but it has perhaps made us the better soldiers.” [1] He was right that the experience had made them stronger. After holding the line at Brooklyn, the Marylanders had become some of the most experienced and reliable troops in the Continental Army.

By September 4, 1776, the Maryland Regiment was posted near the village of Harlem. Washington expected a British attack from Hell Gate, the confluence of the Hudson and the East River, and he had placed his best troops– the Maryland Regiment along with Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers–  at Harlem to monitor the British ships and defend the coast if the enemy should attempt a landing.

However, the constant stress, lack of supplies, and poor weather had taken their toll on the Maryland troops. Many of the men had fallen ill and the surgeons with the regiment were overwhelmed by the number of sick.

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Captain John Allen Thomas’ letter to the Maryland Council of Safety

On September 4, John Allen Thomas, Captain of the 5th Independent Company, wrote from Harlem to Annapolis in a bid to improve their intolerable conditions. He reported “the unhappy situation of the Maryland Troops,” to the Maryland Council of Safety.[2]

According to Thomas, a large proportion of the men were sick, including one of the two surgeons that were with the regiment. In his own company, he had not been able to find a doctor for the fifteen to twenty men who were “extremely ill.” Out of the entire regiment, which Smallwood described as consisting of about 750 men, “we have at this time near two hundred Men unfit for duty, and most of them without any assistance from the Doctor.”

“I have not the last doubt but you will immediately apply a Remedy,” Thomas wrote hopefully to the Council. However, no remedy came for the Marylanders. There is no evidence that Thomas ever received a reply from the Maryland Council of Safety, and by October 12, medical care was still the main challenge facing the regiment.

“No person can conceive who has not experienced it;” Smallwood wrote to the Council of Safety in Annapolis. “There is not only a shameful but even an inhuman neglect daily exhibited [by the Directors of the General Hospitals]… I foresee the evils arising from the shameful neglect in this department. One good-seasoned and well-trained soldier, recovered to health, is worth a dozen new recruits, and is often easier recovered than to get a recruit, exclusive of which this neglect is very discouraging to the soldiery.”

The Americans had field hospitals, but the lack of medical supplies, along with the combination of inexperience and incompetence, added to the suffering of Revolutionary troops. In the camps and on the battlefield, the Americans were learning their first painful lessons in how to wage war.


[1] MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books) Colonel William Smallwood to Maryland Council of Safety, 12 October 1776, vol. 4, no. 19B, MdHR 4561 [MSA S989-5, 1/6/3/38].

[2] MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books) John Allen Thomas to Maryland Council of Safety, 4 September 1776, vol. 12, no. 89, MdHR 4573 [MSA S989-17, 1/6/4/5].

For transcriptions of Smallwood’s and Thomas’ letters, click on the citations above. To read the entire letter Colonel Smallwood wrote to the Maryland Council of Safety in October of 1776, click on the images below.

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Page 1

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Page 2

colonel smallwood 3

Page 3


There were a number of events to mark the 237th anniversary of the Battle of Long Island. On August 25, Green-Wood Cemetery, which is on land where much of the Battle of Long Island was fought, hosted a reenactment and commemorationTom Wisner’s song, “The Old Line” was performed and Governor Martin O’Malley spoke about the legacy of the Maryland 400– read his speech by clicking here.


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4 Responses to “The Unhappy Situation”

  1. Allison says:

    Thanks for sharing the information about the reenactment, commemoration, song, and Governor’s speech. These are all really neat aspects of how history impacts the state’s culture (and nation’s if we’re talking more largely). Were you able to discern any reason why the Council on Safety didn’t respond to Thomas or Smallwood? Were they overwhelmed with other matters relating to the war or illnesses among the civilian population?


    • Thanks for your comments, Allison!

      It’s a little hard to tell quite what was happening. The Council of Safety had been told that there weren’t enough doctors or supplies in the spring and summer of 1776 (see the Council of Safety proceeds in the Archives of Maryland Online). However, while there was some awareness of potential problems, I suspect that the scale of the horrible conditions that developed in August and September was worse than what anyone imagined.

      In addition, the Continental Army as a whole had problems with logistics–one of the reasons that so many American soldiers were sick was poor camp sanitation, which occurred in part because the army didn’t have experience running a camp with so many men. The British had fewer problems with dysentery at Long Island, since they knew how to organize a large group of men in camp, according to David Hackett FIscher in Washington’s Crossing.


  2. Arnie Sanders says:

    First, let me congratulate your digital imaging crew, Emily! The letter is amazingly clearly rendered for a document in such fragile condition. When inks fade to brown on paper that is oxidizing to brown, it’s tough to resolve the text. I was especially impressed by the tiny detail of Smallwood’s secretary’s note at the end. “Chris. Richmond” actually signed for Smallwood because there was not time enough for a fair copy to be written out for the commander’s signature. The document’s life, like those of the soldiers, was precarious!


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