The Peale Family: Picturing the Maryland Line

When the Maryland line was ordered to retreat from the Battle of Brooklyn, they were forced to ford a marsh. Many men were shot down in the quagmire and many more drowned. Two men related by marriage were part of the desperate push across the swamp. Twenty-seven-year-old ensign James Peale survived the battle but lost his shoes in the retreat, probably to the mud. He also lost the rest of his baggage and his commission. [1] His brother-in-law, Captain Nathaniel Ramsay, was pushed to a deeper part of the marsh. Ramsay did not know how to swim, but he was six feet three inches tall. His family had worried that his height would make him a target for enemy marksmen, but on the day of the battle it allowed him to walk through the marsh, though he was “obliged to hold up his chin to keep the water from runing into his mouth.”[2] For both men, the battle of Brooklyn marked the beginning of distinguished military careers, which would go on to affect the paths their lives would take after the Revolution.

The Battle of Brooklyn was the Peale family’s first experience in battle during the Revolutionary war. The Peales are known chiefly as a family of artists. The most famous member of the family, Charles Willson Peale, is in large part responsible for how Americans today visualize the revolutionary generation. The Maryland State Art Collection includes many examples of Peale’s art, including portraits of George Washington, William Smallwood, John H. Stone, and Mordecai Gist.[3] However, the Peales were not only illustrators of the Revolution for the public, their own lives were also shaped by their support for the revolutionary struggle.

Charles Willson Peale and his siblings were all born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Their father was a transported English convict, and after his death in 1750, their mother took them to live in Annapolis where she worked as a seamstress. Charles Willson Peale began his career as an artist in Annapolis, a profession that gained him access to the leading households of Maryland as a portrait painter. James Peale had been a carpenter, but as his brother’s business grew, he became Charles Willson’s frame-maker and James learned to paint while working as his brother’s assistant.

James Peale

James Peale Painting a Miniature by Charles Willson Peale.

At the start of the war, James Peale joined Captain John Day Scott’s Seventh Company in Annapolis as an ensign.[4] As an ensign, he was the lowest-ranking commissioned officer in the company, but as a commissioned officer, he was also more likely to be promoted, and had he been taken prisoner his status as an officer would have protected him from the neglect that many noncommissioned troops experienced. Peale would have carried the regimental colors and most importantly, he had the responsibility of maintaining the dress and cleanliness of the company– a task that was a challenge for the entire Continental Army. Charles Willson Peale also joined the army, but he had recently moved his family from Annapolis to Philadelphia, and he joined a Pennsylvania Regiment.

Their sister, Margaret Jane Peale, known to the family as Jenny, had been married to Nathaniel Ramsay for five years when he became the captain of the Fifth Company of Smallwood’s Regiment. Charles Willson Peale wrote that Jenny “was noted for her excellent embroadery & the most tastefull needle work, and having a fondness for reading… she became as refined her intellects and she was beautiful in her Person… when she was seventeen years old, she had many admirers, some of them, afterwards became men of great note in the revolution.”[5] When the war began she moved to Charles Willson Peale’s house in Philadelphia with the intention of staying with his family until the end of the war.

The Peale family

The Peale Family by Charles Willson Peale. Margaret is the woman standing to the left.

Before long, news of the overwhelming loss at the Battle of Brooklyn reached Philadelphia, and Margaret Jane worried for her husband and her brother. She had already been widowed once; she was first married to James McMordie, an Irish tavern and mill owner. Margaret Jane decided to leave Philadelphia, “She said she would rather be with the army whatever might be her suffering, than be at a distance and so much tormented, for if she was near the army in case of misfortunes she possibly might be aiding to help those most dear to her.”[6] After the Battle of Brooklyn, Margaret Jane Ramsey began to follow the Continental Army. She traveled in a small horse drawn carriage with a trunk and a servant.

Women and children.

Margaret Jane Ramsey was not alone in following the Continental Army– just as men from all walks of life joined the army, women of all backgrounds trailed the army, sometimes taking their children with them. Camp followers are often popularly imagined as prostitutes, and although prostitutes certainly did follow the army, many women accompanied their husbands on the campaign. They were part of the operation of  the encampments, aiding in the difficult task of keeping the men fed and clothed by cooking rations and doing the washing. In January of 1783, there were twenty women and three children drawing rations with the Maryland detachment. Including all of the Continental regiments in that area, there were 405 women and 302 children accompanying the army, which totaled 10,443 noncommissioned men. [7]

As the wife of a captain, Margaret Jane Ramsey’s role in the Continental Army did not involve manual labor. She took on the role of a hostess; her quarters would often become the center of social life for the Maryland officers. She lodged in homes near the encampments, making connections with the families she stayed with that would later be of use to her family.  Because of her husband’s status she also had the authority to protect her hosts from the risks of wartime plunder and abuse, one woman “entreated her to stay… for you can aid me in my many difficulties, for every body seems to pay more regard to what you say than I have ever seen before… oh! do not leave me.”[8]

Despite the relief that status afforded the officers, at least temporarily, conditions were still harsh and the dangers were still immediate. In December of 1776, Charles Willson Peale saw his brother, Ensign James Peale, during the New Jersey campaign, a meeting that Charles Willson Peale described in his autobiography, “He now met his brother James, who had a commission in the Maryland line, and had been in the rear guard, through all the retreat of the American Army, from the north River, and had lost all his cloaths. he was in an Old dirty Blanket Jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of Sores, that he could not clean it, which disfigured him in such a manner that he was not known by his brother at first sight.” [9] Shortly after that meeting, James Peale was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on December 10. [10]

One year later, during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, the Continental Army was in danger of collapse. Wars were not fought during the winter, but the horrendous conditions created by the weather and lack of supplies resulted in illness and desertion. During that bleak winter the Ramseys lived in a log hut, and once again Margaret Jane’s home was opened to the officers of the Maryland line, who “spent many agreable hours sometimes accompanied with officers belonging to other corps.”[11] By then Nathaniel Ramsey had been made a colonel, and the Ramseys would have associated with the highest levels of American military leadership. The following winter at Morristown, New Jersey was even more severe. In the spring of 1780, the First Maryland Brigade under the command of General William Smallwood was sent south to the Carolinas. Nathaniel Ramsay led the Third Regiment of 361 men. [12]

By March of 1778, James Peale had become a captain. In his own pension application he never mentioned that promotion, nor did he name the other battles he had been involved in. However, he did discuss the difficulties that his company faced– he had been promoted after his captain and second lieutenant were killed in battle and the first lieutenant had resigned. After serving in his company for over three years, James Peale left the army on June 2, 1779. [13]

Nathaniel Ramsey

Nathaniel Ramsey, after an earlier work by Charles Willson Peale.

The Ramseys had returned north, this time to New Jersey, by the time of the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. At the Battle of Monmouth Colonel Ramsey was taken prisoner. Tradition holds that he was saved from being bayoneted by an officer who recognized his masonic ring. Charles Willson Peale’s account asserts that he avoided the bayonets after he was wounded by smearing blood and mud on himself and playing dead, until he found a British officer to mercifully take him prisoner. After he had recovered from his wounds he was sent as a prisoner of war to Long Island, Margaret Jane again accompanied her husband. Captivity for officers was much less harsh than the experiences of privates. Ramsey and his wife entertained the other officers of the Maryland line who had been taken prisoner, and they “endeavoured to make themselves as happy as their situation permited.”[14] Colonel Ramsey even bought a house on Calvert Street in Baltimore while he was a prisoner at Long Island, ultimately reselling the house after the war and using the profit to buy a home in Annapolis. After a long period of captivity Colonel Ramsey was finally exchanged on December 14, 1780. Shortly after his release he retired from the military on January 1, 1781.

The Peales were the illustrators of the new republic that they had helped to create. After leaving the service, James Peale would move his family to Philadelphia and become a successful painter of miniatures and still-lifes. Colonel Ramsey became a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787. The Revolution facilitated the careers of Charles Willson and James Peale, who depicted the leaders of the new country. Despite the hardships that they endured, their own personal involvement in the war served as an opportunity for the family to advance in military and social rank. The Peales both became acquainted with and entered the officer class that would become the subject of their portraits.

[2] Charles Willson Peale, The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale, vol. 5 of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and his family, ed. Lillian B. Miller and Sidney Hart (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 123.

[5] Peale, 119.

[8] Peale, 124.

[9] Peale, 50.

[12] John Dwight Kilbourne, A Short History of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army (Baltimore, 1992), 31.

[13] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Maryland Archives Online, vol. 18, p. 149.

[14] Peale, 126.


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