The Resurrection of William Sterrett

An anonymous poet composed the following eulogy for nineteen-year-old lieutenant William Sterrett. It was published in the Maryland Gazette on September 12, 1776, just over two weeks after the Battle of Brooklyn:

On the death of Mr. WILLIAM STERET, who was killed in the engagement on Long-Island.

WHY throbs my heart? ah!– whence that sigh!
That sudden damps this cheerless hour?
Is STERET dead? Relentless Death, ah!– why!
So soon a victim to thy sullen pow’r?

Could not his virtues guard him on that day
From Death’s too firm, too cold embrace?
Ah!– no his virtues did his life betray, and led him eager to that fatal place,

Ah luckless spot!– that did the world bereave
Of worth encreasing to such height–
Ah luckless spot– that caus’d a friend to grive
His STERET lost for ever to his fight.

Alas! how fleeting are our youthful joys,
My STERET’S death can tell–
Call’d forth to action by the public voice,
He willing fought– and nobly fell.

Oft hand in hand we’ve eager trac’d the wood
Thoughtless and void of anxious care,
Together oft in youth we’ve stemmed the flood,
Nor knew– nor thought of trouble near.

Adiue ye scenes of happiness– adieu–
Which oft we joyous did explore,
Now, STERET’S gone for ever from my view–
Ah!– scenes of hapiness no more.[1]

In fact, William Sterett was alive. He had been taken prisoner by the British. Sorting out who had been killed in action and who had been captured at the Battle of Brooklyn was an imprecise task in the days following that battle, similarly to our efforts 237 years later.

The initial reports of the losses in the Maryland Line depended on conspicuous deaths. At least a week after the battle, the survivors who had reached the American camp still were not sure of who from their ranks had been killed and who had been taken. By September 1, the totals were uncertain, “The Maryland battalion has lost two hundred and fifty-nine men, amongst whom are twelve officers: Captains Veazey and Bowie, the first certainly killed; Lieuts. Butler, Sterrett, Dent, Coursey, Muse, Prawl; Ensigns Coats and Fernandes; who of them are killed, or who prisoners is yet uncertain.”[2] The only man they were sure of was Captain Veazey— you can read more about him in a previous post— whose whole company suffered huge losses.

The Sterrett family probably learned of the battle before they heard any news of William. His brother, Samuel Sterrett later wrote that “it would be a task too arduous for my weak abilities to attempt to convey an adequate idea of the distressed condition of our family whilst in suspense.” When it did come, the account of the battle was not good. The family believed that he was dead based on the testimony of a number of “gentlemen of credit.” His death was “lamented at home and abroad. His loss was much regretted at Annapolis and someone of his companions expressed his sorrow in verses that were published.” [3] Evidently the identity of the poet was a mystery to the Sterrett family as well.

Relief for the family finally came when a letter from New York reached the Steretts’ home in Baltimore. Sometime before September 15, Major Mordecai Gist broke the news that William was still alive. Gist may have seen Sterrett’s name on the list of officers sending for their baggage and cash that was released on September 5.[4] The family wrote back to Gist, asking him to communicate to William that his friends and family were well.  The oldest brother, John, planned on traveling to New York soon after receiving the news that William was alive. William’s sister, Mary, sent a copy of the eulogizing poem to New York so that he would be able to read it. She also sent along her complements to Mordecai Gist. The two would marry the following year.

William Sterrett was a prisoner until April of 1777, when he rejoined the Continental Army. However, after his release there were rumors that he had sworn an oath of allegiance to the king. Sterrett wrote a letter to James McHenry in April, 1778 in order to dispel the rumors and defend his own honor. After he was taken prisoner he claimed that “Mr. Loring”, probably Joshua Loring Jr., the infamous loyalist commissary of prisoners, had visited him. Under Loring’s authority, thousands of American prisoners died of disease and starvation on prison ships and on land. Loring tried to convince Sterrett to take the oath of loyalty to the Crown, so that he could be released from close confinement. Sterrett wrote that he refused to take the oath, and Loring, rather ominously,  “said I should continue in confinement and be subject to the distresses which were about to threaten us.”[5]

Sterrett was eventually transferred to New York on October 1, where he remained until the end of the year. The process to exchange him began on December 20, but Loring claimed that Sterrett’s name was not on his books as a prisoner. This would mean that Sterrett had taken the oath of allegiance and was thus unable to serve in the Continental Army without breaking the oath and compromising his honor. In the face of this administrative complication, Sterrett escaped New York on a forged passport and returned to the Maryland Line. He was eventually promoted to Major, and he resigned in December of 1777. [6]

The case of William Sterrett illustrates the surprisingly complicated role that paperwork could play in the Continental Army. For William Sterrett, delays in communicating perhaps a single list led to his family and friends mourning his death for weeks. The list of Commissary Loring branded him a turncoat and the records of the Maryland Regiment that show his service after captivity redeemed his reputation as a patriot. Records were misleading then, just as they can be now, and it is only once they have been put into context and fully investigated that we can gain a better understanding of the past.

[3] General Mordecai Gist’s Correspondence. 1772-1779. No. 7 Mordecai Gist and others correspondence, including “Polly” letters, 1772-1779. Baltimore and Elsewhere. Copy.

[5] Sterrett, Wm. To James McHenry April 2, 1778. Maryland Historical Society, MS 1814.

[6]Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the Continental Service, Vol 18, p. 160. Archives of Maryland Online.


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