August 26, 1776: The Day Before

Tomorrow is August 27, the 243rd anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. It is a day which is commemorated every year. Today, however, I would like to mark another day: August 26, the day before.

August 26, 1776 was a Monday. There were, at the time, just under 1,000 Marylanders encamped in Manhattan. Most of them had been there since the beginning of the month, although about 200 soldiers, members of the Fourth Independent and Fifth Independent companies, had arrived within the last week or so. Consequently, they would play only a limited role at the battle. All of them, however, were aware that a battle was imminent.

For some, their feelings that day proved to be lasting. John Philpot recalled hearing his father Bryan, an ensign in the Eighth Company “describe his feelings on first going into [the] engagement” many years afterward. What, then, were the soldiers from Maryland doing the day before the battle?

Most were leaving Manhattan for Brooklyn, to oppose the British troops that had landed there.

William Smallwood (1732-1792), by Charles Willson Peale. MSA SC1545-1054

Colonel William Smallwood and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Ware were not, however. For a second day, they were sitting on a military jury at the court martial of Herman Zedwitz, an American officer caught selling secrets to the British. They were still hearing the case when their regiment was sent across the East River to face the British. George Washington was so eager to finish the trial that he continued the proceedings, even after the troops were deployed. Smallwood later complained that “tho’ I waited on General Washington and urged the Necessity of attending our Troops, yet he refused to discharge us, alleging there was a Necessity for the trial…after our dismissal from the Court Martial it was too late to get over [to the battle].”

On August 26, William Sands was still alive. Twelve days earlier, the sergeant from Annapolis had written to his parents, describing how  “Our Maryland Battalion is encamped on a hill about one mile out of New York, where we lay in a very secure place…We are ordered to hold ourselves in readiness. We expect an attack hourly.” He closed his letter by telling them “We expect, please God, to winter in Annapolis, those that live of us.”

Francis Reveley, a sergeant in the Fifth Company, turned twenty-three on August 26. Reveley was born in England, emigrating with his family to Virginia in 1765.

Captain Peter Adams of the Sixth Company was sick, and so was at least one of his soldiers, Private John McFadden, along with Nathan Peak, a private in the Third Company. Many other Americans were ill, some of them victims of poor camp sanitation. Barton Lucas, the captain of the Third Company was among them. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Lucas was one of the few men in the regiment with any military experience. The loss of so many members of his company–60 percent were killed or captured–induced him to leave the army soon after. It is likely that all three of these men were unable to take the field the next day.

Jacob Brice, the regiment’s adjutant, was just two days past his court martial for “Disobedience of orders.” The outcome of that trial wasn’t recorded, but if he received any punishment it wasn’t too severe, since he was ready to head to Brooklyn with the rest of the regiment.

Daniel Bowie, the Fourth Company’s captain, was moved on August 26 to write out his will, probably just before the regiment marched to the battlefield. He made provisions “if I fall on the field of battle,” then signed the document, gathering several of his fellow officers, William Sterrett, Henry Chew Gaither, and Bryan Philpot, as witnesses. The following spring, Sterrett traveled to the Prince George’s County Court House, only month or so after being release from British captivity, and presented Bowie’s will to the Register of Wills, for Bowie had been killed at the Battle of Brooklyn.

Early the next morning, perhaps inspired by Bowie, his first lieutenant Joseph Butler took aside two of his fellow officers, one of whom, Lieutenant Joseph Ford, later gave a statement to the Register of Wills in Harford County:

[On] August 27, 1776, when Colonel Smallwood’s Regiment was drawn up on Long Island in expectation to engage with the enemy, Lieut. Joseph Butler called Ensign [sic: Lt.] [Edward] Prall and myself out of the ranks, and desired we remember if he should be so unfortunate as to be killed that it was his desire that his brother or half brother should have his estate…He signified at the time that he did not know where his brother was, or whether he would ever apply [as beneficiary of the estate], as he had not heard from him for some time, and if he should not apply, that Miss Sarah Hall should be possessed of the whole estate…” [6]

Butler, too, died during combat that day.

On August 26, James Murphy still had two legs. He lost his left one at Brooklyn, though he had the unusual good fortune to survive the wound. Thomas Wiseman had not yet lost “his two middle fingers” on his left hand. John Taylor, Alexander Allen, Leonard Watkins, John Lowry, and doubtless many others had not yet received their wounds either. At least seventy two men still had their freedom.

On August 26, the Maryland Line was untested–perhaps among the least experienced regiments in the army. To the rest of the army, there was no particular reason to believe the Marylanders were destined to demonstrate great bravery and discipline in combat. Most observers of the Maryland troops before the battle focused, not necessarily in a complementary way, on their apparent wealth, and how well the troops were equipped. As they would soon discover, however, the Marylanders were well-trained, and ready to fight.

Click on the links in this post to learn more about the people who are mentioned, and also read our previous posts commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn.


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