Revisiting the Capture and Escape of the McMillan Brothers

Samuel and William McMillan, two brothers who enlisted in the First Maryland Regiment, fought in the Battle of Brooklyn, where Hessian soldiers captured them and decimated their company. Taken to Halifax, the two brothers were part of a group that made a daring escape, desperate to return familiar territory. Although Finding the Maryland 400 has previously discussed their escape, we recently revisited the topic when updating Samuel McMillan’s biography. After thoroughly examining pension applications made by both brothers, we can now present a more detailed and accurate version of what William McMillan referred to as “a most painful tour.” Full transcriptions of two of the most important sources within the pension can be found here and here. [1]


This 1774 map shows many of the locations that William McMillan mentions throughout the McMillan pensions, including Halifax, St. John, Casco Bay, and Boston. You can view the full version of this map here.

William McMillan provided a vivid description of the Battle of Brooklyn in his pension, recounting how officers in his company died that day, including “one [sergeant] killed in front of” him. McMillan recalled the “pretty severe fight” with the Hessians, which at first resulted in “a draw battle.” “A good many on each side” lay dead following the encounter and the death toll only worsened when enemy forces launched their next attack. McMillan’s company was “surrounded by [Scottish Highlanders] on one side, Hessians on the other.” Despite repulsing the Hessians, McMillan’s company was not as lucky this time. The Fourth Company lost eighty percent of its men, with only fourteen of the sixty-five soldiers avoiding capture or death. [2]

The McMillan brothers suffered greatly in the battle’s aftermath. The Hessians taunted the Americans and “robbed [the prisoners] of everything,” going so far as to light “their pipes with [American] money” stolen from the soldiers. Hessian and British soldiers “carried” the prisoners into various churches being used as prisons without feeding them. After five days without food, the McMillans finally received their first meal: “only biscuits from [British] ships, blue, moldy, full [of] bugs, [and] rotten.” The McMillans then found themselves forced onto a cramped, unhygienic prison ship bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they endured “suffering unknown in…true character and intensity, except by…unfortunate fellow soldiers in arms and captivity.” [3]


This 1779 map created by Joseph Des Barres depicts Halifax itself. The full version of the map, found here, also includes Halifax Harbor, where British prison ships like the Lord Stanley were stationed during the Revolutionary War.

Although the McMillan brothers never specified the conditions they faced while imprisoned in Halifax, other Revolutionary War soldiers left detailed accounts in their stead. When famed patriot Ethan Allen “landed at Halifax” as a prisoner, he found himself and thirty three other soldiers “all locked up in one common large room.” Allen ruefully remarked that “the furniture of this spacious room consisted principally of excrement tubs” for the sick prisoners, who the British refused to take to a hospital. John Blatchford, a young American cabin boy, described his experiences in a Halifax “prison which had formerly been a sugar house” as “so irksome” that the prisoners quickly hatched an escape plan. When the British discovered their plan to dig “a small passage under ground” beneath the prison’s stone foundation, they “confined [them] in irons,” resulting in the deaths of several prisoners. Another prisoner recalled how British sentries caught two of his fellow inmates trying to escape while in Halifax, for which they both “received two hundred lashes.” [4]

Conditions on the Halifax prison ships proved just as bad. Before being placed in a Halifax prison, Ethan Allen recalled conditions aboard a prison ship stationed “near the town.” The British did not provide the prisoners with “any sort of medicine” and gave them so little food that the prisoners “were cruelly pinched with hunger [and left] dangerously ill with the scurvy.” Reports of the “most barbarous and inhuman manner” in which prisoners “on board the Lord Stanley prison ship” had been treated while in Halifax harbor caused great concern in the colonies. [5]


Thomas Jefferys’ 1776 map roughly shows the first portion of the McMillans’ journey. In a deposition for Samuel’s pension, William McMillan recalled that the escaped prisoners “came onto Shibemackity, then to the Bay of Fundy.” McMillan referred to the Shubenacadie River, which has been spelled in a variety of ways over time. Here is the full version of this map.

Conditions like these forced the McMillans to escape from Halifax with ten other prisoners on April 27, 1777. Traveling along the Shubenacadie River located northeast of Halifax, the group reached the Bay of Fundy. They likely traveled at least partially by foot along this path; the mouth of the Shubenacadie River features powerful tides which make travel by water extremely treacherous. Upon reaching the Bay of Fundy, the escaped prisoners “purchased a French Canoe and came in it to St. John,” New Brunswick, located on the other side of the bay. [6]

The group continued to face harsh conditions in New Brunswick. William McMillan recalled that

Several times we had likely to been killed by the Indians if we had not had a man that could speak the Canadian language. Once they [aimed] their guns at us and this Canadian spoke their language well and kind Providence saved us in that way. We were ten weeks in the wilderness, sometimes nothing to eat but pulled out grass on the rocks in the Bay, sometimes shellfish [and] snails. We got so poor we could hardly [make] a trill [i.e. whistle]… we suffered everything but death.

Still, the group pressed on, even in their dire condition. [7]


Another portion of Jefferys’ 1776 map shows the final leg of the McMillans’ journey. Machias is located in the top right corner of this image and Casco Bay is in the bottom left corner.

After traveling at least 250 miles, the prisoners finally found their salvation at Machias, a town located along Maine’s northern coastline. Once there, they met with Colonel John Allan of the Massachusetts Militia, who took pity on the group and provided them with a sloop. The weary group traveled to Casco Bay and landed near modern-day Portland, Maine. Samuel McMillan, ill from the harsh journey, had to be left behind to recuperate, while the rest traveled from Casco Bay to Boston, finally returning to familiar land in the July of 1777. Samuel McMillan joined his brother in Boston a few months later, arriving “about the first of August.” It had taken the brothers nearly a year since the Battle of Brooklyn to reach complete safety. [8]

Both McMillan brothers returned to the service, joining the Massachusetts Line in 1777. Samuel McMillan remained with the Sixteenth Massachusetts Regiment until 1780 while William McMillan deserted from his Massachusetts regiment and rejoined the Maryland Line as a lieutenant in 1778, serving until the war’s recruiting in Baltimore. The dangerous, harrowing journey the imprisoned brothers undertook stands out as a testament to the bravery embodied by members of the Maryland 400 during the Revolutionary War. [9]

Full transcriptions of two of the most important and detailed descriptions of the journey from the McMillan pensions can be found here and here. The first transcription is a letter that William McMillan sent to William Clark, U. S. Secretary of the Treasury, in 1828. McMillan encountered difficulties proving that he had been a lieutenant in the Maryland Line and hoped that his “pure and genuine” friendship with Clark might help. The second transcription is a deposition provided by William McMillan for Samuel McMillan’s pension application in 1818. Although much shorter, it provides significantly more details regarding the route the brothers used to escape.

-James Schmitt, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2019


[1] Pension of William McMillan, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 2806, from

[2] William McMillan Pension.

[3] William McMillan Pension.

[4] Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (Burlington: Chauncey Goodrich, 1846, 4th ed.), pp. 66-67; Charles Ira Bushnell, ed., The Narrative of John Blatchford (New York: privately printed, 1865, reprint), pp. 9-12; Davis, ed., The History of Northampton County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Reading, PA: Peter Fritts, 1877), p. 240.

[5] Allen, pp. 63-64; Independent Chronicle (Boston), 19 June 1777.

[6] William McMillan Pension; Pension of Samuel McMillan, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, W 1908, from

[7] William McMillan Pension; Samuel McMillan Pension.

[8] William McMillan Pension; Samuel McMillan Pension.

[9] William McMillan Pension; Samuel McMillan Pension.

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4 Responses to Revisiting the Capture and Escape of the McMillan Brothers

  1. David Lynn Smith says:

    Thank you for this wonderful research.


  2. James, this is an amazing piece. Thank you for researching further the hardships these men endured for our liberty today. These brothers’ story highlights the hardships and ill treatment of the captured during war by the British. These could be made into an inspiring lifetime movie. These are real stories of real men and you bring them to life after 200 years. Thank you again for the research and the compelling writing. We love it! Maybe a future article could be focused on the prisoners of war experience and you could recommend some further reading for those who are interested in learning more. Thank you again! Great work and great prose.


    • James Schmitt says:

      Thank you for the kind words as always!

      The story of the McMillans is truly fascinating and speaks to both their wills to survive and their dedication to the American cause. I do wish that William McMillan had the “quire of paper” to give an even more in-depth account of his escape. If what he left behind was enough to trace the route he took and get a good grasp of the conditions of his journey, a more detailed version could have rivaled some of the more prominent Revolutionary War narratives.

      We have a few articles planned but that is a good idea for an article. For now, here are some examples that I know of already. Although he did not attempt to escape, Ethan Allen’s captivity narrative is a good read. “The Narrative of John Blatchford” features an account of two attempted escapes from Halifax, the second of which resulted in the death of a British soldier (this part of Blatchford’s narrative begins on page 15). Online copies of both are linked to in note four.

      Edwin G. Burrows’ “Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War” is an excellent secondary source of information that I definitely recommend. It focuses primarily on British prisons and prison ships in New York but also features information on prisoner of war conditions elsewhere.



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