The Maryland Line and The Creation of the Society of the Cincinnati

As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, Continental Army officers and their French allies wanted an effective way to preserve the values they had fought for and the intense camaraderie that they had developed throughout the war. Major General Henry Knox proposed an organization which would do exactly that in May of 1783: the Society of the Cincinnati. At least twenty-four members of the Maryland 400 joined the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland in its inception. Today’s post will take a closer look at the origins of the national Society of the Cincinnati and its Maryland branch, as well as the early problems the society encountered. [1]

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A statue of Cincinnatus located in Cincinnati, Ohio’s Sawyer Point Park.

The society’s name referenced Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman who accepted complete control over Rome during a major crisis, then gave up power after resolving it. Like Cincinnatus, the officers viewed themselves as giving up power to the civilian government to return to the lives they led prior to the war. George Washington exemplified this transition of power when he resigned at the Maryland State House in 1783. [2]

The society’s original Institution specifically upheld the following principles:

An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature for which they have fought and bled… An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American Empire… [and] to render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the officers… [3]


Levin Winder’s original Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland certificate. Winder served in the Maryland Line from 1776 to 1783.

Any officer who had served for three years, served until the end of the war, or had been unwillingly discharged during army restructuring would be eligible to join. A hereditary system which passed membership to an officer’s eldest son was also adopted to ensure that the ideals the officers had fought for would not fade over time. The eldest sons of officers who died during the war were also allowed to join in their fathers’ places. Members would meet annually to commemorate their role in the Revolutionary War and contribute money to a fund to help impoverished officers and their families. George Washington served as the society’s first national president, but not without reservations influenced by the society’s critics. [4]

The society first met with criticism and controversy shortly after its creation. Aedanus Burke, a South Carolina soldier and judge, accused the officers—under the influence of European officers like Baron Friedrich von Steuben—of attempting to recreate European systems of hereditary nobility which would replace civilian control of the government. Notable civilian politicians echoed Burke’s views. John Adams referred to “the new order of Knights” as “the deepest Project of Evil which has yet been laid” while Thomas Jefferson believed that the organization was part of a plot to force Washington to “assume himself the crown.” Others were indignant that officers seemingly claimed to possess superior Revolutionary status compared to civilians who had not fought in the war. Washington took the criticism seriously, demanding that the hereditary membership clause be abolished and that tighter restrictions should be placed on who could become an honorary member. [5]

William Smallwood and Mordecai Gist, the first President and Vice President of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland. Nathaniel Ramsey served as the first Treasurer.

The society’s Maryland branch encountered similar problems. The Maryland Line had been in the field when the national society was founded, which delayed the creation of the Maryland society until November of 1783. The gathering of at least eighty officers in Annapolis caused great alarm in the civilian government. Maryland governor William Paca frantically ordered Colonel James Brice “immediately to equip and completely arm” militia to protect the Maryland General Assembly and the state treasury. Maryland politicians feared a repeat of a mutiny in Pennsylvania that had happened mere months ago, when soldiers—partially led by Henry Carberry, a member of the Maryland 400—occupied the Pennsylvania State House demanding pay for their services. The Maryland officers did not attempt to overthrow the state government as feared, instead peacefully electing William Smallwood and Mordecai Gist to be the Maryland Society’s first president and vice president respectively. The Marylanders appointed Paca as an honorary member of the society, which seemingly reassured him of their motives. [6]

Although criticism surrounding the society slowly stopped, Maryland officers began to lose interest. The national society adopted amendments which abolished its hereditary aspects at Washington’s request in 1784 and, to some, seemed to have strayed from its original goals. In 1785, official Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland records described how “the warm spirit of friendship, with which the Officers of the late Maryland Line were actuated in the infancy of this Institution, [suffered] a rapid declension.” Only twenty-five members attended the 1786 meeting; Smallwood himself did not attend, despite remaining the organization’s president. Maryland officers still contributed a month’s pay to a pension fund for impoverished families of impoverished officers, and also donated money to educational funds for orphans. The society continued to support efforts to resolve issues over payment issues for former officers as well. [7]

The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland continued to operate into the nineteenth century despite attendance issues, and rescinded the amendment prohibiting hereditary membership in 1800. The Maryland branch experienced a resurgence in 1824 because of a visit from the Marquis de Lafayette, the last surviving French general to have fought in the Revolutionary War. Interest waned again until the death of Gassaway Watkins, then president and last surviving original member of the Society of Maryland, in 1840. Watkins’s death inspired Marylanders to reexamine their role in the Revolutionary War, culminating in the founding of the Maryland Historical Society in 1844. In 1854, the national society also adopted a plan for including the descendants of officers who failed to join when it was founded to further rekindle interest. [8]

Despite early issues involving civilian concern over potential coups and early losses of interest among members, the Society of the Cincinnati still operates today. It primarily focuses on educating the public about the Revolutionary War. The Maryland branch is one of six Societies of the Cincinnati which have operated continually since its founding, upholding the ideals the Maryland 400 fought for in 1776. [9]

Members of the Maryland 400 who became founding members of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland include William Bruce, John Davidson, Hezekiah Foard, Henry Chew Gaither, John Gassaway, Mordecai Gist, Daniel Jenifer, John Jordan, Joseph Marbury, Samuel McPherson, Walker Muse, James Peale, Edward Prall, Nathaniel Ramsey, Francis Reveley, Alexander Roxburgh, John Sears, William Smallwood, Samuel Smith, William Smoot, John Hoskins Stone, Francis Ware, Levin Winder, Samuel Turbutt Wright. Although George Hamilton, Samuel Hanson, and two different people named John Smith were original members of the Maryland society, they cannot be definitively linked to the Maryland 400.

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


[1] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), p. 353.

[2] Edgar Erskine Hume, “The Role of the Society of the Cincinnati in the Birth of the Constitution of the United States,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 5, no. 2 (April 1938), pp. 101-102; Royster, pp. 353-354

[3] The Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati,, Society of the Cincinnati, accessed 11 October 2019.

[4] Royster, p. 353-354; John Dwight Kilbourne, A Short History of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army (Baltimore: Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland, 1992), p. 66.

[5] John Adams to Samuel Osgood, 9 April 1784, Founders Online, National Archives; Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1 (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904), Online Library of Liberty; Royster, pp. 349-350, 354-356.

[6] Kilbourne, pp. 63-65; Journal and Correspondence of the Council of Maryland, 1781-1784, Maryland Archives Online, vol. 48, pp. 483-484; Benjamin Franklin to Sarah Bache, 26 January 1784, Founders Online, National Archives.

[7] Kilbourne, 67-68; Register of the Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland (Baltimore: A. Hoen and Company), p. 41; Rieman Steuart, A History of the Maryland Line in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783 (Towson, MD: Metropolitan Press, 1969), p. 167.

[8] The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland,, Society of the Cincinnati, accessed 11 October 2019.

[9] President General’s Welcome,, The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed 11 October 2019; The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland; Membership,, The Society of Cincinnati, accessed 21 October 2019.

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6 Responses to The Maryland Line and The Creation of the Society of the Cincinnati

  1. Richard Azzaro says:

    Excellent work.

    Do you have any information about Col. Gassaway Watkins? We know that he served as the President in the Maryland Chapter, but we would love any additional information, especially anecdotes.


    Richard Azzaro


    • James Schmitt says:

      Hello, and thank you for reading!

      Yes, we have a biography for Gassaway Watkins. Watkins wrote a partial memoir that was discovered after his death, which includes a few unique moments in his military career. One such anecdote involved Watkins hiding from Banastre Tarleton‘s soldiers for two days and nights, and another describes how Watkins protected orders from Nathanael Greene after the Battle of Cowan’s Ford.

      Gassaway Watkins’ biography can be found here:


  2. Karen Charbonneau says:

    Well done. I truly enjoyed reading your essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. James, Another excellent article and how the Maryland 400 impacted numerous things. I am a member of the Cincinnati through Virginia where my family is originally from but have long read about the prestigious Maryland Society. I have often used and enjoyed reading the Steuart publication too because it has so much detail about the officers, the battles, etc. I am glad to see it referenced. It is hard to find and I had to obtain my copy through an ebay listing some years back. These articles are fascinating to see how much this Battalion of Smallwood’s men impacted Maryland and the nation’s history. We are grateful for your research and prose. Keep up the great work.

    Richard, The author of the Washington’s Immortals – Patrick O’Donnell freely wrote about Gassaway Watkins in his recent book on the Maryland 400 that he called Washington’s Immortals and followed their campaigns through the full war into the south well after the heroic deeds at the Battle of Brooklyn. You and your team of volunteers are to be commended for honoring Watkins gravesite. It looks better and better each year.


    • James Schmitt says:

      Thank you again for reading these articles! Thank you for pointing out the typo; Owen told me about it and it has now been fixed. This is the last article of my internship, which ends tomorrow (October 29), so I am glad that it has been well-received.

      Learning more about the Society of the Cincinnati and its Maryland branch led to some details that I previously had not read before, including William Paca’s reaction to the officers’ meeting in Annapolis.

      Reiman Steuart’s book has been extremely useful to me during my internship, although some dates of commission can understandably be a bit off. It’s provided excellent leads and can act as a good way to double check information.


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