The day Maryland saved America: The Maryland 400
There is an old Dutch farmhouse in Brooklyn (circa 1699) known as the "Old Stone House" where a Maryland flag hangs on the front. This is the site where the Revolutionary War was almost lost, if not for the courage and sacrifice of 400 young men and boys from Maryland.
These 400 "sons of Baltimore" held off the British Army, outnumbered by more than five to one, in order to buy time for Gen. George Washington to evacuate the rest of the Continental Army across the East River to fight another day.
Today marks the 243rd anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on Aug. 27, 1776, just six weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.
I thought I knew my American history, and yet I had never heard of the story of the Battle of Brooklyn or the Maryland 400 until I met Chris Formant, author of Saving Washington: The Forgotten Story of the Maryland 400 and The Battle of Brooklyn. Chris said the same thing, which is why he had to write the book and tell the story.
The British had decided to put a quick end to the American Revolution by sending the biggest armada in history (more than 450 ships and 10,000 men) across the Atlantic to descend on New York Harbor and crush Washington and his band of rebels. They surrounded the Continental Army in Brooklyn Heights and backed them up against the East River, where their armada of frigates was waiting to capture them if they tried to retreat. This was the situation at midmorning on Aug. 27.
Washington met with his troop commanders at his headquarters to assess the dire situation and plan their next steps. There were two options being discussed. One was to concentrate the Continental Army and attempt to hold off the British in a stalemate but risk the end of the Revolution if they failed. The other was to evacuate the army across the East River, but they needed time to gather boats to transport the 2,000 troops to the safety of the forts in lower Manhattan. Colonel Stirling offered his 1st Maryland regiment of 400 volunteer militiamen to serve as the rear guard tasked with holding the whole British Army off long enough to give Washington the precious time needed. Washington agreed with Stirling's plan.
Stirling went to the commander of the Maryland regiment, Major Mordecai Gist, to give him the unpleasant orders, which he knew was a suicide mission. In an unexpected gesture, he said to Gist, "One more thing ... I intend to remain with you and the Maryland Regiment."
The rest of that fateful day played out as the Maryland 400 did the unthinkable in a desperate act of courage and perseverance. They attacked the entire British army at the Old Stone House not once but six times throughout the afternoon! Their act of courage confused the British Army and distracted them from pursuing Washington. Instead, they protected their officer's headquarters in that Old Stone House.
Stirling and Gist fought side by side with their men throughout the battle. Washington's army was able to withdraw across the East River under the cover of fog, avoiding the wrath of the British gunships.
Gist was among a dozen men to make it back to the river and safely make it back across to the safety of the forts in lower Manhattan. Stirling was captured by the British and would later be returned in a prisoner exchange. The rest of the Maryland 400 were killed, wounded and captured that day. Many were buried in anonymous graves under the streets of Brooklyn. Washington, as he witnessed the daring attacks from his post, was quoted as saying, "Good God! What brave fellows I must lose this day!"
This is the story of how Maryland became known as the "Old Line State." The 19th Century historian, Thomas Field, called the stand of the Maryland Line “an hour more precious to American liberty than any other.”
Listen to author Chris Formant tell the story in this episode of our "Future-Proof" podcast:
Author Chris Formant summarizes it well in this op-ed he wrote for Time:
[caption id="attachment_578522" align="alignright" width="220"] Tom Hood and Sharon Hood with Chris Formant at Barnes & Noble at the Power Plant in Baltimore on July 4, 2019.[/caption]
“We celebrate our winners. The battles won. Our championship teams. The gold medals earned. In spite of the Battle of Brooklyn being the largest and bloodiest battle of the American Revolution, the Americans were completely routed. A humiliated Washington almost lost the war that day. It was not a moment of celebration, but one of desperation. A moment the country wanted to forget.
“But in a larger sense, the Maryland 400’s sacrifice at this most pivotal moment in American history now shines through the dense fog of history. Like the legendary Spartans of Thermopylae, America’s most important, yet most forgotten heroes should serve as a beacon — an illuminating reminder of the selfless devotion of true patriotism.”
In today's world, we need heroes more than ever to inspire us — people who are willing to sacrifice for the greater good, for ideas that matter, and ultimately for our fellow brothers and sisters. The Maryland 400 provides a timeless example of courage and sacrifice, passion and perseverance. And in the words of Gen. Washington, "A grateful nation thanks you and your men for your honorable and faithful service."
Some final thoughts:
Serendipity is the act of finding valuable things when you are not looking for them, and this post is full of serendipity.
Let's start with the author. I met Chris Formant on the Fourth of July at a book signing at Barnes & Noble in the Power Plant last month. Turns out he worked with a past chair (1987-88) of the MACPA Board of Directors and friend of mine, Dave Spilman. Dave, who died on Sept. 22, 2005, was the first business and industry chair in MACPA's history.
Major Mordecai Gist was also related to MACPA's history. Gist was the fourth child of Thomas and Susannah Cockey Gist. Susannah Cockey was part of the Cockey family of Cockeysville, Md., and she was related to one of the founders of the MACPA, Edward C. Cockey. Edward C. Cockey's grandfather, Edward, was one of the officers in the "Maryland Line" at the Battle of Brooklyn and, according to our history books, "a thorough accountant" in relation to business matters. His grandson, Edward, later came from the family farm in Cockeysville to Baltimore to apply his knowledge of accounting to the new industrial revolution then under way in the late 1800s. He was among the founders of an association dedicated to accounting called the Institute of Accounts and would later inspire both the Maryland Association of CPAs and the American Institute of CPAs.
Can you believe a pre-CPA accountant was one of the Maryland 400?
This gives a whole new meaning to CPAs saving the world.
Today we remember the Maryland 400, who are no longer forgotten. Our grateful nation thanks you.
More resources about the Battle of Brooklyn and the Maryland 400: