For a moment today, we are given a chance to look back on our countries revolutionary history, and for Maryland, its contribution to the effort in seeking independence.
Maryland, one of the thirteen original colonies, was certainly not the first to incite rebellion, and was not the quickest to join the cause, but it is a state that embraced its role, and commanded its strategic position of the Chesapeake; a cross roads between the northern and southern theatres of the conflict. Heroes such as Maj. John Stewart and Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman are often praised and romanticized in our state’s recollection of Revolutionary War history, but to delve into the true history of the conflict would begin to tell a much different story. It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement of the day, but to understand the tribulations of the common soldier on the battlefields of America’s birth is to share in a story that is just as humbling as it is patriotic.
“The nickname the Old Line state comes from Maryland’s first contribution to the regular army,” explained Kenneth Cohen, an associate professor of History at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Gen. Washington famously called Maryland’s forces, “the Old Line,” for their discipline in battle, holding up the backbone of America’s untrained army. To appreciate the value of Maryland’s troops at the time, one has to understand, the Patriots were not in the vast majority. Cohen made note that recent studies only suggest 30% of all Americans were ever able to contribute to the Patriot cause, including petitioning, organizing as groups and most rarely in actually fighting. “There’s no reason to think Maryland was any different,” said Cohen.
Despite these factors, Maryland was able to place a strong crop of troops in the hands of the revolutionary army, perhaps even funding their regiments better than other states. With revolutionary fervor connected most heavily with cities, Annapolis and Baltimore became boom-towns in their efforts to keep the besieged cities well supplied. It was from this same attitude that a group known as the Maryland 400 gave rise. Maj. John Stewart, a Maryland native, won fame at the battle of Stony Point, for bravely leading troops to take a British fort, and another Marylander, Lt. Col Tench Tilghman, was lauded as an excellent camp aid to Gen. Washington himself, but these Maryland names are simply the ones who have won fame from wealth and the efforts of their families to preserve their legacy. It’s easy to be a war hero when fortune is already at hand, and much harder when giving anything to the War effort comes at the sacrifice of everything one has; the Maryland 400 were simple, average men who were able to forge the name of the “Old Line State” through their fearless contribution.
‘Finding the Maryland 400’ is a Maryland State Archive project, dedicated to preserving the legacy of a group of men who didn’t come from a spot of wealth and didn’t have the means to write history books to their legacy. The Maryland 400 were the men of the 1st Maryland Regiment. The Maryland State Archive project recently published another post about the Maryland 400, describing their famous moment in the Battle of Brooklyn in August of 1776. Titled “He never gave them an inch before he found that he had nothing left to keep them off with,” and written by team member Nick Couto, the post describes the regiment, then numbered at only 270 men, which began a delaying effort in order to hold off British forces, and allow the remaining American forces to retreat. The forces stayed in fighting until all of their ammunition was expended, and all means of fighting back were rendered useless. Having sacrificed to save their fellow soldiers, Maj. John Steward and his few remaining men surrendered to British captors, where they were then held in the inhospitable captivity of the British prison ships.
“Signing up for the regulars was sort of a career choice of last resort,” said Cohen, “and these are guys who get treaty pretty badly at the end of the war.” As the war dragged on, Maryland, which was once able to organize and fund its regiments well, became incapable of paying its soldiers. Washington county was organized in Western Maryland as a payment through land for the Maryland soldiers. Being given a random track of land on the other side of the state was often of little immediate value to these soldiers and they began to sell it for pennies on the dollar, in desperation to get any value out of their payment. “These soldiers who didn’t get paid and then sold their land, most of them end up migrating West and we lose track of them,” said Cohen.
It can be so easy, especially on a day like the Fourth of July, to become distracted by fireworks and the mythology that surrounds the war for independence, and lose sight of the true cost. Fighting this war came with an immense sacrifice. In a time when even signing a petition against the crown was an act of treason, those who went above and beyond simple acts of defiance, and invested all they had towards the alien concept of independence created something truly unique for the time, and perhaps not enough reverence is given to the bloody payment for freedom.