A month after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, some 400 Marylanders saved the Continental Army from near-certain annihilation.
A superior British force was poised to finish off the Americans at the Battle of Brooklyn — a disaster that likely would have snuffed out the new nation. Then the Marylanders turned and attacked.
Nearly 260 of the 400 were captured or killed. But their sacrifice allowed the rest of the Continental Army to escape, regroup and ultimately win independence for the Colonies.
Now a team of young researchers, urged on by the present-day commander of the Maryland National Guard, aims to bring the Maryland 400 back to life.
Working at the State Archives in Annapolis, they have been poring over yellowed pay abstracts and muster rolls, handwritten letters and wills to learn who served in the 1st Maryland Regiment, who fought at the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), and what became of them.
Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the adjutant general of the state guard, kick-started the effort last summer with a $1,000 check.
"It's a tremendous story of not only service, but sacrifice," he said. "Some people have dabbled in the Maryland 400 story, but I didn't think they'd really done it justice. It's one of those hidden pieces of Maryland history and our nation's history that really has not been covered."
Just why the story of the Maryland 400 isn't better known is something of a mystery. The battle in August 1776 made the men famous in their day; Gen. George Washington lauded them as saviors of the new nation. Their stand at the Gowanus Swamp in Brooklyn is what gave Maryland the nickname Old Line State. They are the subject of at least one book, and are discussed in others.
When state historian Owen Lourie began the research project, he figured it would largely be a matter of compiling material from published sources.
"These are guys who were recognized as heroes, more or less, since the battle happened," he said.
But Lourie said he and his team of three interns found "surprisingly large holes in what we know about them."
Working largely from 230-year-old documents from the State Archives and other collections, the researchers have identified 850 of the roughly 1,000 members of the 1st Maryland Regiment. They've written biographies of more than 80.
The roster reads like a who's who of 18th century Maryland. With officers drawn from the state's most prominent families, the 1st Maryland Regiment included three future governors, the state's first four adjutants general, several future congressmen and many state legislators and other officials.
All signed on to fight for a nation that, at the time, was little more than an idea. In the days before the confrontation in New York, the British believed they would make quick work of the American volunteers — and they were very nearly right.
"The British had determined that they were going to put an end to what they called the Rebel upstarts," said Linda Davis Reno, author of "The Maryland 400 in the Battle of Long Island 1776." "They figured that by taking New York, they could cut off the shipping of goods and materials to the Southern colonies, and in that way they would put an end to things."
The British sent the largest fleet since the Spanish Armada to New York. On the ground, the lead division was led by Lt. Gen. Lord Cornwallis.
Washington, meanwhile, still was assembling the Continental Army from the widely varying militias of the disparate colonies.
Among them, the Marylanders had better arms and more training. Washington, a Virginian familiar with his neighbors' potential in battle, had planned to hold them in reserve as a comparatively elite force.
But at Brooklyn, that turned out to be a luxury he couldn't afford.