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Newly acquired letters illuminate the lives of Maryland's 'Old Line' soldiers

Studying the "Maryland 400," the Maryland soldiers who gave their lives on a battlefield in Brooklyn, NY, in 1776, through their letters that are stored at the Edward C. Papenfuse State Archives Building. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

Eight months after the founders signed the Declaration of Independence, Maryland sent its most battle-hardened fighting unit to the Eastern Shore to deal with a nest of British sympathizers.

Col. William Smallwood, commander of the 1st Maryland Regiment — the Maryland 400 — knew he'd be facing a recalcitrant bunch. But the depth of the Loyalists' treacheries appalled him.

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There in Worcester County, he met men who had chopped down the Americans' Liberty Poles and replaced them with the British flag, who helped British prisoners escape, and who openly drank to the Crown and the death of the Patriot movement.

"I am daily discovering persons who are not only now disaffected, but whose conduct has been criminal, and [who by] their influence have injured the Comon Cause," Smallwood wrote to one of his superiors from Snow Hill on March 14, 1777.

The letter, and others Smallwood wrote or received during the war, are part of a growing archive that's revealing long-lost details from Maryland's history — and the nation's.

For five years, scholars at the Maryland State Archives and history mavens from the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution have worked on "Finding the Maryland 400," a research project that aims to illuminate the daily lives of the soldiers who served in the 1st Maryland.

Historians say it's no exaggeration to consider the regiment — a band of citizen-soldiers from across the colony, led mostly by upper-class officers — the most important the state has produced.

It was the 1st Maryland that the commander of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington, called on at his moment of direst need at the Battle of Brooklyn in New York, a savage conflict that saw the British nearly kill the American Revolution in its cradle.

A mere six weeks after the Declaration was signed, on the morning of Aug. 27, 1776, a force of nearly 30,000 soldiers led by British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surprised the vastly smaller and less experienced American Army on western Long Island.

The Brits were on their way to annihilating the entire Continental force when Washington chose the 1st Maryland to save the day.

The unit had never seen combat, but many of its core members had been training independently since the group's unofficial founding in Baltimore in 1774, and its generally affluent officer corps had helped ensure it would be one of the best equipped in the Continental Army.

About 400 of the nearly 900 Marylanders who were present on Long Island that day covered Washington's retreating army by repeatedly charging a critical British gun emplacement. Nearly 260 of the 400 were either captured or killed, but their sacrifice allowed the rest of the American troops to escape to fight another day — and ultimately to win independence for a new nation.

The 19th-century historian Thomas Field called the stand of the Maryland Line "an hour more precious to American liberty than any other." But the lives of its soldiers have long been shrouded in mystery.

James A. Adkins, a vice president of the Maryland chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and a backer of the project, says that's because it's easier for scholars to capture the broad strokes of military history than its narrative details — particularly when chronicling events so far in the past.

It was also one in which ordinary citizens' names rarely appeared in government documents when newspapers were few in number, and when the illiteracy rate was high.

"We do a good job [chronicling] units and generals," says Adkins, a retired Army major general who commanded the Maryland National Guard from 2008 to 2015. "We wanted to identify and tell the stories of the soldiers. We want to remember and honor these great Americans who served and sacrificed for our nation."

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To that end, a team of historians and research interns from the Archives and several members of Adkins' organization have been trying to learn as much as possible about the men.

Led by project director Owen Lourie, a historian with the state archives, and Adkins, about a dozen researchers have combed documents from the era to unearth the names of the men, most of which had been lost to history, and write biographies of as many as possible.

Since starting in 2013, they've pored through enough enlistment papers, muster rolls, pay records and military supply requests to identify 870 of the soldiers — nearly 97 percent of the regiment.

The information provided the platform from which to investigate further.

Armed with names and hometowns, researchers tracked down and studied property records, wills, family accounts, letters and newspaper clippings to produce more than 550 relatively detailed biographies.

And so did they resurrect the stories of hundreds of Marylanders who had all but disappeared from history — even after risking or giving their lives to preserve the liberty Americans still enjoy today.

Most were ordinary individuals, farmers, traders or small merchants who hailed from locations across the state. Many were first- or second-generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland or Germany.

Some were still in their teens.

William Sands, a 19-year-old sergeant from Annapolis, sent two letters home from the front. (He was probably made a sergeant, Lourie says, in part because he could write.)

In the first, posted from Philadelphia six weeks before the Battle of Brooklyn, he sounded more concerned about petty gossip than he did about combat.

"As for your advise, I am very much obliged to you, but am very sorry anybody should raise such false reports," he wrote his parents. "The girl is not in company with me … I have nothing to say to her, and I hope you will not think any more of it."

His tone was darker a month later. Aug. 14 found him watching grimly from an encampment outside New York as the largest fleet of warships since the Spanish Armada poured into New York Harbor.

"We are ordered to hold ourselves in readiness," Sands wrote. "We expect an attack hourly. We have lost a good many of our troops. They have deserted from us at Philadelphia and Elizabethtown, and a great many sick in the hospital … We expect, please God, to winter in Annapolis, those that live of us."

He was killed in the swamps of Brooklyn 13 days later. His parents received both letters some time later.

Most of the soldiers who were 30 years of age or older were officers, but the researchers found exceptions. Take Zachariah Gray, a father of five from Baltimore County. He was 45 when he enlisted as a corporal in early 1776.

It's unknown why he joined at his advanced age — most soldiers' motivations remain lost to time — but we do know that his unit, the Third Company, sustained heavy losses in the Battle of Brooklyn. A troop-strength list a month after the confrontation showed the 74-member company down to 29 soldiers.

Gray was taken prisoner, but the carnage of the battle must have shaken him: he returned to Maryland and composed "a short will" in January 1777. He died in a skirmish later that year.

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The Smallwood letters are valuable in a different way.

Though Smallwood, a well-to-do planter from Charles County, was commander of the 1st Maryland (a newspaper reporter erroneously dubbed the entire regiment the "Maryland 400" in the 1890s), he was on the sidelines for the Battle of Brooklyn.

In what Lourie describes as a rookie mistake, Washington — a stickler for administrative detail — insisted on sending Smallwood and several other members of his high command to Manhattan to take part in a court-martial on the morning of Aug. 27.

By the time he arrived at the battle site at Gowanus Swamp, the fight was well under way. Barred from approaching, Smallwood is said to have watched in horror from a nearby hilltop.

The letters to and from the future governor illustrate life in the regiment in the months and years after Brooklyn — such as when Maryland's provincial government sent him and his men to capture the British Loyalists.

Smallwood's indignation comes to life as he describes the prisoners' behavior.

"I made it my particular duty to treat [them] with politeness," he writes, but they "descended to a degree of Petulance which ... as gentlemen and well wishers to their country, they ought to have held themselves above."

Adkins says he knew nothing of the letters until last winter, when word reached him that a private collector planned to put them up for sale at auction.

The local Sons of the American Revolution chapter — the project's main funding source — staked him to $17,000 for the bidding, and he raised a few thousand more. When another bidder drove up the price, Adkins had a decision to make: throw in money of his own or throw in the towel.

He won with a $28,000 bid.

Though they're yellowed with age, the letters remain in "remarkably good shape," in Lourie's words, in part because the paper used at the time had a high cotton content.

Most remain in the Archives conservation lab, where conservators are working to stabilize the paper and repair minor tears.

Once that work is done, Lourie and his team will transcribe the handwritten content and post it online along with the letters.

That work is expected to be complete by late August, when Adkins' group plans to unveil the Smallwood materials at a formal ceremony at the Maryland State House.

The research team plans to complete the project by year's end — and to gather its contents into a book well in advance of the semiquincentennial — America's 250th birthday — in 2026.

One of the goals of "Finding the Maryland 400," Adkins says, has been to rescue this treasure trove of information from the courthouses, attics and private collections where it has lived for so long, and to make it accessible to the public.

Another is simply to get the word out about these heroes' lives. That process is already under way.

More and more descendants of the Maryland 400 have been contacting the team with questions and new information, Lourie says. And their work is making its way into academia.

Adam Goodheart, a history professor at Washington College, has been giving the team student interns and advice for years. He's teaching a course — "Finding the Maryland 400: A Revolutionary Mystery" — on the subject.

He took his 12 students to New York one recent weekend to explore the battlefield, now obscured beneath layers of asphalt and concrete.

As they gazed across the city from the World Trade Center, Goodheart says, it was not hard to envision the massive British fleet that arrived in the harbor 242 years ago, ready to snuff out the new nation.

Then came the battle, and the 400, whose sacrifice earned for Maryland its nickname: "The Old Line State."

Goodheart's students are writing some of the last biographies of those men. He's proud of their work.

"It has been hundreds of years since anyone has thought about many of these heroic people," he says. "It's a powerful thing to resurrect their memory."

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