Culture

America’s 300 Moment: The Maryland Spartans Who Saved Washington’s Army

Retreat at Long Island (Engraving by J.C. Armytage/National Archives)
Remembering the Marylanders who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn.

Two hundred and forty years ago, America’s “300 Moment” occurred during the Battle of Brooklyn. In one of the greatest, yet now forgotten, small-unit engagements in American history, several hundred Marylanders made an epic stand resembling that of the 300 ancient Spartans at Thermopylae. The Marylanders saved Washington’s Army — and, perhaps, the United States.

On August 27, 1776, over the crackle of musket fire and the boom of cannon, the indomitable Major Mordecai Gist of the Maryland Line ordered his men forward. Shots tore through their ranks. Undaunted, the men continued to surge toward an old stone house occupied by British General Lord Cornwallis and his Redcoats. Thousands of British and Hessian soldiers flanked the Marylanders. Few Americans would survive.

Cornwallis’s men trained a light cannon and musket fire on the advancing Marylanders, who mounted a suicidal preemptive strike on Cornwallis and his men in the Vechte-Cortelyou house — a bayonet charge aimed at protecting their brothers-in-arms and creating a crucial window of time for them to escape to their fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. The soldiers who participated in that unorthodox assault would become known as the “Immortals” or the “Maryland 400” (a classical reference to the ancient Greek stand). With their blood, these men bought, in the words of one American historian, “an hour, more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.”

The British continued “pouring the canister and grape upon the Americans like a shower of hail.” In the melee, “the flower of some of the finest families of the South [were] cut to atoms.”

Defying the carnage unfolding around them, Gist’s men “closed their ranks over the bodies of their dead comrades, and still turned their faces to the foe.”

The boldness of the Marylanders’ charge initially unhinged Cornwallis’s defenses as his gunners nearly abandoned their artillery, but intense fire from the house and fresh reinforcements compelled the Marylanders to retreat before mounting yet another charge.

From a distant hill, General George Washington watched the gallant display through his spyglass. As the Marylanders began to fall, he cried out, “Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”

As the Marylanders began to fall, Washington cried out, ‘Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!’

The story of this lionhearted charge is recounted my new book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of Maryland, some of whom played a key role at the Battle of Brooklyn. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers–treatment of the American Revolution, detailing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence.

It was August of 1776, and America had just declared its independence one month prior. After successfully driving the British out of Boston, General George Washington had marched his army to New York, hoping to prevent the British from capturing the city.

In the invasion, British General William Howe landed more than 20,000 troops on Long Island. He sent a third of his Redcoats and Hessians to attack the American defenses head on, engaging them while 10,000 men looped around and attacked the Patriots from behind.

The plan unfolded precisely as the British intended. Within hours, they had pinned down Washington’s army, drawing it to the brink of destruction. Trapped on the heights of Gowanus, the American army’s only route of escape was to cross Gowanus Creek via the gap in the British line held open by the Marylanders.

Cornwallis’s men fired their weapons on the advancing Marylanders. The barrage stopped the men in their tracks, severing limbs and heads, and killing many instantly. Undeterred, the Americans formed into lines and charged into the hail of fire.

That scene repeated itself several times as the Marylanders battled to allow their retreating countrymen to evade the British. The Marylanders fought valiantly, fearlessly surging again and again into a rain of deadly lead. Ultimately, the British and Hessian forces, massively outnumbering the Marylanders, encircled and defeated the Americans. Only a few would escape death: The Redcoats and Hessians took few prisoners. Maryland’s finest — rich and poor alike — lay dead and dying all around.

But their sacrifice was not in vain. Led by Major Gist, the Marylanders held off the British long enough to save a core of Washington’s troops and, arguably, the bulk of the nascent American army from destruction. The Marylanders’ forlorn assaults allowed hundreds of Americans to escape to the temporary safety of their entrenchments. Gist and several men in his group survived to fight in many crucial battles that changed the fate of a nation.

Tragically, the bodies of the American Spartans who died that day remain undiscovered in a mass grave somewhere in Brooklyn near the Stone House where they fought; their whereabouts, one of the greatest remaining mysteries of the American Revolution.

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