Historians at the Maryland State Archives are piecing together new information on the soldiers of the Maryland 400, the Revolutionary War outfit that fought in the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.
They’re learning more about the lives of some of those soldiers whose vastly outnumbered unit took heavy losses in the first and biggest battle of the war holding off the British while the rest of George Washington’s army regrouped at Brooklyn Heights.
The story starts in late August in Brooklyn. That always means a series of Battle of Brooklyn ceremonies with guns and cannons firing and people in 18th century garb, all to honor the lives of Washington’s men.
At this year’s ceremonies, we’re learning more about the Maryland 400 thanks to the Maryland State Archives.
"We describe them as the men who helped save George Washington’s army," says historian Owen Lourie - the project director at the state archives.
Lourie says at first he thought that saving George Washington’s army thing was hyperbole – but he quickly realized it’s not.
“The revolution could have ended in one day if it weren’t for the Maryland 400,” he says.
So, who are these soldiers the archives team dug up new information about? And where did it come from?
The Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution—the S.A.R.--bought a trove of letters about the soldiers under the command of General William Smallwood.
Lourie researched letters connected to the life of Charles Thompson, who was captured by the British, eventually escaped and made his way back to the American forces to re-enlist—to fight.
But it’s a complicated story, and Lourie says the 1780 letter explains all that. After Thompson was captured, the British forced him into their army. And when he escaped, both sides thought he was a deserter.
Lourie says Thompson wanted to return to the fighting, but the American commanders didn’t know if it would be safe for him to be back on a battlefield because the British would not treat him as a prisoner.
“They’d execute him for deserting.”
In another biography historian Natalie Miller looks at the story of Edward Edgerly and a remarkable thing his friends did for his son. It happened after Edgerly died near the end of the war, leaving his son an orphan.
Captain Edgerly’s friends stepped in—Miller has the letter documenting this--and arranged for his son to get interest on his military pay, a trust fund as a child and his dad’s back pay when he reached 21. She calls it "a remarkable letter they wrote."
"His son was a 'helpless minor' at the end of the war," she added.
Elizabeth Cassibry, a Washington College student and archives intern, worked on the story of a Baltimorean named Tobias Stansbury.
"This Baltimore boy was only 17 at the Battle of Brooklyn," she says. "He re-enlisted and then marching to headquarters he and his unit were captured."
And here’s where the story takes a turn. The Redcoats shipped him off to a Caribbean Island where some fellow Masons helped free him by arranging a prisoner exchange.
Cassibry says he returned to his unit and fought at the battle of Yorktown, the decisive ending of the American Revolution.
The State Archives’ Maryland 400 biography project is to be formally announced at the state house in Annapolis Sunday to mark the 242ND anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Tom Moore, a native Baltimorean, is a journalism professor at the City University of New York – at York College, in Queens and CBS News Radio writer. He lives in Brooklyn.