The Unknown Heroes Who Helped Win The American Revolution

Download Audio
Patrick O'Donnell, military historian and author of "Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed The Course of the Revolution." (Courtesy of Patrick O'Donnell via Theo Coulombe)
Patrick O'Donnell, military historian and author of "Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed The Course of the Revolution." (Courtesy of Patrick O'Donnell via Theo Coulombe)

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington often turned to a group of citizen-soldiers from Maryland. But their actions haven't really been documented until now.

A new book traces the story of a regiment that came to be known as "Washington's Immortals," who made their first historic contribution in August 1776, during the Battle of Brooklyn.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Patrick O'Donnell, a military historian and author, about his new book, "Washington's Immortals."

Interview Highlights: Patrick O'Donnell

On how he first heard about "Washington's Immortals"

"About six years ago, I was asked by the commanding officer of [the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment] who was in the Battle of Fallujah with me, what I wanted to do in New York City. And he asked if I wanted to see the Met. I said, ‘No, how about we go do a battle field tour of Brooklyn’ And we met at Green-Wood Cemetery where the battle began, the largest battle of the American Revolution begins, outside of the gates of Green-Wood Cemetery, which at that time was a watermelon patch, interestingly enough, and the Red Lion Inn.

We visited that site, we visited the site of Battle Hill, walked up and down the streets and alleys of Brooklyn and found an old, stone house where really one of the epic small-unit engagements in American history occurred. 400 Marylanders charged multiple times into the stone house, which was occupied by Cornwallis, through braving cannister and grape, walking over the bodies of their own men to basically create an opening in the British lines that allowed the American army to escape. And I was, I was fascinated by what happened at that house, and then we walked a couple blocks further down the road, and I found a rusted old sign that said, 'Here lie 256 Continental soldiers, Maryland heroes.' The mass grave of the men that made this charge.

These men are buried somewhere in Brooklyn under a street or an empty lot. I became fascinated, I become obsessed with finding the story behind that sign, who these men were. And I started putting together tiny threads, and this is the first time the Marylanders’ story has been told, in ‘Washington's Immortals.’"

On how he pieced the story together

"Picture a Roman mosaic that had been shattered into thousands of pieces. And I kind of felt like an archaeologist putting together tiny pieces of this jigsaw puzzle through pension files, through diaries and letters, and I went all around the world to find their story.

This is the first kind of ‘Band of Brothers’-style history and what I mean by that, it's the main officers and men of the Maryland line and their entire war beginning in 1774 in a small tavern where these men organized and formed the first independent company called the Baltimore Independent Cadets. They were known as men of family, fortune and honor. They were the richest men of Baltimore at the time that basically committed treason. They sacrificed their fortunes, in many cases, their lives, to form this small, independent company which then blossoms into the 1st Maryland Regiment, or Smallwood’s battalion initially, and then later on into some of the greatest frightening regiments of the American Revolution. These men fought in nearly every major battle during the war, beginning in Brooklyn, where these men were American's Spartans basically.

This was our ‘300’ moment, where these men basically charged and sacrificed their lives to save the American army that day. It was a pivotal time, Basically the war could have been snuffed out had it not been for the sacrifices of these men and it's my goal, to tell their story and bring awareness to who they were, and in the process, this book tells a story of who we are as Americans."

"The men of the Marylanders were committing treason to fight for what they believed in, their cause. It's their resilience that we see through eight long years of work. These men marched 4,600 miles in just a two-and-a-half year period."

Patrick O'Donnell

On the Marylanders' characteristics as a unit

"The men of the Marylanders were committing treason to fight for what they believed in, their cause. And it's their resilience that we see through eight long years of work. These men marched 4,600 miles in just a two-and-a-half year period. Many of these men had never been paid. They also had to face the first civil war. What I mean by that was, there was about a third of the colonies that were loyal to the crown. I looked at the war not only as a conventional war, but also an insurgency. That's why these men, arguably — I've written seven books on World War II and I've interviewed over 4,000 World War II veterans — I think they are the greatest generation, because of what they had to overcome. Not only one of the most formidable and adaptable armies in the world, the British Army, but also fellow Americans and that's, I think, an incredible achievement that they were able to do that. And it was also at the time the first, it was a global war. The American Revolution which most people don't realize was a global war once France becomes involved and the British have to protect their overseas territories and colonies, which bleeds troops off from North America. This becomes a central portion of the American Revolution."

On what he learned about George Washington while writing the book

"I think that our view of Washington is sort of trapped in the amber of oil paintings. This is an incredible individual that in many cases led these men from the front. One of my favorite stories, it’s from a pension file — what I mean is, after the war if you were lucky enough to survive the Revolution you could go down to the local courthouse and swear under oath what you did — one of my favorites is from Lawrence Everhart, Marylander Lawrence Everhart, who survives the Battle of Fort Washington.

Fort Washington was a massacre where many men were killed and captured. But he was able to find a rowboat and row across the river to Fort Lee and he saw Washington there looking at the carnage going on at Fort Washington through his spy glass, and Everhart captures the moment. He says that Washington has tears in his eyes as he sees his men being bayoneted by Hessians. I mean that's what 'Washington's Immortals' captures, it's kind of the hidden war of the American Revolution. It's the stories of these men in their own words, and I think that's what makes this book very unique. It's a lot of the enlisted men that fought at the tip of the spear, the privates and the corporals as well as the officers."

On what happened to the Washington and the Marylanders after the war

"The Marylanders, like Washington — this is I think one of the great moments of the book — Washington, who has supreme power at the end of the war, is able to be a dictator if he wants to. But in the Maryland statehouse in 1783, in that winter, George Washington resigns his commission. The men of the Maryland line are all there with him and they resign their commissions and they hang up their swords and muskets and uniforms and they go back to civilian life.

This is a book about citizen soldiers that serve their cause and they go back to normal life. My goal is to somehow bring, I hope, through this book to raise awareness and bring the men of honor family and fortune home and find their mass grave in Brooklyn."

Book Excerpt: 'Washington's Immortals'

"Washington's Immortals," by Patrick O'Donnell.
"Washington's Immortals," by Patrick O'Donnell.

The sign is rusted and scarred. Its aqua-blue surface bears the fading words “MARYLAND HEROES.” Suspended from a piece of corroded iron, it marks a mass grave:

Here lie buried 256 Maryland soldiers
Who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn
August 27, 1776

I encountered that neglected piece of history in September 2010 during a walking tour of the neighborhood where the Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, took place. Today it is a depressed area filled with auto repair shops and warehouses. The bright spot is a well-worn, decades-old American Legion post. Several blocks northeast are the elegant brownstones of Park Slope. Somewhere beneath the surface, perhaps under a garage or below a paved street, are the Marylanders’ undiscovered bodies. Their remains lie intermingled in what should be hallowed ground.

In the revolutionary summer of 1776 these courageous patriots, known as “gentlemen of honour, family, and fortune,” gave their lives in a desperate series of bayonet charges against British troops, who were bunkered in a stone house that was still standing just a few blocks away from where I stood. Their assault on that house arguably remains one of the most important elite small-unit engagements in American his- tory. It bought precious time for the Patriot cause, allowing hundreds of colonial troops to retreat through a gap in British lines.

The lonely weathered placard nestled among the auto-body shops of present-day Brooklyn bears silent witness to the drama that once unfolded in this place and the extraordinary men who changed history.

“Close up! Close up!”

Over the crackle of musket fire and boom of cannon, the indomitable Major Mordecai Gist and many of the founding officers of the Baltimore Independent Cadets ordered their men forward.

Shots tore through the ranks of more than two hundred Marylanders. Undaunted, the men continued to surge toward an old stone house occupied by British General Lord Cornwallis (Charles, Earl Cornwallis) and his Redcoats.

A century earlier, the home’s massive walls had been built to fend off potential Indian attacks. Now, these same barriers that had shielded Americans were called upon to repel them. Cornwallis’s men trained a light cannon and musket fire on the advancing Marylanders, who launched a preemptive strike aimed at protecting their brothers-in-arms. 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 and then mount 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!”

Yet not all was lost. Scores of Marylanders, led by Major Gist, held off the British long enough to help save a corps of Washington’s troops and arguably the bulk of the nascent American army from destruction. The Marylanders’ forlorn assaults delayed a British attack on American fortifications at Brooklyn Heights and allowed hundreds of Americans to escape to the temporary safety of their entrenchments. The soldiers who participated in that unorthodox assault would become known as the Immortals or the Maryland 400. With their blood, these men bought, in the words of one American, “an hour, more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.” Gist and several men in his group escaped to fight future battles that changed the fate of a nation.

Reading the solemn words etched on that metal sign made me curious. I wanted to know what really happened to these men, who they were, and why citizen-soldiers—amateurs—fought and sacrificed their lives and fortunes to fight the most formidable army in the world. Over the years, I unearthed a hidden war buried in letters and diaries. Forgotten pension files bore testament to heroism and sacrifice, and even to betrayal by fellow Americans. It wasn’t the Revolution of famous men trapped in the amber of fading oil portraits, but an alive, boots-on-the-ground, brutally long conflict that pitted brother against brother in a war that America wasn’t preordained to win. These sacrifices by a small group of men—in the right place, at the right time—who were willing to march thousands of miles and endure years of unimaginable hardship, made the difference between victory and defeat.

Their nine-year saga has remained untold for over 239 years and nearly forgotten, much like the mass grave in which their comrades now lie. Gist and hundreds of Marylanders from all walks of life became an elite corps that formed the nucleus of the greatest fighting regiments of the war. They helped to keep the Continental Army intact through the darkest days of the Revolution. It is also a story about close friends whose fellowship in battle kept them together in the most impossible circumstances, enabled their survival, and helped them emerge as some of the most decorated and successful battle captains of the war. This book is the first Band of Brothers–style history of the Revolution; rather than providing a regimental history, it focuses on the actions of these men. Facing tremendous adversity, these Americans were often called upon by Washington to play a pivotal role in the war’s decisive battles just as they did that day in Brooklyn.

A pockmarked sign memorializes the beginning of an epic journey that started on a winter day in 1774.

But a metal sign isn’t enough to commemorate a mystery, the unknown resting place of so many Americans who willingly gave their lives for a nation yet to be born.

WASHINGTON’S IMMORTALS © 2016 by Patrick K. O’Donnell; used with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.


Patrick O'Donnell, military historian and author of the new book "Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed The Course of the Revolution." He tweets @combathistorian.

This segment aired on July 1, 2016.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live