- - Tuesday, June 14, 2016



By Patrick K. O’Donnell

Atlantic Monthly Press, $28, 463 pages

As a military historian, Patrick O’Donnell has a passion for walking through battlefields. In 2010, he found himself in a scruffy area of Brooklyn — auto repair shops, warehouses and the like — that was the site of one of the first engagements of the Revolutionary summer of 1776.

An aged sign outside an American Legion post caught his eye: Beneath the faded words, “MARYLAND HEROS” the sign read, “Here lie buried 256 Maryland soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn August 27, 1776.”

So who were these men? How did they come to be part of Gen. George Washington’s nascent, ragtag army so early in the war? At hand is a boots-on-the-ground account that draws upon a medley of obscure sources, including pension records, to personalize brave men whose names have fallen into the crevices of history.

In declaring independence, the colonists faced battle with a British army that was arguably the most proficient military force in the world. Officers and enlisted men alike boasted years of experience. Conversely, the colonial forces were “a mongrel group made up of amateurs,” in Mr. O’Donnell’s words.

So the patriots sought to level the field. One key player was a Baltimore businessman and civic leader named Mordecai Gist, who was 32 years old the winter night in 1774 when he called a meeting of the city’s social elite at a tavern. The issue: the creation of an “independent military company” of Marylanders to protect their rights, even to the point of breaking away from Britain.

The agreed charter called for the formation of a company of 60 men, “gentlemen of honour, family and fortune” to bind themselves together “by all the Sacred ties of Honour and the Love and Justice due to themselves and Country.”

The Maryland contingent had its first major test in the Battle of Britain that was to catch Mr. O’Donnell’s attentions centuries later. Washington’s force was outnumbered by the British, and retreat to Manhattan was in order. The Marylanders launched a desperate charge that gave the bulk of the American forces “a precious window of time in which to escape.” As one historian has observed, this bravery bought “an hour, more precious to American liberty, than any other in its history. Had the British been able to press their attack, Mr. O’Donnell writes, “the war might have ended that day,” with Washington and his key commanders captured.

Thereafter the Maryland brigade was known as “The Immortals,” and the original “Baltimore Independent Company” spawned multiple other units that fought in battles that ranged from New York south to the Carolinas during the course of the war.

Be forewarned that “The Immortals” can be a gruesome read even by the standards of military history. Cannon balls blow away human heads and cleave bodies so that entrails spill into the open. Medical care is iffy: Men grimace with pain and bite into leather straps for comfort as surgeons hack away shattered limbs. Shoeless colonials leave blood stains on icy roads up and down the eastern seaboard, starving and in rags because states will not pay for the army fighting for independence. Both sides routinely killed prisoners, including the wounded.

A strong point of Mr. O’Donnell’s book is his adept skill in describing military tactical maneuvers. Given their horrendous casualty rates, the Maryland brigades always fielded a high percentage of raw recruits. Commanders learned to use them as an advance picket line who would fire at the British, then retreat, coaxing the advancing Red Coats into range of veteran soldiers who converted the terrain into killing fields.

The Marylanders were quick learners, and hence invaluable in training men from other states in combat skills. Improvisation was a forte. For instance, several brave women who were “camp followers” volunteered to serve the British as cooks and laundresses — vantage points which they used to spy on Redcoat movements and plans.

Washington is renowned by modern professionals for his adroit use of intelligence, especially deception. A classic instance came late in the war, when the major fighting had shifted to Virginia and the Carolinas, where thousands of French soldiers had joined the Patriots. Washington feigned a move to the north, with his agents telling the gullible British that he intended an attack on New York City. Instead, he moved to Yorktown and forced a British surrender that essentially ended the war. (A newspaper observed that the defeated British officers “behaved like boys who had been whipped at school.”)

Unsurprisingly, when the war ended, the Marylanders “hung up their muskets and uniforms and began the hard work of building a nation.” Mr. O’Donnell argues they deserve recognition beyond an obscure plaque in Brooklyn. After reading his book, I agree.

Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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