Undeterred by the withering British fire, Gist’s companies formed into lines and charged into the hail of fire coming from the British soldiers in the stone house.
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.”
That scene repeated itself several times as the Marylanders battled to allow their retreating countrymen to escape. “We continued the attack a considerable time,” recalled Stirling, “the men having been rallied and the attack renewed . . . several times.”
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. 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. With their blood, the Immortals bought “an hour more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.” The Marylanders’ stand chewed up daylight on the afternoon of August 27 and bought Washington time, preventing the British from uniting the various wings of their army to make a combined assault on the Brooklyn defenses during the day. Had Howe had more time to press the attack on the forts that afternoon, his victory likely would have been total. The war might have ended that day. It was one of the few times in the Revolution when all the circumstances were aligned for a crushing British victory. The British would have captured the bulk of the American army, including possibly even Washington and his top commanders, potentially snuffing out the Revolution.
Miraculously, on the night of August 29 and the morning of August 30, over 9,500 men in the army would be evacuated from Brooklyn in an American Dunkirk. A “providential” fog screened the movement of small boats as they repeatedly crossed the East River, bringing Washington’s army to Manhattan.
Gist and several men in his group survived to fight in many crucial battles that changed the fate of a nation. At the height of the Revolution, Mordecai Gist issued an ominous warning about America’s internal politics that threatened the war and morphing into what America fought against: “…if we neglect to support it [United States] with Dignity or to aim at national Glory, if we cease to sacrifice private Interests to public Good, the Blessing will corrupt at our touch and like an affectionate love, worn out by Injuries, grow into a hated Monster.”
Tragically, many of the bodies of the “Gentlemen of Honour, Family, and Fortune,” who died that day remain undiscovered in a mass grave somewhere in Brooklyn, perhaps near the stone house where they fought; their whereabouts are one of the greatest remaining mysteries of the American Revolution.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of 12 books, including Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of An Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution and The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. He is also the founder and host of THE HISTORY HAPPY HOUR via Zoom, open to the public, with dates and links posted on Twitter @combathistorian. O’Donnell and his co-hosts conduct live oral histories and interviews with American heroes from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Modern Wars. PatrickkODonnell.com