World & Nation

Dig in Brooklyn may settle mystery of lost grave of famed Maryland 400 soldiers from Revolutionary War

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A 19th century painting by Alonzo Chappel shows the Battle of Brooklyn, in which the Maryland 400 soldiers died.
(Baltimore Sun)

More than two centuries after one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution, archaeologists are digging up a concrete lot in Brooklyn, N.Y., to settle a mystery over the mass grave of famed Maryland soldiers.

Known as the Maryland 400, the soldiers’ stand on the battlefield in 1776 earned Maryland the distinction of the “Old Line State.” The young men from Baltimore, Annapolis and beyond died while stopping the British from quashing America’s rebellion just as it began.

New York City bought the vacant lot at 9th Street and 3rd Avenue long presumed to conceal the Marylanders’ bones. The city plans to build a pre-kindergarten school on the grounds. Preservationists requested an archaeological investigation before construction begins.

“They played a major role in saving the American Revolution,” said Bob Furman, an author and president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council. “They deserve better than what they have gotten.”

A vacant lot in Brooklyn is believed by some to be the site of a mass grave of Revolutionary War sol
A vacant lot in Brooklyn is believed by some to be the site of a mass grave of Revolutionary War soldiers from Maryland.
(Baltimore Sun)

What they have gotten, Furman says, is an undignified resting place. He spent years gathering records — deeds, maps, newspaper articles and letters — that suggest the Marylanders’ remains may lie beneath the lot beside an American Legion post.

New York State officials acknowledged the site when they hung the placard next door to it in 1952: “Here lie buried 256 Maryland soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn.” Half a century later, they installed a second sign that designates the lot a “presumed” burial ground.

The parking lot-as-graveyard theory gained celebrity support recently from English actor Patrick Stewart. The Brooklyn resident of “Star Trek” fame told GQ magazine that “all it is is a concreted-over car park, but underneath the concrete is the mass grave. It’s worth making, I think, a bit of a fuss of.”

Historians have questioned whether a mass grave of the Marylanders actually exists. The theory remained largely untested until now.

New York’s State Historic Preservation Office requested the archaeological survey, and crews began digging last month. “It’s underway and obviously gathered a lot of attention,” said Fred Maley, spokesman for the New York City School Construction Authority. An archaeological report is due after the dig.

“There are some people who are very certain that there is a mass grave to find. I don’t know that there is … simply because they would have been killed in different locations,” said Owen Lourie, a historian with the Maryland State Archives. He runs the archives’ Maryland 400 research project to chronicle the lives of the celebrated soldiers.

Four hundred may not represent their actual numbers, Lourie said. Researchers think about 250 of the Marylanders were killed or captured. Soon after their heroic stand, the regiment’s legend spread.

Brooklyn was a swamp in 1776, and the Marylanders actually fell in battle about six blocks northeast of the vacant lot, said Kimberly Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House & Washington Park historic site dedicated to revolutionary Brooklyn.

“I hate to disappoint you; there is no mass grave,” she said. “The British and Dutch would have traditionally buried traitors where they fell.”

But it’s precisely the swampiness of the battlefield that causes some to speculate about the vacant lot. It was once a wooded island in the swamp and could have been the only dry ground suitable for burial. Some researchers think the British dug 100-foot trenches to inter the Marylanders. In the 19th century, farmers wrote of finding bones while plowing.

In the summer of 1776, British warships sailed for New York in the largest fleet since the Spanish Armada. Some 22,000 troops marched from the shores of Brooklyn.

Gen. George Washington amassed his Continental Army to defend the strategic New York harbor. Outnumbered 2-1, the Americans formed a semicircle with a regiment of about 950 Marylanders anchoring the right end. They were in their early 20s, these farmers, tradesmen and sons from wealthy Annapolis families.

“Men with absolutely no combat experience,” Lourie said.

The fighting erupted before sunrise Aug. 27, 1776. British forces overwhelmed the left end of the American line, and the formation collapsed into panic and confusion. American commanders ordered a retreat. Some escaped by wading through the Gowanus swamp as the British poured in.

“My captain was killed, first lieutenant was killed, second lieutenant shot through the hand, two sergeants was killed, one in front of me,” Cpl. William McMillan of Maryland wrote in a letter discovered by historians.

The Marylanders drew together under their Baltimore-born commander, Maj. Mordecai Gist. Against suicidal odds, they charged again and again.

Their stand held the British at bay while Washington’s army escaped to fight again. The general reportedly watched from a hilltop and wrung his hands, telling an aide, “My God, what brave men I must this day lose.”

Since that time, Maryland’s proud title of the “Old Line State” has been stamped on coins and painted on road signs. A stone monument to the Marylanders was erected in Brooklyn — noting they “saved the American army” — about a mile away from the lot being excavated.

A Vintage photograph shows a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument erected in Brooklyn for the Maryla
A Vintage photograph shows a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument erected in Brooklyn for the Maryland 400.
(Baltimore Sun archive)

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley visited the Brooklyn battlefield about four years ago and met with members of the American Legion beside the lot. Today, the members are closely watching the dig next door.

“Everybody’s all hopped up and excited and hoping they find the remains,” said Peter DeAngelis, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran.

The veterans have quietly served as stewards over the presumed burial ground for decades. They wear patches with the Maryland flag, and a citation from current Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan hangs framed on the wall of their post. Each year, they assemble with their rifles to read the names of the Marylanders; someone rings a bell softly between each name.

Even if the dig reveals nothing, the aging veterans say, they will continue their small salute each year to the men of the Maryland 400, wherever they may rest.

Prudente writes for the Baltimore Sun.