Where is the mass grave of “Washington’s Immortals,” the men who saved America?
Perhaps the greatest mystery of the American Revolution is the location of the mass grave of “Washington’s Immortals,” one of the most heroic units in the war.
In 2010 during a walking tour of the neighborhood where the Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, took place, I encountered a neglected piece of history in the form of a rusted, scarred sign. 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
Today this sign is in an urban area near a well-worn, decades-old American Legion post. Somewhere beneath the surface, in an empty lot 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. Their assault on that house arguably remains one of the most important elite small-unit engagements in American history.
The story of that charge is recounted in a new bestselling book, Washington’s Immortals, which chronicles the efforts of the elite troops of the Maryland Line — those who perished in the Battle of Brooklyn, and the men who survived to have a major impact on the rest of the war. This unique book is the first Band of Brothers treatment of the American Revolution, capturing the most important elements of nearly every significant battle of The War of Independence. The Marylanders would play a decisive role in the war in the South.
Days before the Battle of Brooklyn began, the British Armada had delivered more than twenty thousand British troops to Long Island. General George Washington led approximately ten thousand Americans in opposition. These citizen-soldiers were snidely described by one British officer: “Their army is the strangest that was ever collected: old men of 60, boys of 14, and blacks of all ages, and ragged for the most part, compose the motley crew.” Washington arrayed about three thousand of his men in forward positions along the Heights of Gowanus, while most of the rest defended the fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. But, fatefully, he left a key pass undefended.
Taking advantage of that blunder, the British sent a force to meet the Americans head on, while the rest marched around through the pass, flanking the Americans and penetrating deep behind their lines. The maneuver succeeded brilliantly, cutting off a wing of the Patriot Army from the relative safety of the defenses in Brooklyn Heights. The Redcoats were poised to deliver a crushing blow, when a group of Marylanders stepped forward to buy precious time for the Patriot cause, allowing hundreds of Washington’s troops to retreat through a gap in British lines.
Over the crackle of musket fire and boom of cannon, the indomitable Major Mordecai Gist and his officers ordered the Marylanders forward. Shots tore through the ranks. Undaunted, the men continued to surge toward an old stone house occupied by British General Charles, Earl Cornwallis and his Redcoats.
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.”
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