Washington’s Immortals The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment that Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick K. O’Donnell Atlantic Monthly Press 2016
There are few full length histories of individual Continental Army regiments during the American Revolution. Patrick O’Donnell, a contemporary combat historian fills this gap with his new book entitled Washington’s Immortals. He chronicles the Maryland Line from its earliest inception at the war’s outset until its disbandment in 1782. Well known for his World War II and 21st century Middle East military histories, this is O’Donnell’s first foray into the revolutionary era.
During the Battle of Brooklyn in the summer of 1776, the Marylanders became known by their comrades as the Maryland 400 or Immortal 400. The Marylanders earned this appellation when British General William Howe executed a masterful battle plan and had the Patriot army on the run. It appeared the British would decimate Washington’s army which would have effectively ended the revolution that day. However a tiny force of Marylanders under the command of Major Mordecai Gist launched a suicidal charge against the surging British army. This bravery delayed the British attack by one hour which allowed the bulk of the Patriot army to retreat into prepared fortifications overlooking the East River. Fortunately, daylight began to fade and British could not exploit their overwhelming military advantage. This heroic battlefield feat cost the Maryland regiment almost two thirds of its men.
However, the surviving core formed the nucleus of a highly successful regiment which fought in many of the war’s remaining battles. The Maryland line is relatively unique among Continental Army units as its men served in both the northern and southern theaters. The Marylanders fought as far south as Charleston, South Carolina with elements present at the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia.
As a combat historian, O’Donnell employs an approachable, non-technical literary style. He recounts first hand small unit combat accounts by battle participants, many of which come from pension applications. Particularly he highlights the bravery of forlorn hope combat assignments. These are the units which are assigned the most hazard portion of an attack. Forlorn hope assignments include opening holes in fortifications, attacking against impossible odds and screening the main army during rear guard duties. Due to their fighting prowess, the Marylanders received more than their fair share of these hazardous assignments.
Throughout the text, O’Donnell highlights the company and regimental commanders of the Maryland line. These uncommonly capable combat field commanders provided leadership that Washington and the other commanding generals relied on for their most important missions. Key Marylander combatant commanders include:
- Mordecai Gist, a sea captain and merchant before the rebellion organized the first Maryland regiment. A natural born leader, Gist served as a major with the Immortal 400 at the Battle of Brooklyn.
- John Eager Howard, a charismatic son of a farmer, was well liked and respected. Notably he garnered seven officer swords from surrendering British officers at the Battle of Cowpens.
- William Smallwood, was an experienced officer who served in the French and Indian War. A politician planter before the war, fellow officers viewed him as petty and criticized his conduct at the Battle of Camden. However, near he end of the conflict, Smallwood became a major general in the Continental Army.
- Otho Holland Williams, apprenticed as a clerk as a teenager, was captured at the fall of Fort Washington on Manhattan. Later exchanged, his combat leadership prowess was demonstrated at the Battle of Camden where his unit held the line to allow critical portions of the American army to escape.
O’Donnell’s writing style reflects his experience as an embedded military historian in the Iraqi conflict including the particularly brutal Battle of Fallujah. Consistent with this experience, he employs modern day colloquialisms such as “ball busters” which typically are not found in Revolutionary histories. Another unique feature of this book is a footnote style which is referenced by page number not footnote number. This style is a major limitation for serious scholars as it inhibits effective fact checking and does not help the reader understand the attribution context. Further, O’Donnell does not provide a bibliography which is another unfortunate omission.
Finally consistent with his combat soldier perspective, O’Donnell points out the irony of the American Army’s intense focus on finding the remains of fallen soldiers in far off battlefields, but neglects to locate the graves of the 256 Marylanders who sacrificed their lives in that fateful Battle of Brooklyn. As someone who believes that we should honor those who sacrificed their lives to build our country, I concur with his assessment that this oversight is a national tragedy!
I recommend Washington’s Immortals as an example of a regimental history which are lacking in American Revolutionary scholarship to date. Lastly for casual readers, the book is a unique view of the war portrayed from the perspectives of both ordinary soldiers and their front line commanders.
For two other book reviews of Washington’s Immortals see:
Wall Street Journal – Combat Writing at Its Best
Journal of the American Revolution