Leading the Old Line: General William Smallwood

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Leading the Old Line: General William Smallwood

PORT TOBACCO - 2/10/2008

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By Guest Writer, Scott Hill


Well Disposed to Give Battle - The Patriots of Charles County

I. Rising in ImportanceThomas Stone, part 1

II. Distinction & DespairThomas Stone, part 2

III. An Unusual voice for IndependenceDaniel of St. Thomas Jenifer

IV. President of the U.S. in Congress AssembledJohn Hanson

Leading the Old Line:  General William Smallwood


  Many local residents made their contributions toward American Independence outside the political arena.  The Continental Army often saw Charles Countians make outstanding contributions, particularly the man who reached a higher rank than anyone else in the state, William Smallwood.

  Smallwood was a fourth generation Marylander from a very wealthy Charles County family of successful planters and merchants.  The Smallwoods took an active part in the political affairs of colonial Maryland during the early and mid 1700’s. 

  In 1761, Smallwood himself began a career in public service as a delegate to the lower house of the Maryland Assembly, a position in which he spent most of the next fifteen years.  He also served as a delegate to the Charles County Committee of Correspondence, in addition to the Provincial Convention.  He earned a reputation for decisive leadership and served on a number of important committees, many dealing with the growing concerns between the colonies and England.

  Although sometimes an outspoken individual with regard to his beliefs, Smallwood still saw himself as a dutiful subject of the King.  As such, he originally defended the old cherished order of things.  This stance was changed dramatically however, by the events preceding the Revolutionary War.   

  After the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Congress called for a 17,000 man army to surround British forces in Boston.  Shortly thereafter, Maryland’s Provincial Convention authorized the raising and support of a nine-company battalion to answer the call.  Smallwood, now on the side of revolution, had already offered his services to Maryland.  In January 1776, he was given the rank of colonel and command of the battalion.  Smallwood’s battalion earned a glowing reputation on many battlefields.

  The Maryland battalion’s first action came in August 1776.  The British had brought the largest force ever seen on the North American continent (32,000 troops) to New York City in hopes of destroying Washington’s army thus ending the Revolution. Washington’s force was only 20,000, many of them untested in battle.

  Smallwood and his Marylanders almost immediately showed their merit.  During the battle of Long Island, Washington’s force was routed.  But, Smallwood’s Marylanders, without Smallwood at the time, formed a rear guard to allow the rest of Washington’s army to retreat to safety.  

  Witnessing the Maryland Battalion’s heroic stand, Washington supposedly exclaimed, “Good God!  What brave fellows I must this day lose!”  Although suffering severe casualties, their stand allowed the rest of Washington’s army to escape and live to fight another day.  Several local historians feel Maryland’s nickname, “The Old Line State” references this moment.

  Smallwood and his battalion continued to serve with Washington through the long, slow retreat through New York and New Jersey.  At the battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776, the Marylanders again played a key role but in this action, Smallwood received a serious wound and was sent home to recuperate.  His personal conduct in the battle won Smallwood a promotion to Brigadier General.

  For the next few years Smallwood alternated between commanding Maryland and Delaware troops in Washington’s army, and commanding units placed in Maryland to fight loyalist forces, particularly on the Eastern Shore.  

  In early 1780, Smallwood and his Marylanders marched south to strengthen Patriot forces in the Carolinas who were dealing with new British advances.  Smallwood was therefore present at the worst Patriot defeat of the entire war, the rout of General Horatio Gates and his Continentals at the battle of Camden, South Carolina on August 16, 1780.  Gates received censure for his conduct; but Smallwood with his Maryland and Delaware troops received the Thanks of Congress for keeping the army together after the loss.  

  Following Camden, Smallwood was promoted to Major General, the highest rank of any Marylander serving in the war.  He was bitter about the rank, however, believing that too many foreign officers (such as Baron de Kalb, and Baron von Steuben) were promoted ahead of capable American officers such as himself.  Smallwood also possessed a quick temper and an inability to work well with some of his subordinate officers.  Wanting to avoid dissension among his officer corps, newly appointed Commander Nathanael Greene sent Smallwood back to Maryland to raise men and supplies for his army.  Smallwood served out the remainder of the war at home.

The Smallwood plantation
house and interior, at
Smallwood State Park.

  With the war over, Smallwood found many ways to keep busy.  He and one of his former officers formed the Maryland Society of the Cincinnati, the local branch of a social organization for former officers in the Continental Army.  

  In 1785, the Maryland Assembly tendered Smallwood the governorship of the state, which he accepted.  Smallwood served three one year terms and each coinciding with major national events; in 1786 - the Annapolis Convention, and in next year - the Constitutional Convention.  

  After his third term ended in 1788, Smallwood returned to his plantation, but did not stay for long.  In 1791, he was elected to the Maryland Senate.  With an honorable reputation still very much intact, Smallwood was chosen as the Senate’s presiding officer.  He also did not stay here.  In 1792, after a short illness, Smallwood died at the age of 60.

  The Maryland Gazette left the following eulogy for Smallwood, “Prominent as a soldier, wise and dedicated as a statesman, inflexible as a patriot, he uniformly distinguished himself in the Cabinet and the field and through the various vicissitudes of a long and doubtful war, maintained and possessed the confidence and applause of his country.” 


General Smallwood’s plantation is open to the public as Smallwood State Park, a popular outdoor recreation site in western Charles County.  The plantation house still exists and is open for tour by appointment.

About this Portrait:  Charles Wilson Peale painted his museum
portrait of Smallwood in the early 1780s. Smallwood wears his
uniform of major general (the rank he received in recognition for
his service at the Battle of Camden). Peale considered this portrait
"among my best works of that day, and nearly 40 years later said
the portrait I have of Gen. Smallwood is a faithful and expressive
likeness of him."

Scott S. Hill is an interpretive park ranger at Thomas Stone National Historic Site in Port Tobacco, Maryland. He has spent a total of fourteen years in the Federal Government preserving and relating our nation’s history: two years at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and twelve years in the National Park Service as an interpretive park ranger at seven different park units. Scott has spent the last six years at Thomas Stone National Historic Site in Charles County. His other areas of academic knowledge and interest include the histories of the U.S. Military, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War and Great Britain. CNN, C-Span and Fox News have featured Scott’s work; and he has recently been published in the National Parks collection of stories, “Oh, Ranger!”

Staff writer Anna Dailey also contributed to this article. Please leave feedback in the box below or contact her via email:
annadailey@thebaynet.com
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