Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution

Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution

by Patrick K. O'Donnell


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In August 1776, little over a month after the Continental Congress had formally declared independence from Britain, the revolution was on the verge of a sudden and disastrous end. General George Washington found his troops outmanned and outmaneuvered at the Battle of Brooklyn, and it looked like there was no escape. But thanks to a series of desperate rear guard attacks by a single heroic regiment, famously known as the “Immortal 400,” Washington was able to evacuate his men and the nascent Continental Army lived to fight another day.

Today, only a modest, rusted and scarred metal sign near a dilapidated auto garage marks the mass grave where the bodies of the “Maryland Heroes” lie—256 men “who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn.” In Washington’s Immortals, best-selling military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell brings to life the forgotten story of this remarkable band of brothers. Known as “gentlemen of honour, family, and fortune,” they fought not just in Brooklyn, but in key battles including Trenton, Princeton, Camden, Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, and Yorktown, where their heroism changed the course of the war.

Drawing on extensive original sources, from letters to diaries to pension applications, O’Donnell pieces together the stories of these brave men—their friendships, loves, defeats, and triumphs. He explores their arms and tactics, their struggles with hostile loyalists and shortages of clothing and food, their development into an elite unit, and their dogged opponents, including British General Lord Cornwallis. And through the prism of this one group, O’Donnell tells the larger story of the Revolutionary War. Washington’s Immortals is gripping and inspiring boots-on-the-ground history, sure to appeal to a wide readership.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802124593
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books, including Beyond Valor, Dog Company, and First SEALs. He served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, Fox News, and Discovery.

Read an Excerpt


"Gentlemen of Honour, Family, and Fortune"

Snow gently fell outside a Baltimore tavern on December 3, 1774, as thirty-two-year-old Mordecai Gist addressed the city's social elite. On his own initiative, Gist had gathered together a group of freemen, merchants, shipbuilders, and businessmen who were interested in forming the first independent military company in Maryland to protect their rights and potentially to break away from Britain.

At the time, Baltimore, one of the primary trading centers in the colonies, was a boomtown with a seedy, rough-and-tumble quality about it. One member of the Continental Congress described it as "infinitely, the dirtiest place I was ever in." Another piled on the accolades and called it "the Damndest Hole in the World."

A second-generation Baltimore native, Gist was the son of a prominent surveyor who had helped lay out the city's streets. His uncle, Christopher Gist, had served with George Washington in the French and Indian War, and on two separate occasions he had saved the future general's life. The younger Gist had already established himself as a sea captain and merchant, dealing primarily in textiles and firearms, which had earned him a sizable fortune. He was also a widower. Four years earlier, his first wife had died during the birth of their daughter, who then perished in infancy. At six feet tall, he was a man of impressive stature for his day. Others described him as having a "frank and genial manner." A natural leader known for his forceful opinions, Gist was among the colony's first agitators for independence and later emerged as one of America's most powerful Freemasons.

In October he had participated in the burning of the Peggy Stewart. In an incident reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party, a captain had brought a ship loaded with tea into Annapolis harbor despite a colonial boycott. Outraged Marylanders gave the Peggy Stewart's captain a choice: either burn his ship and all its cargo or be hanged at his front door. The captain chose to run his ship aground and torch it.

The Peggy Stewart incident occurred ten months after the Boston Tea Party, in which American demonstrators, some disguised as American Indians, had dumped an entire shipment of tea from the East India Company into Boston harbor to protest taxes levied by the British on the tea. It echoed the American cry "No taxation without representation." Many Americans demanded the right to elect the representatives who imposed taxes and passed regulations. The Crown had responded to the Tea Party swiftly with draconian measures that became known as the Coercive Acts or Intolerable Acts. Among other provisions, they allowed British officials to be tried in Britain for crimes committed in the colonies. Another of these acts required colonists to house and feed British soldiers in their homes.

British troops led by General Thomas Gage disbanded the elected colonial government in Massachusetts and shut down the port of Boston, throwing thousands of men out of work. The crisis in Boston escalated and fomented discord throughout the thirteen colonies, resonating strongly in Baltimore, where trade was the lifeblood of the community.

On that December night in the tavern, like-minded Patriots had gathered to hear Gist, whom they elected as captain of their company, read aloud the articles of incorporation for the Baltimore Independent Cadets. The charter called for sixty men — "a company composed of gentlemen of honour, family, and fortune, and tho' of different countries animated by a zeal and reverence for rights of humanity" — to voluntarily join and tie themselves together "by all the Sacred ties of Honour and the Love and Justice due to ourselves and Country."

Gist's gravitas and presence reverberated through the room as he read the articles:

We, the Baltimore Independent Cadets, Impress'd with a sense of the unhappy [state] of our Suffering Brethren in Boston, the Alarming conduct of General Gage, and the oppressive Unconstitutional acts of Parliament to deprive us of Liberty and enforce Slavery on His Majesties Loyal Liege Subjects of America in General,

For the better security of our lives, liberties, and Properties under such Alarming Circumstances, we think it highly advisable and necessary, that we form ourselves into a Body, or Company in order to [learn] the military discipline; to act in defence of our Country agreeable to the Resolves of the Continental Congress.

The cadets promised to march within forty-eight hours to the aid of any sister colonies that needed their help, to obey their elected commander, to purchase their own uniforms and equipment, and to submit to a court-martial for any default "contrary to the true Intent and Meaning of this Engagement." However, as true gentlemen, they would not submit themselves to corporal punishment.

The young merchant and the other newly inducted members of the company made history that day. Gist's independent company was the first of its kind in Maryland, but similar companies soon sprang up across the colonies. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the men in that tavern would become one of only a few core units crucial to the continued existence of the entire Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War. At key points, their participation made a difference that allowed the army to survive — often at an enormous price. Sickness and privation of the most severe kind (including marching barefoot for thousands of miles over many years), British bullets, and the hazards of imprisonment would take their toll. Very few of the men who gathered that night at the tavern or those who joined them later would survive eight years of war, multiple campaigns, and dozens of battles unscathed.

The cadets, later quietly renamed the Baltimore Independent Company, formed a cadre that was incorporated into multiple companies and regiments that played a key role in many battles of importance during the American Revolution and fought in both the North and the South. Built on personal relationships with deep family ties that spanned decades, the Baltimore Independent Company was a tight-knit group of close friends who forged one of the most legendary units of the American Revolution.

One of those men crucial to the company was twenty-three-year-old Samuel Smith. A born leader, Smith was first elected sergeant within the company and quickly rose through the ranks as an officer. Like many of the cadets, he had been trained in the classics, studying Latin and Greek at school. As a young man, he had worked in his father's countinghouse and traveled to Europe on one of his father's merchant ships. He proved to be charismatic and a natural battle commander. Eventually, he would assume command of the Baltimore Independent Company and many other units. In time, he became one of the finest regimental commanders of the war.

Like Gist and Smith, many of the company's members were prosperous merchants. For them, the decision to join the company meant sacrificing their livelihood — the ability to trade with Great Britain. For years they had been on the sharp end of onerous taxes and restrictions that required the colonies to trade exclusively with Britain. Responding to the spiraling crisis in Boston, delegates from the American colonies met in the First Continental Congress. Formed at the urging of Benjamin Franklin and first organized in 1774 in Philadelphia, Congress comprised representatives from twelve of the thirteen colonies (initially Georgia didn't participate, since it felt that it needed British protection from hostile Indians). The Congress remained undecided on the issue of declaring independence from Great Britain, but its members firmly believed that King George III owed the people of the colonies better treatment. The representatives wanted their voices heard in London. On September 5, 1774, Congress adopted the Articles of Association, which declared that if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed by December 1, 1774, the colonies would boycott British goods. A provision in the articles also called for an embargo of British goods by September 1775 if the acts weren't abolished. It was a bold move: Americans struck at the heart of British trade, which heavily relied on the North American economy. The Continental Congress's actions were a serious challenge to imperial rule, essentially amounting to a declaration of economic war against the Crown.

The independent spirit that gave rise to this decision to rebel against Britain had been fomenting in Maryland since its founding. In 1632 the king granted the ownership of the colony to George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, who was designated the "proprietary." Unlike most of the colonies, which answered to the king or to locally elected governments, Maryland answered to the proprietary, who set up the government as he saw fit. The arrangement essentially created "an empire within an empire" and made it easy for the people who lived in Maryland to see themselves as independent of the Crown. This unusual form of government persisted until 1691, when Britain appointed a royal governor for the colony.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the French and Indian War planted seeds of discontent in America and had an impact on many of the Maryland officers. Also known as the Seven Years' War, the war was a worldwide conflict between Britain and France that began in 1754. Both countries had extensive holdings in the New World, and disagreements arose over disputed territory and trading rights in the Ohio Valley. The governor of Virginia sent twenty-one-year-old Major George Washington and a small group of men to evict the French from the area, but the French refused to leave, pushing the two countries on the path toward war. On May 28, 1754, Washington led the British troops to victory in the Battle of Jumonville Glen, which is generally regarded as the first battle in the French and Indian War.

In the early days of the conflict, both sides developed irregular warfare techniques, such as the use of proxies and the use of ranging forces. The proxies included Rogers' Rangers, Americans who fought for Britain. The British and the French also developed light infantry, which were lightly armed forces known for their quickness, speed, and flexibility. More importantly, the colonists learned to train, organize, and move large numbers of men through untamed wilderness. Americans fighting for the British — including George Washington, William Smallwood, and Daniel Morgan, along with future Americans and British officers Edward Hand, Horatio Gates, and Charles Lee — gained invaluable battle experience in the conflict. They also learned Indian tactics. Many Native American tribes fought on the side of the French during the conflict. Unlike the Europeans, the tribes often struck in surprise attacks with small raiding parties that hit the enemy hard and then retreated before casualties could mount, and they fired from behind trees and other natural obstructions rather than out in the open. The seeds of an American way of waging war were planted.

By 1760 most of the fighting in North America had come to end, although battles continued to rage in the West Indies and Europe for some time. The North American portion of the war officially came to a close on February 10, 1763, when the two sides signed the Treaty of Paris. Five days later, they ended the European war with the Treaty of Hubertusburg. Under the terms of surrender, France gave up all rights to the mainland of North America but held on to its island colonies in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Spain, which had entered the war on France's side, agreed to cede Florida to Britain in exchange for regaining control of Cuba and gaining control of Louisiana. Britain was left as the primary power in control of Canada and the thirteen colonies that would become the United States.

While the British were victorious, the cost was exorbitant. The war had nearly doubled the empire's debt. To offset this enormous financial burden, the Crown began raising taxes on its colonies so that they would pay for their own administration and defense, allowing the government in London to put more money toward its war debts. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the colonists were primed to revolt. Extremely unpopular in the American colonies, the onerous act required that all printed materials, including legal documents and newspapers, use specially stamped paper produced in Britain. The colonists objected to this regulation on the grounds that they shouldn't be taxed without their consent. Although Parliament eventually repealed the Stamp Act, it passed a series of other laws and taxes that the Americans found objectionable, including a law that forbade the colonies from issuing currency and a fateful tax on tea.

Outraged by the new and oppressive laws, Massachusetts appealed to its sister colonies for support. In a show of solidarity, the Continental Congress agreed to ban the import of British goods. It went one step further, by placing an export ban on American commodities that were valued by the Crown, such as tobacco, rice, and a long list of naval products. The men in Maryland who joined the cadets certainly objected to the taxes, but for them the Revolution wasn't only about money. They were motivated by ideals of freedom and liberty, and they didn't want their daily lives and business decisions at the mercy of the bureaucracy in London.

While war seemed inevitable in hindsight, it was not a foregone conclusion, even as the various independent companies throughout the colonies began to organize. In fact, many of the colonies hoped for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that would keep them as part of the British Empire. The act of rebellion — if it came to that — would be a last resort.

With the clouds of war gathering on an uncertain horizon, the Baltimore cadets began to arm and outfit themselves with the best weapons and uniforms money could buy. This company of wealthy Baltimoreans went into battle carrying a "good gun" with a bayonet plus a brace of pistols and a sword. However, most of the other American units could not afford such expensive guns and supplies; many of their brothers-in-arms would fight with old hunting rifles or makeshift weapons. And while many Americans marched in the leather or homespun clothing they wore every day, Marylanders of this company wore "a Uniform Suit of Cloathes turn'd up with Buff, and trim'd with Yellow Metal, or Gold Buttons, White Stockings and Black Cloth half Boote." Emboldened by their example, numerous independent companies formed across Maryland for the defense of the state.

Shortly after the signing of the company's articles of incorporation, training began. Drilling occupied the bulk of each day. Cadets learned how to march and create battle formations. They also practiced loading and firing their muskets as a group and possibly engaged in target practice. Gist's men had their own drillmaster, a cadet named Richard Cary. Cary had previously served as a member of the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of Boston, which was commanded by John Hancock. Cary's high-quality training and the company's expensive equipment set Maryland's troops apart from those of other colonies as war unfolded and turned them into, arguably, the first elite infantry unit in the Continental Army.

Voluntary enlistment in these independent companies violated British imperial law. Doing so represented open defiance of Crown rule and constituted an act of treason potentially punishable by death. The sixty Patriots who first signed the articles of incorporation for the Baltimore Independent Cadets were effectively signing their own death warrants. That threat was quite real. When the British had put down an insurrection in Ireland around the same time, a judge decreed to the captured revolutionaries, "You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead, for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters."

Elite warriors throughout history have believed that willpower and determination can overcome all odds. This thoughtful, independent company of men ardently embraced their ideals, making a purposeful decision to sacrifice their fortunes, their livelihood, and possibly their lives for the promise of an idea with the risk of an unknown future. Gist, like many Patriots, believed that his men's fervor would help them overcome the much larger, better-equipped, and highly trained British army.

Gist was not alone in his belief. Among Gist's papers is a letter addressed to the Baltimore Independent Company. Full of classical allusions, the letter was signed by an admirer of the company who called himself Agamemnon, the name of the Greek king who united his countrymen to fight against the Trojans. After asking that his letter be read aloud to the group, he refers to Xerxes's army of Immortals and compares the Marylanders to the Spartans who stood against a much larger force at the Battle of Thermopylae. The letter explains, "About three hundred men who's hearts were warmed with patriotism, [held off] an Army of Twenty thousand." The letter writer believed that Gist's men, like the Spartans and other elite units throughout history, could play a crucial role in shaping the future of the new nation.


Excerpted from "Washington's Immortals"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Patrick K. O'Donnell.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: "Gentlemen of Honour, Family, and Fortune",
Chapter 2: Smallwood's Battalion and the Birth of an Army,
Chapter 3: Girding for War,
Chapter 4: America's First Civil War,
Chapter 5: The Otter,
Chapter 6: The Armada,
Chapter 7: Maryland Goes to War,
Chapter 8: The Storm Begins,
Chapter 9: The Battle of Brooklyn,
Chapter 10: Escape from Long Island,
Chapter 11: Manhattan,
Chapter 12: When Twenty-Five Men Held Off an Army,
Chapter 13: Fort Washington,
Chapter 14: The Crisis,
Chapter 15: Victory or Death—The Gamble at Trenton,
Chapter 16: Princeton,
Chapter 17: Brandywine,
Chapter 18: Wayne's Affair,
Chapter 19: Mud Island,
Chapter 20: Valley Forge and Wilmington,
Chapter 21: "A Damned Poltroon",
Chapter 22: Light Infantry,
Chapter 23: Despots,
Chapter 24: The Gibraltar of America—,
The Midnight Storming of Stony Point,
Chapter 25: Interlude,
Chapter 26: The March South,
Chapter 27: A "Jalap" and a Night March,
Chapter 28: Camden,
Chapter 29: "Lay Their Country Waste,
with Fire and Sword",
Chapter 30: Washington's Best General,
Chapter 31: The Ragtag Army,
Chapter 32: Hunting the Hunter,
Chapter 33: Cowpens,
Chapter 34: "To Follow Greene's Army to the End of the World",
Chapter 35: "Saw 'Em Hollerin' and a Snortin' and a Drownin'",
Chapter 36: The Race to the Dan,
Chapter 37: Guilford Courthouse — "A Complicated Scene of Horror and Distress",
Chapter 38: Hobkirk's Hill,
Chapter 39: Ninety Six,
Chapter 40: Eutaw Springs,
Chapter 41: "Conquer or Die" — Yorktown,
Chapter 42: The Last Battle,
Chapter 43: "Omnia Reliquit Servare Rempublicam",

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