Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William McMillan (1756-1839)
MSA SC 3520-16767 


William McMillan was one of the men who fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War. He was born in 1756, likely in Scotland, but came to Maryland with his older brother, Samuel, and settled in the part of the colony known as Harford County.1 The McMillan brothers supported the colonial rebellion and enlisted in the First Maryland Regiment in 1776. Their time in the service is an incredible story by itself; they were surviving members of the Maryland 400 at the Battle of Long Island, they escaped from imprisonment in Nova Scotia and journeyed for weeks to make it back to American soil, they separated and continued fighting in the war for different states, and they served the entirety of the war before eventually being discharged. Late in his life William was thrown from his horse and severely injured, after which he wrote a letter to a friend describing what happened to him during his time in the Contiental Army. The letter, included in his pension record, began by saying that his fall had so injured him that "twas a long time before I got well. I was not able hardly to do anything—I began to think about my Revolution services."2 He left little record of his life behind, but the gaps in the story of William McMillan are far outweighed by the details known.

Although the precise origin of McMillan and his brother is uncertain, they were residents in Harford County, Maryland, by 1775 at the latest. Harford County had been created out of the eastern portion of Baltimore County in 1773. About half of the region's free population were tenants by the time the Revolutionary War began, with the amount steadily increasing as the century wore on.3 William and Samuel could easily have been part of this number, for records indicate that neither McMillan ever owned land in Maryland. William and his brother were likely the tenants or servants of a landowner and rented the land they lived on. The strongest pull of the Chesapeake region at that time was the tobacco trade; there was not much land for purchase, but immigrants could find work on a plantation or in a merchant's shop. The Chesapeake area, "as one of the more socially and economically developed regions, attracted a wide range of Scottish tradesmen, including coopers, tanners, weavers, tailors, millers, cordiners, rope makers, and saddlers."4 The McMillan brothers likely came to Maryland in search of economic success, and could have worked in fields such as these.

McMillan’s time in Harford County was brief, but it almost certainly had an impact on him. After the county was formed, the oppression of British rule was felt and reacted to swiftly. A committee was elected by the citizens of the county to preside as a self-governing, representative body over the government and legal matters in the county when relations with Britain soured. One of the first orders of business for Harford County's Committee of Observation was the drafting and signing of the Bush River Declaration on March 22, 1775. Though not quite a declaration of independence from British rule, the language makes clear that the men would not tolerate their condition for long: "we Esteem ourselves in a more particular manner, intrusted by our Constituents to see [the resolves of the Continental Congress and the Provential Convention] Carried into Execution. We do most Solemnly pledge ourselves to Each Other and to our County and Engage ourselves by Every Tie held Sacred among Mankind to perform the Same at the Risque of our Lives & fortunes."5 The document was called the Bush River Declaration because it was written and signed near the Bush River, the same area of the county that William McMillan likely resided. A few months later, the Committee took an even firmer stance: 

It appearing to this Committee from the hostile Preparations of the British Ministry against the Colonies that the greatest Union and Harmony among ourselves attended with the Exertion of all our Force and Abilities will be absolutely Necessary to repel and prevent every Design and attempt to enslave us and it also appearing to this Committee that an Attempt to remove the seat of Justice from Harford Town will Lay the Foundation for Discord and Division among us. . . . It is the Opinion of this Committee that no stop for that purpose ought to be taken nor the said Business agitated until the Storm that hovers over these Colonies shall be disposed and this Colony with British America shall be freed from the Calamitous Circumstances under which it at present Labours and there with which it is threatened. . .6

This was not the only way that the Harford County Committee of Observation stood up to the British. A number of their meetings addressed the boycott on imported goods from England, and they resolved not to let a man named Dr. John Stevenson unload and sell his British salt in the county. Though he managed to evade them and unload a part of it, the Committee warned its citizens not to buy any salt that they suspected may have come off of his boat, the Sally William Moat Master.7 The Committee also ran a collection for the aid of the poor in Boston, implicitly showing their support for war with Britain. After a few collections, these funds were eventually split, with close to half going to Boston and the remainder used to purchase arms and ammunition for the Harford County militia. The Bush River Lower Hundred area donated about twenty-one pounds, the second most of the areas recorded, with the Boston poor receiving slightly more than the arms fund.8 It is possible that William and Samuel McMillan made donations included in this count.

Not everyone in Harford County supported independence from Britain, however. The Committee kept records of "Non-Associators," citizens of the county who would not take an oath of fidelity to the American cause, and the fines they received. This group was a minority of the Harford County population, but had a strong presence nonetheless.9 

William McMillan started fighting for the American cause as early as December of 1775, when he joined the Eleventh Company of Harford County's militia. He served in this company as a private under Captain Jacob Bond with his brother Samuel, who was also a private, presumably for a term of several months.10 Two of the signers of the Bush River Declaration were officers in his company, Thomas Johnson and James McComas, and several members of the Harford Committee also served in the militia with the McMillans. After being in the milita for a time, William enlisted in the Continental Army in the spring of 1776 when he was about twenty years old. He joined the Fourth Company of Colonel William Smallwood's Maryland Battalion (later known as the First Maryland Regiment), with his brother, Samuel McMillan.11 They were both appointed to be noncommissioned officers in the company. On July 4, 1776, the colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain, and Daniel Bowie, formerly a lieutenant in the First Company, took over as their Captain.12 A few days later, the regiment was ordered to New York to serve under General George Washington. They began their march on July 10th, starting at Baltimore and Annapolis and traveling through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey on their way to the Continental Army’s headquarters at Manhattan.

Once the Maryland soldiers arrived at New York in early August, they were placed under the command of Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling.13 The British troops were not long behind them, and had a plan of attack that they soon enacted. On August 22, 1776, the majority of British forces left their base on Staten Island and landed on Long Island, and their Hessian allies followed suit on the Twenty-Fifth. After landing with little opposition from the Continental forces, the Hessian troops settled at the town of Flatbush and the British went to Flatland, where they prepared to fight the next day.14 McMillan and the Maryland troops arrived on Long Island during the evening of August 26th, and positioned themselves around the Heights of Guana. On August 27th, McMillan, his brother, and their company took part in the Battle of Long Island. It was at this engagement that the Maryland 400, of which William McMillan was a member, would make their famous stand.

As McMillan vividly recalled later, "on the evening of the 26 August we left New York and landed on Long Island . . . [In the battle] my captain was killed, first lieutenant was killed, second lieutenant shot through [the] hand," and two corporals and two sergeants in the company were also killed, "one in front of me [at the] same time my bayonet was shot off my gun . . ." McMillan described the harrowing nature of the battle, including a "perty severe fight with yagers [German Jaegers].15 It was a draw Battle, there was a good many on Each side killed. They retired and we did Not pursue them." He went on to give the details of when things started to collapse, saying "we were surrounded by healanders [Scottish Highlanders]16 one side, hessians on the other." Eventually, "my Brother and about – 50 or 60 of us was taken."17 The casualties taken by the Continental Army, and the Maryland regiment in particular, were very high, with many being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

From what is known about the Battle of Long Island, his account is extrememly accurate. Daniel Bowie, the captain McMillan mentioned in the letter, was wounded and taken prisoner at the battle, and died not long after. His description of the fight with the Hessians follows the pattern of fighting; a portion of the Royal Army attacked the American lines while two other parts tried flanking maneuvers. The attacking force pulled back to allow the other sides to engage, then they all came together to surround the Continental troops. Based on a battle map showing the movements of the forces on Long Island, it is most likely that McMillan and his company were located near the middle of the American line, closest to Flatbush. The Hessians attacked this section of the Continental Army, and this placement would explain his encounter with the Jaegers. This positioning also accounts for his recollection of being surrounded; they were flanked by the British maneuver, the result being a disorderly retreat through the Gowanus Swamp by those who could escape.19 It was during this time that the Maryland Line stood and fought the British, a much larger force, and allowed the rest of the army to escape. Had they not done so, the Continental Army would have been overtaken and the Revolutionary War possibly lost at that time. It was for this stand that the regiment was given the nickname of the Old Line, and the soldiers who made the stand are remembered as the Maryland 400.

Another account of the battle comes from an extract of a letter written by an unknown soldier, who was likely a member of a Pennsylvania regiment or in the Maryland Line. Taken with McMillan's version, a strong narrative of the battle from a soldier's perspective takes shape.

. . . The enemy then advanced towards us, upon which Lord Sterling, who commanded, immediately drew us up in a line, and offered them battle in the true English taste. The British army then advanced within about three hundred yards of us, and began a very heavy fire from their cannon and mortars, for both the balls and shells flew very fast, now and then taking off a head. Our men stood it amazingly well; not even one of them showed a disposition to shrink.

Our orders were not to fire until the enemy came within fifty yards of us; but when they perceived we stood their fire so coolly and resolutely, they declined coming any nearer, although treble our number. In this situation we stood from sunrise to twelve o' clock, the enemy firing upon us the chief part of the time, when the main body of their army, by a route we never dreamed of, had entirely surrounded us, and drove within the lines, or scattered in the woods, all our men, except the Delaware and Maryland battalions, who were standing at bay with double their number. Thus situated, we were ordered to attempt a retreat, by fighting our way through the enemy, who had posted themselves, and nearly filled every field and road between us and our lines. We had not retreated a quarter of a mile before we were fired upon by an advanced party of the enemy, and those upon our rear were playing upon us with their artillery. Our men fought with more than Roman courage, and I am convinced would have stood until they were shot down to a man. We forced the advanced party, which first attacked us, to give way, through which opening we got a passage down to the side of a marsh, seldom before waded over, which we passed, and then swam a narrow river, all the time exposed to the fire of the enemy. . . .

The Maryland battalion has lost two hundred and fifty-nine men, amongst whom are twelve officers. . . There are about one thousand men missing in all. We took a few prisoners. By a Lieutenant we took, we understand they had about twenty-three thousand men on the Island that morning. Most of our Generals were upon a high hill in our lines, viewing us with glasses. When we began our retreat, they could see the enemy we had to pass through, though we could not. Many of them thought we would surrender in a body, without firing. When we began the attack, General Washington wrung his hands, and cried out, Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!18

Taken at the battle, McMillan could remember with detail the time he spent imprisoned. After being captured, "the Hessians broke the butts of our guns over their Cannons and Robbed us of everything we had. [They] Lit their pipes with our money, caned us into meetings, and gave us nothing to eate for five days, and then [they gave us] biscuits from aboard ships, Blue, moldy, full [of] Bugs & Rotten."20

Held for a short time in New York, the McMillan brothers and several of their fellow prisoners were eventually put on a prison ship and sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Spending the winter and some of the next spring in enemy hands, William McMillan escaped from Halifax with his brother and a few other prisoners in April of 1777: "Ten of us run away from Halifax and had likely been taken two or three times by the British inst at Sant Jone [St. John, New Brunswick], at Pasquady, and seven times we had Likely to Been killed By the Indians if we had not had a man that could Speak the Canadian Language. . ." The group spent ten weeks traveling through the wilderness, at times only being able to eat "grass on the Rocks in the Bays [and] Sometimes Shellfish, Snails. . ." Heading for Boston, Massachusetts, the journey was long and harsh. In McMillan's words, "we suffered Everything But death."21 After traveling for weeks around the bays and forests of Canada and New England, the group finally made it to Boston in the summer of 1777. Samuel reenlisted as a private into a Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army shortly after their arrival. Though William claimed it took him a year to recover from the journey, there is record of him joining the same regiment in June of 1777 as a sergeant in a different company. Both brothers traveled with their regiment under Colonel David Henley, and William recalled marching around Philadelphia when it was occupied by the British.

The brothers fought with the Massachusetts soldiers at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, but William's main concern seemed to be rejoining the Maryland troops.22 He got the opportunity to do so in October of 1778, and he took it. Although his Massachusetts service record reports that he deserted, William McMillan did not leave the Continental Army. He left his Massachusetts regiment and his brother and rejoined the Maryland Line at their camp in White Plains, New York. Reunited with his original force, McMillan went to Smallwood, who had been promoted to General, and told him of the struggles he had faced since they had served together in New York. Smallwood promised McMillan that he would be given preference for the first vacant commission in the Maryland Line. William's choice to rejoin the Maryland troops separated him from his brother, for Samuel stayed with the Massachusetts force; they were serving in different regiments for the first time in the war.23

William McMillan once again took the role of sergeant, this time in the Third Maryland Regiment under Colonel Mordecai Gist.24 According to his pension report, he received a discretionary furlough in April of 1779 but later returned to his regiment based on his hope of receiving a commission. Though it is not recorded in his service record, McMillan claimed that he was commissioned as a lieutenant later that spring. This appears to be corroborated because his claim was accepted and he received a pension at an officer's payrate. His commission made him a recruiting lieutenant in Baltimore, and he was stationed there while the Regiment and the war moved into the South. McMillan remained on this duty until the war ended in 1783.25

At some point after the war, he moved to Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Samuel McMillan also moved to Pennsylvania and lived in Mercer County for a time before he died in 1831. Migration out of Maryland was common among former soldiers, and they usually left for economic reasons and to find land. In 1818, William owned Lot No. 245 in the Borough of Mercer, where he likely resided, and rented a house and lot in New Philadelphia, Ohio. McMillan owned two other lots in Mercer in 1820, but he sold or traded them for different lots in the borough and properites in New Philadelphia that he rented out. Most of the property he dealt with had considerable worth indicating that he had a fair amount of financial success, for most veterans never managed to own more than a few acres of land, if any. McMillan likely lost most of what he made, however, as his application for a pension suggests he fell on hard times financially and needed government support. William married a woman named Nancy Anderson in 1821, but had been married previously.  He had a daughter, Margaret (born circa 1787), and two grandchildren, O. H. Perry and Susanna Patterson. The fall he took off of his horse that allowed him to think so much on his service severely limited his working ability later in his life. William McMillan died in Mercer County, Pennsylvania on December 10, 1839.26

By Jeff Truitt, 2013.


[1] The McMillan brothers appear on several family trees on that indicate a Scottish origin. See also [2]; "Harford County, Maryland: Historical Chronology," Maryland Manual Online. 

[2] Pension of William McMillan, The National Archives, (Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files), NARA M804, S 2806, 33. From The style of language and dialect he uses in the letter would indicate that he spoke with an accent typical of someone from Scotland, lending to the idea that he was originally from there. Spelling and punctuation updated and corrected for ease of reading (applicable to all quotes).

[3] Steven Sarson, "Landlessness and Tenancy in Early National Prince George’s County, Maryland," The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 57, No. 3 (July 2000): 571.

[4] David Dobson, Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607—1785, (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2004) 150-152.

[5] HARFORD COUNTY COMMITTEE OF OBSERVATION (Proceedings) Notes from the Harford County Committee of Observation Meetings, 1775-1777, [MSA C946-1, 01/05/04/003] MdHR 19,595-1, pg. 12. (Hereafter "Committee Proceedings.")

[6] Committee Proceedings, 26-27.

[7] Committee Proceedings, 13-14, 18; “Meeting of the Inhabitants of Harford County, Maryland,” American Archives, S4 V1 402.

[8] "Meeting," American Achives, S5 V1 1233; Committee Proceedings, 5-6. Interestingly, the Committee never seemed to be able to get the food they collected to Boston, but were able to continue supplying their militia.

[9] Committee Proceedings, 57-58, 60, 61.

[10] S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War, (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987) 173.

[11] Muster Rolls and Other Service Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, 1775--1783, Archives of Maryland Vol. 18 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1900), 11.

[12] "Resolution in favour of Menonists and German Baptists, Resolutions in answer to the Resolves of the Virginia Convention, of May 31, respecting the case of Governour Eden, 1776-07-06," American Archives, S4 V6 1504.

[13] Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983), 277.

[14] "Whitehall, October 10, 1776," The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (London), Friday, October 11, 1776, 1.

[15] David Hackett Fischer describes Jaegers as "the Hessian equivalent of light infantry. . . . [Colonel Carl Emilius Ulrich von] Donop asked leave to serve in America, and the Langraf [of Hesse-Cassel] gave him the coveted command of the Jager Corps. . . . Behind a surface of civility, he was brutal and very cruel. He ordered his men to take no American prisoners and threatened to have them severely beaten if they did so. . . . [Hessian officers] despised the American language of liberty and freedom as the cant of cowards, traitors, and poltroons. They were skilled professional officers, proud to serve in the Hessian army. . . . Hessian privates who came to America shared these attitudes." From Washington's Crossing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 56-59.

[16] Fischer writes: "Two regiments of Scottish Highlanders joined the British army on Staten Island. One was the Forty-second Foot, or Royal Highland Regiment, better known since 1861 as the Black Watch. It was raised to keep order in the Highlands and renowned through the empire for winning more battle honors than any other regiment in the British army. The other was the Seventy-first, or Fraser's Highlanders, raised in 1757. . . Each Scottish regiment was as big as a British brigade. In 1776, the Forty-second and Seventy-first each recruited three battalions for American service, 3,248 men in all. . . . Scottish infantry were armed to the teeth. In the Forty-second Foot, the Crown supplied each soldier with a musket and bayonet. The colonel of the regiment added a brace of pistols and a Highland broadsword at his own expense. For closer work the men equipped themselves with murderous dirks tucked into their stockings. Sergeants carried Lochaber axes eight feet long, which in strong hands could cleave a man from crown to groin. American troops were not properly intimidated by this weapon, and it was replaced by carbines or fusees in the New World" (46-49). The possibility of McMillan's Scottish origin could mean that he fought against kinsmen in these regiments.

[17] Pension of William McMillan, 33-34.

[18] “Extract of a Letter from New York: Account of the Battle on Long Island,” American Archives, S5 V2 107-108.

[19] Rieman Steuart, A History of the Maryland Line in the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783, (Towson: Metropolitan Press, 1969) 59; "Plan of the Attack on the Provincial Army, on Long Island, August 27th, 1776. With the Draughts of New York Island, Staten Island, and the Adjacent Part of the Continent," Map printed for J. Bowles in London, 1776, Library of Congress, Those who retreated through the swamp did not fare much better; many drowned in the murky waters of Gowanus while trying to escape.

[20] Pension of William McMillan, 33.

[21] Pension of William McMillan, 34.

[22] Service Record of Samuel McMillan, National Archives, (Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783), NARA M881 0092. From; Service Record of William McMillan (Massachusetts), National Archives, (Compiled Service Records), NARA M881 0092. From

[23] Pension of William McMillan, 33-34; Service Record of Samuel McMillan.

[24] Service Record of William McMillan (Maryland), National Archives, (Compiled Service Records), NARA M881 0403. From

[25] Pension of William McMillan, 3-4, 34.

[26] Pension of William McMillan, 8-10, 14-15, 22; Pension of Samuel McMillan and Widow's Pension of Esther Parsell, The National Archives, (Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files), NARA M804, W 1908, 20-21. From

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