Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John McClain
MSA SC 3520-16796

Biography: 

A Revolutionary War soldier, John McClain enlisted in Captain Peter Adams's Sixth Company of the First Maryland Regiment on February 22, 1776, at the very beginning of the war. The company was part of Maryland's contingent of full-time, professional soldiers, raised to fulfill the state's quota for the Continental Army. The company drew its soldiers from the Eastern Shore, although McClain himself was from Harford County; it is possible that he was recruited in his home county, or that he joined the army while on the Eastern Shore. He may have served in the Harford County militia in 1775. He was also one of two men in the company with the same name. [1]

That spring, the company traveled across the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, joining the five other companies stationed there; three additional companies were in Baltimore. In July, the regiment received orders to march to New York, in order to defend the city from an impending British attack. The Marylanders arrived in New York in early August, where they joined with the rest of the Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington. [2]

On August 27, 1776, the Americans faced the British Army at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), the first full-scale engagement of the war. The battle was a rout: the British were able to sneak around the American lines, and the outflanked Americans fled in disarray. During the retreat, the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, but were blocked by the swampy Gowanus Creek. Half the regiment was able to cross the creek, and escape the battle. However, the rest, including McClain's company, were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, this group of soldiers, today called the "Maryland 400," mounted a series of daring charges, which held the British at bay for some time, at the cost of many lives, before being overrun. They took enormous causalities, with some companies losing losing nearly 80 percent of their men, but their actions delayed the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape. In all, the First Maryland lost 256 men, killed or taken prisoner. [3]

John McClain was among those taken prisoner. One of his sergeants, Thomas McKeel, described the typical experience of the Americans captured at the battle. McKeel "remained a prisoner on board of a Prison Ship until the British troops got possession of New York" in November 1776, and "he was then taken ashore and imprisoned in New York with the Maryland officers and prisoners, until he was parolled." However, McClain had a very difference experience. [4]

Immediately after the Battle of Brooklyn, McClain "was put on board one of the enemy's sloops [and] was compelled to join in Colonel Rogers's Rangers," a British Army unit. In late November, McClain and several other conscripted Americans in the unit were able to escape, having "previously agreed to do so [at] the first opportunity." One of the other men, Michael Quin, a Pennsylvanian also captured at Brooklyn, reported that he "was ill treated, and inlisted with...intent to desert...Nearly the whole company...in the Rangers intended deserting as soon as they can." The men were captured by an American patrol near Westchester, New York, and after questioning were cleared of collaborating with the enemy, and returned to their units. [5]

The extent of McClain's activities while serving in the Rangers is uncertain, but that unit was responsible for the capture of famed American spy Nathan Hale in September, 1776, and pursued the retreating Continental Army through New York and New Jersey in November. It is possible that McClain had fought against his Maryland comrades at the battles of White Plains (October 28, 1776) and Fort Washington (November 16, 1776). [6]

After rejoining his old unit, McClain was likley present at the American victories at Trenton and Princeton late that winter, which revitalized the Continental Army. After that, it is impossible to say for certain what happened to him. One of the two John McClains in the Sixth Company reenlisted as a corporal in the First Maryland Regiment in late 1776, and served until December 1779, but there is no way to determine which one. Likewise, there was a Private John McClain serving in the First Maryland from February 1777 until 1780, who could have been one of the men from the old Sixth Company, or a different person entirely. [7]

Similarly, there were many John McClains living in Maryland in the years after the American Revolution, including at least one in Harford County. Without additional information, however, it is unknown if any of these was the man who survived the Battle of Brooklyn, British captivity, and impressment into a British Army unit. [8]

Owen Lourie, 2017

Notes:

1. Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 14; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War (Silver Spring: Family Line Publications, 1987), 174.

2. Pension of John McFaddon. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S5755, from fold3.com.

3. Return of the Maryland troops, 27 September 1776, from Fold3.com; Mark Andrew Tacyn "'To the End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 48-73. For more on the experience of the Marylanders at the Battle of Brooklyn, see "In Their Own Words," on the Maryland State Archives research blog, Finding the Maryland 400.

4. Pay Roll of Prisoners Taken on Long Island, 14 February 1777, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 19, no. 2, MdHR 19970-19-2 [MSA S997-19-2, 01/07/03/015]; Pension of Thomas McKeel. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S34977, from fold3.com.

5. George Clinton, "Examination of Several Prisoners," 23 November 1776, in American Archives, series 5, volume 3, p. 823-824. McClain is called "McLeon," from "Captain Peter Codains's" company, but is clearly the same person.

6. David Hackett Fisher, Washington’s Crossing, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 108, 121; Burt Garfield Loescher, Rogers Rangers: The First Green Berets (1969), 176-177.

7. Archives of Maryland, vol. 18, p. 137, which lists him as an "OS," or "Old Soldier," indicating that he had served from the beginning of the war; p. 227; p. 393; Corp. John McClain, First Maryland Regiment, Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, National Archives, NARA M881, from fold3.com.

8. See, for example, U.S. Federal Census Bureau, Census of 1810, Havre de Grace, Harford County, Maryland.

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