Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Peter Adams
MSA SC 3520-7

Biography:

Peter Adams was an officer in the Maryland Line during the Revolutionary War. Named a captain in early 1776, he stayed in the army until the very end of the war, rising to lieutenant colonel. Along the way, he saw combat at some of the war's fiercest battle, including Brooklyn, Brandywine, Germantown, and Camden.

Adams lived in Caroline County, Maryland, and was an advocate of American independence during the early part of the American Revolution. In the summer of 1775, he was elected to the Convention of Maryland. The Convention was the state's self-declared legislative body, which began meeting after Robert Eden, the colonial governor, dissolved the old assembly in an effort to stop the independence movement. Adams was a member of the Convention for only one session, which met for two weeks in July and August 1775. However, during Adams's term, the Convention signed the Association of Freemen, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence. While the signers held out hope for reconciliation with England, they recognized, just a few months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, "that it is necessary and justifiable to repel force by force, [and] do approve of the opposition by Arms to the British troops." [1]

A few months later, in January 1776, Adams was named one of the captains of the First Maryland Regiment, the state's first full-time, professional soldiers, raised to meet the state's quota of soldiers for the Continental Army. As a captain, in command of the Sixth Company, Adams was expected to recruit about 70 men, as well as put up his own money to help outfit them (although he could expect to be reimbursed). Adams filled his company with men from the Eastern Shore, a region where many people did not support the war against Britain. Nevertheless, Adams recruited his men, and in early spring 1776, they traveled to Annapolis, to meet with five of the regiment's nine companies (the rest were stationed in Baltimore). [2]

The spring and summer of 1776 were spent training the new soldiers, virtually none of whom had ever served in the army before. However, in April Adams was dispatched to Chestertown, across the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis, to arrest a British agent named Alexander Ross. Ross was carrying papers from British Secretary of State Lord Germain and Lord Dunmore, colonial Governor of Virginia, both of whom were aggressively moving to suppress the American Revolution. Adams was one of the officers who detained Ross, and brought him first to Annapolis, then to Congress at Philadelphia. [3]

In July, the First Maryland Regiment was ordered to march north to New York, to protect the city from invasion by the British. On August 27, 1776, the Americans faced the British Army at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), the first major 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. As the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, they were forced to stop at the swampy Gowanus Creek. Half the regiment was able to cross the creek and escape the battle. However, the rest, including Adams's company, were unable to do so before they were again attacked by a group of British soldiers. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, these Marylanders, today called the "Maryland 400," mounted a series of daring charges. They held the British at bay for some time before being overrun, at the cost of many lives, losing 256 men killed or captured. Their stand bought valuable time for the rest of the American army to escape to safety. [4]

The Sixth Company lost 80 percent of its men, either killed or captured. It had so few remaining soldiers that the sixteen survivors were consolidated into another company. Adams himself was not on the field during the battle. Instead, he was too sick, one of the many Americans who fell ill in the weeks before the battle, largely because of poor camp sanitation. In fact, the company's first lieutenant, Nathaniel Ewing, was also sick, and the men were lead in combat by the second lieutenant, who was taken prisoner. Adams was ill for much of the fall, through most of September and October. [5]

Nevertheless, the Marylanders fought on through the rest of 1776. They continued to demonstrate their skill and bravery at battles like Harlem Heights in September and White Plains in October, but the Americans were nevertheless pushed out of New York, and by November were put on the run through New Jersey. Not until late that winter did the Continental Army secure revitalizing victories at Trenton and Princeton. At the end of 1776, Maryland increased its contribution to the Continental Army from one regiment to eight, and Adams was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the newly-created Seventh Maryland Regiment. [6]

During the years that followed, the Maryland troops continued to prove their worth, performing their duties well. Still, the Continental Army endured several years of defeat. In 1777, the Maryland troops took heavy casualties at the disastrous raid on Staten Island. During 1777-1778, the British and American troops vied for control over the American capital at Philadelphia. As part of the campaign, the American troops suffered two losses at Brandywine (September 1777) and Germantown (October 1777), and a limited victory at Monmouth (June 1778). In August of 1779, Adams was named lieutenant colonel commandant of the First Maryland Regiment, a promotion he had been seeking for years. [7]

There was little combat in 1779, and in an effort to break the stalemate, the British shifted their focus to the southern colonies. In April 1780, the Marylanders were part of the American army that marched from Pennsylvania to South Carolina to counter the British. On August 16, 1780, at the first battle of the campaign, the Americans suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of Camden, which ended in a chaotic American retreat. The Marylanders took particularly heavy casualties, losing some 600 men--about one-third of their troops. The battle nearly destroyed the army, and the Maryland Line had only enough men to form a single regiment. After it was consolidated, a number of officers were left without a command, including Adams. He was placed in charge a new Third Maryland Regiment, and was sent back to Maryland to help rebuild the army. [8]

Adams arrived in Annapolis in September or October 1780, and set to work raising troops, but the task proved difficult. Six years of war had taken their toll on Maryland's people. Many of those who were willing and able to join the army already had served, some of them for extended enlistments. The economy was in tatters, and victory was no closer than it even had been--indeed, after the near-total destruction of two American armies in South Carolina in two years, success against the British seemed remote. As a result, recruiting was so slow that when the American army began campaigning in the south again in the beginning of 1781, Adams was still working to outfit his regiment. [9]

Finally, on August 28, 1781, Adams and his fully-manned and outfitted regiment departed Annapolis. One observer wrote that

this regiment as been raised within these few months, but from the unwearied vigilance of the officers, has all the appearance of a veteran corps; it consists of upwards of 409 men, enlisted for three years...and are well equipped for the field...The ardor that spread through their ranks, on the prospect of taking the field, and their military appearance, inspired every beholder with a pleasing confidence that they would render essential services, and be an honour to their country. [10]

Because they left so late into the summer, Adams and the men of the Third Maryland did not participate in any of the fierce battles in 1781, at Guilford Courthouse, Hobkirk's Hill, Ninety-Six, or Eutaw Springs, places where the Maryland Line distinguished itself. Instead, as it headed south, the Third stopped at Yorktown, Virginia around the end of September, and joined the Continental Army's siege of the British. Although they saw little fighting there, they were present when Cornwallis surrendered on October 17, 1781. Adams's men spent most of 1782 in South Carolina with the rest of the Marylanders, holding the remaining British troops at Charleston at bay. Around the end of the year, they returned to Maryland. Adams left the army in April 1783, more than seven years after he joined. [11]

Living as a civilian again for the first time in many years, Adams worked as a merchant, selling fabric, furniture, books, and other goods. Although he was clearly a person of means and statue in his community, very little is known about Adams's personal background. He had at least one brother, William Adams, Jr. When Peter Adams died during the summer of 1785, possibly after a lengthy illness, he left all of his property to his brother. He likely never married or had any children. [12]

Although his age at the time of his death is not known, it is probable that a large portion of Adams's adult life was spent in the army. However, while the basic details of his military career are easily understood, it is harder to determine anything about his character or aptitude as a soldier. For the most part, Adams's reputation has been defined by a remark made by his commander William Smallwood in 1781. Smallwood complained that Adams would not follow orders, and was "more commonly activated by caprice and invincible obstinacy, than that propriety of conduct which should ever mark and distinguish [an] officer." Adams certainly had a tendency to complain and to feud with his fellow officers. In 1782, for example, he was court-martialed over an incident that arose from a dispute with John Steward, commander of the First Maryland Regiment, who had served alongside Adams since 1776. [13]

However true Smallwood's condemnation may have been, Smallwood's own pettiness was legendary. Other officers remarked on his "low ambition--to be the idol of sycophants," and "the meanness of his resentments." Likewise, a disagreement with Steward, a notoriously hot-blooded officer, is hardly a damning fact about Adams. Over the years, particularly at the start of the war, the Maryland Line had its share of poor officers, as is to be expected. Indeed, in 1776, only a handful of men in Maryland had any military experience. By the time the Southern Campaign began, however, few of these men remained in the ranks. It would have been easy for the state to remove him from his position when it reorganized its troops. That Adams was given another command in the fall of 1780 is a testament to his skill as an officer. [14]

Owen Lourie, 2019

Notes:

1. Edward C. Papenfuse, et al., eds, A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol I. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 98-99; Proceedings of the Conventions of the Province of Maryland, 1774-1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 78, p. 17.

2. Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 49; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 78, pps. 67, 91; Pension of John McFadden. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S 5755, from Fold3.com; Peter Adams, account of expenses, 14 February 1776, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 4, no. 14-1, MdHR 19970-4-14/1 [MSA S997-4-75, 1/7/3/10], which likely documents the company's lodging and ferry expenses on their trip to Annapolis.

3. Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, August 29, 1775 to July 6, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 11, pps. vii, 352-353, 392.

4. 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.

5. “Extract of a letter from New-York: Account of the Battle on Long-Island,” 1 September 1776, American Archives, 5th series, vol. 1, p. 1232; David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 86-88. Adams illness is recorded in Return of the Maryland troops, 13 September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 85, from Fold3.com; Return of the Maryland troops, 27 September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 93-94, from Fold3.com; Return of the Maryland troops, 11 October 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 92, from Fold3.com; Return of the Six Independent Companies and First Regiment of Maryland Regulars, 1 December 1776, American Archives, 5th series, vol. 3, p. 1081-1082. Because of some identification problems with the regiment's officers, it is not entirely certain who the Sixth Company's second lieutenant was at the time of the battle.

6. Return of the Maryland troops, 13 September 1776; McFadden pension; Steuart, 49; Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 78; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com. Adams was briefly major of the Seventh Maryland, before being made lieutenant colonel.

7. The promotion happened in December, but was back-dated to August. Steuart, 49; Compiled Service Record; Pension of Peter Adams. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, BLWt 372-450, from Fold3.com; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 78; George Washington to Thomas Johnson, 6 November 1777, Founders Online, National Archives.

8. Tacyn, 216-225; Richard J. Batt, "The Maryland Continentals 1780–1781," (Ph.D. diss, Tulane University, 1974), 50-51.

9. Batt, 201-203; Return of troops in garrison at Annapolis, May 1781, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 7, no. 52, MdHR 19970-7-52 [MSA S997-7-53, 1/16/1/36].

10. "Annapolis, August 30," Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), 30 August 1781.

11. Batt, 201-203; Charles H. Lesser, Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 208, 210;

12. Papenfuse, et al., 98-99; Will of Peter Adams, 1785, Caroline County Register of Wills, Wills, liber JR B, p. 29 [MSA C577-4, 1/3/1/11]; Inventory of Peter Adams, 1785, Caroline County Register of Wills, Inventories, liber JR A, p. 181 [MSA C516-2, 1/3/1/17].

13. William Smallwood to Gov. Thomas Sim Lee, 12 September 1781, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books 2:17, MdHR 4609-17 [MSA S991-2, 1/6/5/3]; Board of War to Gov. Thomas Sim Lee, 27 December 1779, Maryland State Papers, Red Books 24:5, MdHR 4592-5 [MSA S989-36,1/6/4/24]; Nathaniel Greene to Otho Holland Williams, 6 June 1782, Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society, MS 908; Dennis M. Conrad and Roger N. Parks, eds., The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene, vol. 11, 7 April-30 September 1782 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 197.

14. Otho Holland Williams to Dr. Philip Thomas, 24 March 1789, Williams Papers, MHS.

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