Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas Price (1732-1795)
MSA SC 3520-1011

Biography:

When the First Maryland Regiment took the field in August 1776 at the Battle of Brooklyn, there were no men among them who had ever seen combat. The regiment only had four soldiers, out of nearly 1,000 total, who had ever been in a battle, and none of them fought that day. Two of them, Captain Barton Lucas, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and Private Nathan Peak, who had been a member of a rifle company in 1775, were sick. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Ware, the regiment's second-in-command, had served with Lucas in 1760, but he was serving on a military jury when the Maryland troops were preparing for battle.

The fourth veteran among the Marylanders was Thomas Price, probably the most experienced of them all. He was not even in New York yet. When the rest of the troops had marched out of Maryland in early July, Price stayed behind to oversee an additional contingent of troops and handle some administrative matters. Not until early September did Price arrive in New York with reinforcements for the American army. [1]

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Price was in his mid-forties; he arrived in New York just days after turning forty-four. He was a resident of Frederick County, Maryland, with a house in Frederick Town, where he had lived since the early 1760s. Price had grown up in Pennsylvania--whether he was born there or had immigrated is not certain--and was the son of John Price and Rebecca King. In 1759 and 1760, Price was a captain in a regiment raised by Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War, seeing service in the western part of the state. [2]

After he settled in Frederick, Price quickly established himself as a leading figure in the area. He was a justice of the county court for much of the 1760s and 1770s, beginning in 1763. He was a prosperous planter, and operated a hat shop in Frederick Town. He and his wife Mary had nine children: sons Thomas, Benjamin, Samuel, and George, and daughters Elizabeth, Rebecca, Mary, Susanna, and Matilda. [3]

As the split between Britain and the American colonies began to grow in the 1770s, Price took an active role in the American cause. In the summer of 1774, he was elected to the Convention of Maryland, the state's self-declared legislative body. The Convention began meeting in June 1774 after Robert Eden, the colonial governor, dissolved the old assembly in an effort to stop the independence movement. Price served in the Convention until the end of 1774. [4]

The following summer, Price was named the captain of a rifle company, one of two such units that Maryland raised in the western part of the state to help bolster the American forces besieging the British at Boston. Price received his commission on June 22, 1775, and the troops marched out less than a month later, on July 18; Nathan Peak was a member of the other company. They arrived in Boston just twenty-two days later, on August 9, an astounding pace of twenty-five miles per day. Drawn from the mountainous backcountry, the soldiers were renowned for their accurate shooting and for their "backwoods" appearance. One observer described them as being "painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, and dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins." [5]

The rifle companies mostly performed guard duty around Boston, engaging in occasional skirmishes with British patrols. One of Price's soldiers, Private Daniel McCurtin, wrote in his diary about building fortifications and trading volleys with British troops, but generally they saw limited action. This entry from October 25 is typical: "This 24 hours I have nothing of note to insert, having no alterations among us, excepting the general conjecture which always remains--i.e. being compelled to keep a sharp look out in the day time and having many hundreds of men under arms every night." [6]

Price returned to Maryland in November 1775, and in January he was named major of the First Maryland Regiment, the state's first contingent of troops raised to be part of the Continental Army. It was a fitting promotion for one of the state's most experienced officers. The regiment, under the command of Colonel William Smallwood, spent the first part of 1776 training in Maryland, and in early July marched north to defend New York from an impending attack by the British. However, by then Price had become the de facto commander of the Maryland Independent Companies, units which the state had formed to guard the Chesapeake Bay's coastline. By the summer of 1776, however, they were sent to help reinforce the American army in New York. Three companies traveled with Smallwood, and Price stayed in Maryland to prepare the others, and to coordinate other elements of the state's defense. [7]

Price and his men got to New York in early September, after the "Maryland 400" had made their fabled stand at the Battle of Brooklyn. However, he led his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, a relatively minor battle, but the Americans' first victory of the campaign. In early October, Price fell ill. Many of the Maryland troops were sick, as were most of the senior commanders. Price probably left New York sometime in November or December, returning to Maryland to accept command of the newly-created Second Maryland Regiment, which was made up of the old independent companies, which were disbanded. [8]

During his tenure as colonel of the Second Maryland, Price's men endured heavy casualties on a number of occasions, including at the Battle of Staten Island in August 1777, and the American defeats at Brandywine (September 1777) and Germantown (October 1777).Throughout this period, Price was dogged by accusations of poor leadership and cowardice. He requested a court martial in November 1777 to have an opportunity to clear his name, not an uncommon request among officer in the army. He was acquitted, and the panel declared "that the reports circulating to the prejudice of Col. Thomas Price are without the least foundation." [9]

The following summer, however, complaints about Price surfaced again, and several other Maryland colonels leveled new charges as him. The commanders of the state's other six regiments, and Price's own deputy, wrote to George Washington:

Colo. Price has been branded with, and still lays under the appellation of a Coward, he has once had an examination into his Conduct, and then procured a declaration importing that nothing appeared militating against his Character as an Officer—This Decree we do Assert was procured from the humane feelings of those who were to have given evidence against him, but retired from the Court of enquiry on his promising to resign his Commission. [10]

Despite Price's pledge to resign, he had continued on. Because of the complexities of getting so many high-ranking officers together, no trial was held until November 1778, when a full accounting of Price's alleged misdeeds finally occurred. His fellow officers told of misdeeds which stretched back to the very beginning of the war. Four charges dated to 1776, when Price commanded the Independent Companies in New York:

1stly—Cowardice on York-Island [Manhattan] in the face of the Enemy.
2ndly—Disgraceful behaviour in refusing to take command, at Hackinsack of the regiment late Smallwoods when ordered to Fort-Lee.
3rdly—Scandalously leaving Hackinsack at 12 o'Clock at night, when raining, on the report of the enemies approach.
4thly—Disgracefully leaving Kingston on the approach of the enemy.

He was also accused of cowardice at Brandywine and Germantown, and with "Ungentlemanlike behaviour in not complying with his promise, to leave the service" the year before. [11]

Price was again acquitted, though his reputation doubtless never recovered from the spectacle of so many officers giving testimony against one of their own. By early 1780, he had returned home to Frederick, and on May 1 (or April 31), 1780, he finally resigned his commission. [12]

Price lived out his last years in Frederick with his family. He helped to organize supplies for the Maryland Line in the 1780s, and was a judge on the Frederick County Orphans Court in 1781. After the end of the Revolutionary War, he did not return to public life. He purchased land, including lots confiscated from Loyalists, and lots in Washington, DC. [13]

Thomas Price died in the spring of 1795, when he was sixty-two years old. His estate was valued at £1,556, and included ten slaves. Price left all of his property to be used to support his wife Mary and his three unmarried daughters, Rebecca, Susannah, and Matilda. Mary lived in Frederick until her death around 1806. [14]

Owen Lourie, 2018

Notes:

[1] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July 7 to December 31, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, p. 211-212; John C. Conradis, "Duty Status of Officers of Smallwood's Battalion of Regular Maryland Troops (1st Maryland Regiment) During New York/New Jersey Campaign of 1776-1777" (2018), 5-7. Many thanks to John for sharing all of his detailed research on the regiment's officers.

[2] Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, vol. 2, p. 499, 518, 522; Francis Barnum Culver, Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland (Baltimore: Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Maryland, 1940), 372; Edward C. Papenfuse, et al., eds, A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol II. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 661.

[3] Papenfuse, et al., 661.

[4] Papenfuse, et al., 661.

[5] Tucker F. Hentz, "Unit History of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment (1776-1781): Insights from the Service Record of Capt. Adamson Tannehill" (Virginia Historical Society, 2007), 2-3; J. Thomas Scharf, History of Western Maryland (Philadelphia: Everts, 1882), 130-131; Daniel McCurtin, "Journal of the Times as the Siege of Boston Since Our Arrival at Cambridge, Near Boston," in Thomas Balch, ed., Papers Relating Chiefly to the Maryland Line during the Revolution (Philadelphia: Collins, 1857), 11-12; "A Muster Roll of Captain Thomas Price’s Company of Rifle-Men in the service of the United Colonies," [hereafter Price Muster Roll] Maryland Historical Magazine 22:3, 275-283.

[6] McCurtin, 13-14, 25 (quote).

[7] Price Muster Roll, 278; Mark Andrew Tacyn, "'To the End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 33-45; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, p. 211-212; Conradis, 6-7.

[8] Proceedings of the Conventions of the Province of Maryland, 1774-1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 78, p. 67; Conradis, 7-8; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, pps. 339, 342.

[9] “General Orders, 17 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives; “General Orders, 23 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[10] Maryland Officers to George Washington, 16 July 1778, Founders Online, National Archives.

[11] “General Orders, 19 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives; “General Orders, 8 January 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives.

[12] Thomas Price to George Washington, 1 May 1780, Founders Online, National Archives; George Washington to Thomas Sim Lee, 1 September 1780, Founders Online, National Archives.

[13] Papenfuse, et al., 661.

[14] Papenfuse, et al., 661; Will of Thomas Price, 1795, Frederick County Register of Wills, Wills, liber GM 3, p. 54 [MSA C898-4, 1/51/9/12].

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