Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Smallwood (1732-1792)
MSA SC 3520-1134

Biography:

Born in 1732, William Smallwood grew up in Charles County, Maryland alongside his six siblings: Heabard, Lucy Heabard, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Priscilla Heabard, and Margaret. The Smallwood family had been wealthy plantation owners for several generations prior to William Smallwood’s birth. His great-grandfather, James Smallwood, immigrated to the American colonies prior to 1663 as an indentured servant, eventually becoming a marginally influential Charles County delegate to the Maryland General Assembly between 1692 and 1714. His father, Bayne Smallwood, similarly served in the assembly as a Charles County delegate between 1738 to 1757. His mother, Priscilla Smallwood, came from the wealthy Heabard family of Virginian planters. Although very little information is definitively known about William Smallwood’s early life, he likely faced great expectations from his family, who expected him to live up to the standards of wealthy planter culture. [1]

William Smallwood first entered into politics in 1761 when he took over his father’s old position as a Charles County delegate to the assembly. Smallwood served in the assembly for eleven years prior to the Revolutionary War, notably serving on a committee on “Arms and Ammunition.” Following his father’s death in 1768, William Smallwood took over his father’s estate, managing the "Mattawoman" plantation while continuing to serve in the Maryland General Assembly. [2]

In response to a series of restrictive British laws referred to collectively as the Townshend Acts, Smallwood joined the Maryland Non-Importation Association in 1769. The Associators protested against what they considered to be unfair taxation on English tea. Smallwood’s involvement with Revolutionary organizations continued in 1774 when he joined Charles County’s committee of correspondence. By 1774, hundreds of committees throughout the North American colonies exchanged letters between each other, establishing a united political organization working against the British and spreading information to the public. Smallwood also signed the Declaration of the Association of the Freemen of Maryland in July 1775 while serving as a Charles County delegate to the extralegal Maryland Convention. The declaration approved “of the opposition by Arms to the British troops,” which Smallwood would soon do. [3]

Smallwood’s military service in the Revolutionary War began in 1776, when the Maryland Convention appointed Smallwood to the rank of colonel of the newly formed First Maryland Regiment. As the highest-ranking officer in the regiment, Smallwood took responsibility for managing it and issuing orders to other officers. In July of 1776, the entire First Maryland Regiment received orders to travel to New York. George Washington feared an imminent British attack and desperately needed reinforcements. Smallwood’s regiment arrived later that month. [4]

Despite the proximity of British forces, Washington insisted on holding court-martial proceedings for Colonel Herman Zedtwitz, who had been “accused of ‘holding a treacherous correspondence with, and giving intelligence to, the enemies of the United States.’” Forced to attend Zedtwitz’s trial, Smallwood left Major Mordecai Gist in command of the regiment. Although Smallwood “waited on Washington and urged the Necessity of attending [his] Troops,” Washington “refused to discharge” them, insisting on finishing Zedtwitz's trial. Smallwood was therefore absent during the early portions of the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776. British soldiers outflanked the American soldiers under Gist’s command in a surprise attack. The Marylanders retreated, fighting their way toward the Gowanus Creek. Some companies managed to cross the creek and escape the battle, taking few casualties. Smallwood arrived later in the battle and provided covering fire for the retreating American soldiers with two cannons and some reinforcements. Other soldiers, however, remained trapped and subsequently faced a deadly British onslaught. The Marylanders led several charges against the British, holding them at bay for a crucial period of time that saved Washington’s army. [5]

Smallwood continued to lead the First Regiment throughout the fall of 1776. On October 23, 1776, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Five days later on October 28, 1776, Smallwood, still commanding the Marylanders, participated in the Battle of White Plains. Smallwood’s soldiers once again saved Washington’s army, this time fighting alongside soldiers from Connecticut, Delaware, and New York. Positioned on Chatterton’s Hill, the Marylanders charged British soldiers, pushing them back briefly. A series of British counterattacks forced the Marylanders to retreat, but prevented the destruction of the entire Continental Army. The First Maryland Regiment suffered greatly in the battle. Smallwood himself received two “slight” wounds during the orderly retreat, receiving one in his wrist and another in his hip. [6]

Smallwood went on convalescent leave while recovering from his wounds. Although he remained near his troops in early November, he did not actively participate in any further battles in 1776. Smallwood personally attempted to acquire clothing and medicine from the Maryland legislature and the Continental Army on behalf of his soldiers during the difficult fall and winter months. During the winter of 1776, Smallwood returned to Maryland to recruit soldiers for the following year. [7]

In the spring of 1777, the Maryland Council of Safety sent Smallwood and Gist to “quell an insurrection of the Tories in Somerset and Worcester Counties.” Upon arriving on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Smallwood discovered that some locals repeatedly cut down Liberty Poles...drank to [King George III’s] health and success, and destruction to Congress,” and “supplied the King’s ships with provision.” The Maryland soldiers spent a “little less than two Months” arresting and detaining suspected Tories, which they “attended with no difficulty or risque.” [8]

Smallwood returned to the Continental Army’s main force in time for the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. Commanding a group of militia, Smallwood originally intended to attack the British Army’s right flank, but eventually retreated after becoming lost in unfamiliar terrain and thick fog. Other American officers fared little better, leading to widespread confusion. Although the British drove the Americans from the battlefield, they failed to follow up on their victory. [9] 

Smallwood began to become annoyed that he had not yet been promoted despite his military record. In December of 1778, Smallwood complained to Washington that 

the Partial and rapid Promotion of Foreigners, whether from Motives of Policy or misconception, have been at least inconsiderate and disgusting to every honest American (over whose Heads they have been promoted) who have and must still bear the brunt in this Contest.

Although Washington never replied to this complaint, Smallwood later wrote a similar letter to Washington in February of 1779. At the time, Smallwood served under German-born Baron Johann de Kalb, and apparently still resented foreign officers. Replying to Smallwood’s comments on the treatment of Maryland officers, Washington decided that de Kalb should know of Smallwood’s recent letter—minus “some general Reflections at the close of the letter which were perhaps better omitted,” likely referring to Smallwood's views on foreign officers. Four days after replying to Smallwood's second letter, Washington addressed issues of rank with all of the Maryland Line's officers. Despite any tensions that resulted over the matter of rank, Smallwood failed to follow through with his threat “to quit the Service.” [10]

Smallwood traveled south in 1780, joining Horatio Gates’s “Grand Army” in the Carolinas. Eager to retake Charleston, South Carolina, Gates hoped to defeat British forces at Camden, South Carolina. The Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780 became one of the greatest disasters of the war, completely scrambling and annihilating Gates’s army. Smallwood’s brigade of Marylanders had been placed in reserve, with militia positioned in front. When the inexperienced militia fled from advancing British troops, Smallwood attempted to rally them, only to be separated from his own soldiers in the ensuing confusion. [11]

Gates’s army was fully scattered following Camden, to the point that soldiers listed as “deserted or missing” returned months later after roaming completely disorganized through the countryside. After regaining his composure during the following retreat, Smallwood set about rounding up American officers and soldiers, bringing them together near Charlotte, North Carolina. Smallwood marched his makeshift brigade to Salisbury, North Carolina, arriving there on August 21, five days following the battle. Smallwood quickly wrote Congress regarding the disastrous defeat, largely placing the blame on Gates while emphasizing his own attempts to reorganize the army. The letters belied Smallwood's ambitions for Gates's position, desiring further influence within the army. By late August, Smallwood had gathered about 150 soldiers under his command. Although he initially refused to meet with Gates, he eventually complied with Gates’s orders and brought his makeshift brigade to Gates’s location in Hillsborough, North Carolina. [12]

Regardless of the tensions between Smallwood and Gates, Smallwood’s reputation grew in Camden’s aftermath. Smallwood finally received the promotion he desired for so long in mid-September, reaching the rank of major general. Congress officially thanked Smallwood for his role at Camden in early October but did not replace Gates. [13]

Despite his new rank, Smallwood still felt unsatisfied as he had been placed under the command of Prussian-born Baron Friedrich von Steuben. Nathanael Greene, Gates’s replacement as commander of the Continental Army in the south, feared an escalation in tension between the two. Smallwood declared that “he never [would] submit to the command of [von Steuben].” When both Greene and Washington offered little help, Smallwood decided to return to Maryland in December before von Steuben arrived. Smallwood left “with a view of forwarding the troops and supplies from” Maryland. He also intended to “settle the matter with Congress...being determined not to submit to the command of the Baron de Steuben [sic].” Smallwood instead wanted a higher position or command of the army in the southern theater. Congress did not provide Smallwood with either. [14]

Smallwood participated in his last field action during the war in early January 1781, leading “a body of Militia” in the defense of Petersburg, Virginia. Smallwood “totally routed the Enemy” and forced British ships in the area to retreat. After returning to Annapolis, Smallwood continued to recruit soldiers and otherwise remained “quiet.” Fellow officer Samuel Smith claimed that Smallwood “fairly Bullied” the Maryland General Assembly into providing him “an unlimited allowance.” [15]

Smallwood’s role in the Revolutionary War left behind a mixed legacy. Smallwood’s blunder at Germantown and overly ambitious nature tainted his reputation in Congress. Regarding Smallwood’s role in Camden’s aftermath, Greene wrote that “what gave Smallwood such a great reputation was his halt [and reorganization of soldiers at Salisbury following the Battle of Camden], which was no thing but accident.” Greene further appraised Smallwood as “a brave and good officer; but too slow to effect anything great in a department like this…where nothing can be effected without the greatest promptitude.” Other officers offered less flattering descriptions of Smallwood. Captain Edward Norwood was court-martialed after calling Smallwood “a partial Man and no Gentleman.” Years after the war, Otho Holland Williams described how “‘Smallwood’s low ambition—to be the idol of Sycophants—and the meanness of his resentments’ taught him…that enemies ‘are excellent friends.’” [16]

Smallwood’s tendency to criticize other officers likely did not help his reputation. He lambasted “northern Generals” for improperly disciplining their soldiers. He claimed that their generals trained “them to run away and [made] them believe they never can be safe unless under cover of an entrenchment, which they would rather extend from the North to the South pole.” On another occasion, Smallwood criticized “the [militia] from Elk Ridge and some other parts of Anne Arundel,” who he said “will shine more at an Election than in the Field.” Smallwood went so far as to single out specific officers, including Peter Adams, who Smallwood described as being “more commonly activated by caprice and invincible Obstinacy than the propriety of Conduct which should ever mark and distinguish the officer.” [17]

Smallwood still had many redeeming qualities. Sally Wister, part of a Quaker family who took refuge in Smallwood’s winter quarters, described 

the General [as] tall, portly, well made; a truly partial air, the behavior and manner of a gentleman, a good understanding, and great humanity of disposition, constitute the character of Smallwood.

Wister further mused that Smallwood was “very, very entertaining, so good natured, so good humoured, yet so sensible.” Smallwood displayed bravery on the battlefield, especially at the Battle of White Plains. He often reminded other officers of “the sufferings of the Continental troops,” and worked on behalf of other officers to resolve disputes over military rank. Smallwood also urged Washington to specifically exchange four Maryland officers captured at the Battle of Brooklyn who had been imprisoned and forgotten for two years: Hatch Dent, Jr., Samuel Turbutt Wright, Walker Muse, and Edward Prall. British officials exchanged the four officers not long after. [18]

Regardless of his shortcomings, Smallwood prospered after the war. On November 21, 1783, Smallwood and other Maryland officers founded the Maryland Society of the Cincinnati, which celebrated the general connection between officers and upheld Revolutionary War ideals. The officers elected Smallwood to be the society's first president the following day. Smallwood used his reputation to expand his Charles County estate following the war, owning 4,350 acres in the county. Furthermore, Smallwood owned eight enslaved people in 1783. By 1790, Smallwood owned 56 slaves, dramatically increasing the number of people he owned over the course of seven years. While he owned a large number of slaves, no details exist revealing how Smallwood treated them. After focusing on his plantation for a few years, Smallwood returned to politics. [19]

Smallwood served as Maryland’s governor between 1785 to 1788. According to the Maryland Constitution of 1776, the governor shared power with his executive council, reflecting fears over monarch-like abuses of power by a single powerful politician. The Constitution also provided more power to Maryland’s legislative branch than the executive and judicial branches. Smallwood often carried out duties beyond his limited power, however, and instead strove to appoint others to fulfill what others asked of him “daily.” During his tenure as governor, Smallwood was faced with a riot in Charles County, writing a proclamation condemning the indebted rioters and fining a few of their leaders. He took no action regarding the justices involved or the Scottish tobacco firm that collected their pre-Revolution debts. Although “decided against the Government” over the U.S. Constitution, Smallwood sent delegates to ratify the document at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. [20]

Following his governorship, Smallwood continued to maintain his plantation and later became a member of the Maryland Senate in 1791. William Smallwood died “on his journey from Annapolis to his place of residence” on February 12, 1792. Smallwood never married and never had children. Smallwood’s obituary described him as “preeminent as a soldier, wise and decided as a statesman, [and] inflexible as a patriot.” [21]

According to his inventory, Smallwood’s possessions totaled £2511. Smallwood owned 23 slaves prior to his death, including a blacksmith named Nace. Unfortunately, Smallwood’s debts amounted to £3,000 and 15,000 pounds worth of tobacco, a burden which fell upon his surviving relatives. Smallwood remained the wealthiest person in Charles County six years after his death, yet his growing debts eclipsed even that. His relatives faced a suit in Chancery Court, which ruled that only selling parts of Smallwood's land holdings would satisfy the debts, which now totaled £17,500. Yet Smallwood's reputation and Revolutionary War record persisted, allowing his family, including his sisters Priscilla and Lucy, to receive 1,100 acres of bounty land from the federal government in 1816. [22]

-James Schmitt, Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution Research Fellow, 2019

Notes:

[1] Edward C. Papenfuse, et al., eds, A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), vol. 2, pp. 739-742; Ross M. Kimmel, In Perspective: William Smallwood (Maryland: Smallwood Foundation, Inc., 2000), pp. 3-4. Although popular folklore asserts that Smallwood attended Eton College and fought in the French and Indian War, no primary source evidence exists to verify the claims.

[2] Papenfuse, p. 741; Kimmel, p. 4.

[3] Papenfuse, p. 741; Kimmel, p. 5; Jean B. Lee, The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1994), p. 98; Benjamin Warford-Johnston, “American Colonial Committees of Correspondence: Encountering Oppression, Exploring Unity, and Exchanging Visions of the Future,” History Teacher, vol. 50, no. 1 (November 2016), pp. 83, 87-88; Journal of the Maryland Convention July 26 to August 14, 1775, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 11, pp. 66-67.

[4] Kimmel, p. 7; Mark Andrew Tacyn, “‘To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), pp. 44-45.

[5] “Court-Martial on Colonel Zedtwitz,” American Archives, series 5, vol. 1, pp. 1159-1162; Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July 7 to December 31, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, pp. 338-343; Kimmel, p. 8.

[6] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, 343; Reiman Steuart, A History of the Maryland Line in the Revolutionary War (Towson, MD: Metropolitan Press, 1969), p. 130; Tacyn, 98-104; “Extract of a Letter from White-Plains,” 28 October 1776, American Archives, series 5, vol. 2, p. 1271; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, pp. 418, 488; Autobiography of Samuel Smith, unpublished mss, Smith Papers, Library of Congress. Published as “The Papers of General Samuel Smith. The General’s Autobiography. From the Original Manuscripts,” The Historical Magazine, series 2, vol. 8, no. 2 (1870), p. 84.

[7] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, pp. 343, 480; Kimmel, pp. 9-10.

[8] William Smallwood to George Washington, 24 April 1777, Founders Online, National Archives; William Smallwood to Thomas Johnson, 14 March 1777, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books, vol. 2, no. 2, MdHR 4609 [MSA S991-2, 1/6/5/3].

[9] Kimmel, pp. 9-10; George Washington to William Heath, 8 October 1777, Founders Online, National Archives; George Washington to William Smallwood, 23 August 1777, Founders Online, National Archives; Tacyn, pp. 143-146; George Washington, General Orders for Attacking Germantown, 3 October 1777, Founders Online, National Archives.

[10] William Smallwood to George Washington, 30 December 1778, Founders Online, National Archives; George Washington to William Smallwood, 12 February 1779, Founders Online, National Archives; George Washington to William Smallwood and the Officers of the Maryland Line, 16 February 1779, Founders Online, National Archives.

[11] Tacyn, pp. 217-218, 220-225; Richard John Batt, “The Maryland Continentals, 1780-1781” (PhD diss., Tulane University, 1974), p. 38.

[12] Batt, pp. 41, 47-49.

[13] Steuart, p. 130; Worthington Chauncey Ford, et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 18 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910), p. 924.

[14] Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 7 December 1780, Founders Online, National Archives; Nathanael Greene to George Washington, 28 December 1780, Founders Online, National Archives.

[15] Journal and Correspondence of the Council of Maryland, 1781, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 47, p. 25; Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 18 January 1780, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 3 (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904); Samuel Smith to Otho Holland Williams, 14 February 1782, Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society.

[16] Nathanael Greene to Alexander Hamilton, 10 January 1781, Founders Online, National Archives; George Washington, General Orders, 4 September 1778, Founders Online, National Archives; Otho Holland Williams to Philip Thomas, 24 March 1789, Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society.

[17] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, p. 363; William Smallwood to Thomas Johnson, 14 October 1777, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books, vol. 2, no. 82, MdHR 4609 [MSA S991-2, 1/6/5/3]; William Smallwood to Thomas Sim Lee, 12 September 1781, Maryland State Papers, Brown Books, vol. 2, no. 17, MdHR 4609 [MSA S991-2, 1/6/5/3].

[18] Albert Cook Meyers, ed., Sally Wister’s Journal (Philadelphia: Ferris and Leach, 1902), pp. 81-82, 101; William Smallwood to George Washington, 4 December 1777, Founders Online, National Archives; Smallwood to Washington, 24 April 1777; William Smallwood to George Washington, 8 April 1778, Founders Online, National Archives.

[19] Kimmel, pp. 13-14; General Assembly, House of Delegates, Assessment Record, 1783, Charles County, Seventh District, General, p. 12 [MSA S1161-5-4, 1/4/5/48]; General Assembly, House of Delegates, Assessment Record, 1783, Charles County, Fifth District, General, p. 10 [MSA S1161-5-4, 1/4/5/48]; U.S. Federal Census, 1790, Charles County.

[20] Papenfuse, p. 741; David Curtis Skaggs, Roots of Maryland Democracy, 1753-1776 (USA: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1973), 193-195; William Smallwood to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, 27 April 1786, Maryland State Papers, Red Books, vol. 32, no. 158, MdHR 4604 [MSA S989-48, 1/6/4/36]; Lee, 231-239; Samuel Chase to John Lamb, 13 June 1788, published in Gaspare J. Saladino and John P. Kaminski, eds., The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, vol. 18. (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1995), pp. 47-48.

[21] Papenfuse, p. 741; Maryland Journal-Baltimore Advertiser, 21 February 1792.

[22] Charles County Register of Wills, Inventories, William Smallwood, 1793, 1791-1797, pp. 180-185, MdHR 7302 [MSA C665-11, 1/8/10/22]; Papenfuse, p. 742; Federal Direct Tax, 1798, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, p. 1493; Pension of William Smallwood, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, B. L. Wt. 656-1100, from Fold3.com.

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