Benjamin Chambers (1749-1816)
MSA SC 3520-14992
Gen. Benj Chambers, born Oct 16th, 1749, died Jan 10th, 1816. He
served his Country with Fidelity in the war of 1776, in the war of 1812,
and in various public offices, which he filled with honor to himself and
usefulness to the Community. And at his death enjoyed the esteem and respect
of all who knew him, the warmest affection of a beloved family, and the
Consoling hopes of a Christian.
--Inscription on the tombstone of Benjamin Chambers, Chestertown, Maryland
Benjamin Chambers was born in Pennsylvania in 1749, the son of James Chambers and Sarah Lee. His father was related to four Chambers brothers who had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland in about 1726. James settled in the Juniata Valley of Pennsylvania, which is probably where Benjamin was born. He was the youngest of four brothers: Rowland, Joseph, James and Benjamin.
Some years before the Revolution, the eldest brother, Rowland Chambers, went to New York to work in a mercantile firm belonging to Joseph “Uncle Josey” Forman (1703-1775), a wealthy merchant who was related to the Chambers family by marriage. After Forman’s death, Rowland moved to Somerset County, New Jersey, and went into the wheat and grain business. He brought with him his younger brother, Benjamin. (See Appendix A.) Both Rowland and Benjamin, like most of the Chambers family, became fervent supporters of the Revolution.
Not long before the start of the War, Benjamin Chambers moved to Kent County, Maryland – possibly in connection with his brother’s grain business, or possibly to work for his cousin Ezekiel Forman (1736-1795), the son of “Uncle Josey,” who was a man of influence and prominence in Chestertown. In any case, Chambers clearly developed a very close association with Forman, and would eventually marry his daughter.
At the end of 1775, the province of Maryland raised its first significant body of troops in support of the Revolutionary army. Benjamin Chambers, then twenty-six years old, was one of four men recommended for commissions by the Kent County Committee of Safety. On January 3, 1776, Chambers was commissioned Ensign of the First Company of Col. William Smallwood’s Battalion of Maryland Militia, under Captain John Hoskins Stone. He apparently spent the next five months helping to organize and train Smallwood’s Battalion, as well as on various duties within the province. In April, he was involved in arresting Alexander Ross, a citizen caught bringing secret correspondence from Lord Dunmore of Virginia to Governor Eden of Maryland; Ensign Chambers was one of two officers who brought Ross before the Council of Safety in Annapolis. The Maryland Battalion, later reorganized as the First Maryland Regiment, would form the core of the famous “Maryland Line” in the Revolution.
Chambers resigned his commission on June 3, 1776, but would very soon rejoin the Battalion when it was summoned to the aid of the main Continental Army under General Washington.
In the summer of 1776, Washington’s troops were preparing to defend New York, knowing that a major British assault on the city was imminent and that the Americans would be badly outnumbered. In June, the Continental Congress, amidst its debates over independence, ordered the formation of a “Flying Camp”: a mobile unit composed of troops from the middle colonies that would be ready to serve wherever needed.
On July 9, 1776, Benjamin Chambers was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the Maryland Battalion, which would form part of this force. He remained with the First Company under Captain Stone. The very next day, the Battalion departed for Philadelphia, where it was ordered to join Washington’s army near New York, forming part of Lord Stirling’s Brigade. The Maryland officers, according to many accounts, stood out among the ragtag American troops for their aristocratic manners and their uniforms of scarlet and buff – other Continental troops referred to them derisively as “Maryland macaronis.” But they would soon prove that they could fight.
When General William Howe began landing British forces on Long Island at the end of August, the Maryland Battalion was among the first troops that Washington sent to repulse them. Although vastly outnumbered, the Marylanders launched repeated assaults against the enemy line. As the rest of the Continental forces broke under the sustained British attacks and Washington ordered a general withdrawal, some 400 Maryland soldiers, about half the Battalion – who had never before faced enemy bullets - were left to stand firm and cover the American retreat. This small band of men stood up bravely under heavy cannon and rifle fire; as General Washington sadly watched the bloodshed, he is said to have exclaimed, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” Fewer than half of the Marylanders escaped with their lives by swimming to safety across the Gowanus salt marsh.
The troops who held back the British that day – saving Washington’s army, according to many historians – would become known as the “Maryland 400,” a reference to the 300 Spartans who fended off the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. The Maryland Battalion would be dubbed the “Old Line,” the origin of the nickname “The Old Line State.” It is probable that Lt. Chambers was among the famous 400, since Captain Stone’s company, to which he belonged, was one of the units that formed the heroic band. Many of the officers with whom Chambers was commissioned are listed among the dead, wounded, and captured. In any case, he was almost certainly in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of Long Island – the largest conflict of the entire Revolutionary War.
As Washington’s army continued its retreat that summer and fall across New York and New Jersey, the Maryland Brigade distinguished itself further in battle at Harlem Heights and White Plains. At the beginning of December, however, the Flying Camp’s term of service expired, and many of the Maryland troops returned home.
It it is unclear how long Lt. Chambers remained with Washington’s army, and whether he was present for the crossing of the Delaware and the battles at Trenton and Princeton on December 26 and January 3, but he had resigned by January 18 at the latest. The official records of his activities during 1777 are somewhat spotty. By the summer, however, he had apparently taken command of a regiment of militia back home on the Eastern Shore. Barely a year after his lieutenancy, he was now a lieutenant colonel – clearly, he had made his mark as a soldier.
Having taken New York, the British commanders in 1777 turned their attention to the rebel capital, Philadelphia. In August, a fleet of some 300 ships sailed up the Chesapeake, skirting the shores of Kent County on its way to the head of the bay. Lt. Col. Chambers’s regiment, along with the rest of the Eastern Shore militia, was called up to meet the invaders. Able to do little more than harrass General Howe’s British and Hessian forces as they landed and began advancing on Philadelphia, the militiamen soon marched northward to join Washington’s army.
There are two surviving Revolutionary War pension applications from the 1830s by former residents of Kent County who served in the militia regiment commanded by Col. Chambers. (See Appendix B.) Their statements suggest that Chambers was present at the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, when a surprise attack by Washington failed to rout Howe’s forces on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Maryland troops were at the forefront of that battle, spearheading the initial assault near Allen’s Lane. Chambers and his men may also have spent the first part of the winter with Washington’s army at Valley Forge.
Benjamin Chambers resigned his militia commission on April 3, 1778, but there are still references to him as “Colo. Chambers” after that date. It likely that this was an honorific title, rather than an indication that Chambers recieved a new command, as beginning that spring he worked as an agent in Annapolis for Ezekiel Forman, Chambers's cousin and patron.
The following year, Chambers seems to have shifted his activities to procuring supplies for the Revolutionary army. On July 2, 1779, William Paca recommended Benjamin Chambers to the governor for an appointment as deputy to the Clothier General of the state. By that time, Ezekiel Forman had been serving for more than a year as an appointed purchaser of clothing for the Maryland troops, among his other activities in support of the Revolutionary cause. In November 1779, Chambers was appointed deputy quartermaster-general of forage, assigned to the counties of the Lower Eastern Shore. There are letters suggesting that he and Ezekiel Forman were working in close partnership at this time. By 1780, documents refer to business being conducted with the firm of “Forman & Chambers.” The two men were involved in the tobacco trade as well as in military procurement.
Whether by war profiteering or otherwise, Benjamin Chambers’s personal fortunes were certainly rising swiftly by the early 1780s. He began aggressively buying and selling land in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties during the latter part of the war, according to county records. In 1782, he was one of the original petitioners for the creation of Washington College, and then served as the institution’s first Treasurer, and as a member of its first Board of Visitors and Governors.
On June 11, 1783, Benjamin Chambers cemented his longstanding relationship with Ezekiel Forman by marrying Forman’s daughter, Elizabeth (1762-1820); she was also Chambers’s own cousin. In 1785, the couple bought a brick house on Queen Street that they soon after doubled in size, adding rooms with fashionable dentil-molded cornices. (This is the house recently acquired by Washington College.) Benjamin and Elizabeth Chambers would raise at least ten children there.
At some point, Benjamin Chambers acquired a legal education (probably from Ezekiel Forman), and in 1781 he succeded Forman as Clerk of the Kent County Court. He would hold the clerkship intermittently for more than 30 years until his death. In 1800, Chambers served a single term in the Maryland House of Delegates.
His wealth and influence continued to increase. By 1790, when the first federal Census was taken, he owned 18 slaves; by 1810, the number had increased to 30. Also in 1810, Chambers purchased the grandest house in Chestertown, the waterfront mansion now known as Widehall, into which he moved with his family.
By the last years of his life, Chambers had become a classic Maryland squire and widely respected pillar of his community, regularly presiding over Fourth of July festivities, militia parades, and similar occasions in Chestertown, and serving as president of Washington College’s trustees for many years. He had also become a general of the state militia on the Eastern Shore. In the summer of 1814, when the British invaded Kent County, General Chambers commanded the local militia that marched to meet them. Although he did not personally take the field against the enemy (he was prevented by illness from doing so), his son Capt. Ezekiel Forman Chambers commanded an infantry company and was singled out for bravery in dispatches after the Battle of Caulk’s Field.
When he died in January 1816, Chambers was eulogized as follows in the Easton Republican Star:
DIED, on the 10th inst. at Chester Town, Md., in the 67th year of his age, General BENJAMIN CHAMBERS. He was one of the few Revolutionary patriots, that the hand of time had spared to his acquaintances and friends, by whom his memory will long be cherished. His public services, both in a civil and military capacity, are too well known to be readily forgotten, and his private virtues can be best appreciated by those who knew him best.
Biography written by Adam Goodheart, 2008.
to Benjamin Chambers' Introductory Page
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