Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mordecai Gist (1743-1792)
MSA SC 3520-15852

Biography: Born 22 February 1743 at "Stonehall," Baltimore County. Son of Thomas Gist (b. 1713) and Susannah Cockey (b. 1714). Brother of  Elizabeth (1736- ca. 1826), John (1738-1800), Thomas (1741-1813), Richard (1745-1746), Joshua (1747-1839), Rachel (1750-1825), David (1753-1820); Married Cecil Carnan (1742-1770), 1768. Married Mary "Polly" Sterrett (d. 1779), 23 January 1778; Married Mary McCall Cattell (1749-1812). Children: Cecil (1770-1771), Independent (1779-1821), Susannah (1784-1785), States (1787-1822). Stepson: William Cattell. Died Fall 1792, Charleston, South Carolina.

A wealthy merchant and landowner from Baltimore County, Maryland, Mordecai Gist risked his life and fortune by placing himself firmly, even radically, on the side of the American Independence. Anything but a man of indecision, Gist became one of Maryland's earliest revolutionary agitators and went on to earn fame throughout the entire country due to the distinguished record of service he rendered unto the fledgling American republic. As an officer of the Continental Army, Mordecai Gist demonstrated his willingness to bear arms and fiercely fought in several major engagements, including the Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island), where the performance of the troops under his direct command became a symbol of American resolve. Known as the "Maryland 400," Major Gist and the soldiers under him have taken on legendary status reminiscent of the Spartans 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae.

On February 22, 1743, Mordecai Gist was born to a wealthy landowner, Thomas Gist and his wife, Susannah Cockey Gist, at their Baltimore County family estate "Stone Hall." [1] As a child Gist received his education at Saint Paul's Seminary. Upon reaching maturity Gist was said to have stood an impressive six feet tall and  to have possessed a "frank and genial manner." He married Cecil Carnan of Baltimore County in 1768, who died giving birth to their daughter, also named Cecil, in 1770. [2] Cecil died in infancy and is buried with her mother at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church Cemetery in Baltimore County. [3]

In his young adulthood Gist worked as a merchant, residing in Baltimore and conducting business principally on Gay Street. [4] His various business ventures allowed him to travel abroad. In 1771, Gist, planning to conduct a business trip to Europe, printed an ad in the Pennsylvania Chronicle requesting that his debtors settle their accounts, and also advertised that he recently received a large quantity of European and East Indian goods that he wished to sell. He dealt mainly in textiles, but in addition had in his possession guns, gun powder, an assortment of carpenter tools, and utensils for cooking. [5] Gist seems to have inherited little land due to the long life of his father (who lived until the 1790s) and the existence of two older brothers. Instead, in the 1760s, Gist purchased land directly from his father. [6]

Despite lacking any inheritance, Gist owned quite a bit of land, as he purchased and sold many tracts of land throughout his life and at various points held land in Frederick and Baltimore counties in Maryland, as well as in Pennsylvania and South Carolina. It is unknown how much total property Gist owned at any one time, but his various transactions, in which he often sold or purchased tracts of 100 or more acres, suggests that he owned quite a bit over the course of his life. [7] In addition to land, Gist also owned slaves and employed indentured servants. In 1771, an Irish servant, Andrew Dunlop, ran away from one of Gist's plantations in Frederick County and Gist offered a thirteen dollar reward for his return. [8] This would not be the only time that Gist put out such an ad. During the Revolutionary War, one of Gist's slaves, a pregnant 34 year old woman "named Sarah, but since calls herself Rachel," escaped from him at Trenton Ferry. She took her six year old son, a boy named Bob who appeared "to be white without close examination," with her. Gist referred to her as a "lusty wench" who "was lately apprehended by the First Maryland Regiment, where she pretends to have a husband... and passed herself off as a free woman." Slaves were not legally allowed allowed to marry others, but Sarah/Rachel appeared "in camp" with the unnamed soldier and may have personally considered him to be her husband. What happened to Sarah/Rachel, Bob, and the unnamed soldier is unknown. [9]

Gist was an early supporter of American Independence of a radical persuasion. In October of 1774 he participated in the burning of the Peggy Stewart, otherwise known as the "Annapolis Tea Party." The controversy began when the ship arrived in Annapolis harbor on October 15, 1774. The owner of the brig, Anthony Stewart, brought about 2,000 pounds of tea in his cargo, hoping to profit from smuggling tea due to its scarcity. His motives were quickly discovered and a public meeting was announced to discuss what should be done with the tea. The conservative members of the committee argued that the tea should be brought ashore and burned, while the rest of the cargo could be allowed to be sold. A large segment of radicals from all over Maryland, including a contingent from Baltimore City headed by Mordecai Gist, demanded that the tea be burned on the ship. Gist, along with a few others, retrieved Stewart from his home and brought him before the mob. The mob forced Stewart to agree to the burning of his ship along with the tea. [10] A witness to events deposed that "if Mr. Stewart had not agreed to set Fire to the Brigantine, his House and other property in Annapolis would have been destroyed...and his Life [would have been] in iminent Danger." [11] As these events suggest, Gist's support for American independence was unambiguous and so it comes without surprise that in December of the same year Gist organized a company of militia in Baltimore. [12]

By late 1775 Gist's Baltimore Independent Cadets had ceased to be, but being a man of wealth known for his dedication to the cause, Mordecai Gist easily secured a commission as a Major in the newly assembled First Maryland Regiment under Colonel William Smallwood in January 1776. [13] The creation of Smallwood's regiment was a significant step for Maryland in supporting the rebellion, because militia companies could not be ordered outside the state in any circumstance but the gravest of emergencies. [14] Thus Smallwood's regiment signified that Maryland was willing to contribute to a national war effort.

On July 10, 1776 Gist left Maryland and marched with Smallwood's regiment to join General Washington's main army in defending New York from a probable British invasion. The invasion came on August 27, 1776. Colonel Smallwood and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Ware were attending a court martial under the orders of Washington. Command was left to the young and militarily inexperienced Major Gist. Gist had the misfortune to receive his baptism of fire at the Battle of Brooklyn, a decisive British victory. In the night before the battle, the bulk of the British force, under the command of General Howe, marched around the American left. Early in the morning, the remaining British and Hessian forces engaged the Americans on their front, distracting them from the impending flank on their left.

In the early stages of the battle, the Americans were encouraged by the ostensibly tepid performance of the British, who seemed incapable of mounting an aggressive assault. This illusion was shattered when it became apparent that they were merely fighting an auxiliary force, sent to distract them as Howe maneuvered the main army around their flank. Howe's attack sent shock waves through the American line, which inevitably fell into disarray and  an order of retreat was eventually issued. It fell upon a small contingent of Maryland troops under the command of Major Gist to guard the retreat. [15] Known today as the Maryland 400, their stand earned them a spot in the annals of American history and became the basis for Maryland's nickname, "The Old Line State."

By the conclusion of the battle American Generals Lord Sterling and Sullivan had been captured and it is apparent that Major Gist, having multiple close calls, barely quitted the field successfully. After being ordered to retreat Gist attempted to lead his men back the camp but ran into the enemy to his rear. The British soldiers feigned surrender but upon getting closer, the Marylanders were greeted with a surprise volley of fire. Gist's men responded with their own volley that persuaded the British to fall back to the larger body of troops. Finally getting a moment of relief, the main American force began to retreat through the marsh, leaving Gist with only five of his companies. [16] Before long Gist and his men again were engaged with the enemy and, despite being hopelessly outnumbered, attempted to attack enemy positions, most notably at the Cortelyou House. The Marylanders' stand enabled the bulk of the American forces to escape safely until their lines faltered and they were forced to retreat. Gist led a fragment of his routing force, made up of 20 men, through a marsh with only nine of them returning safely to camp. [17] Gist's personal bravery, despite lacking any combat experience, distinguished him among the ranks of young American officers in the Continental Army.

After the intense combat he saw at Brooklyn, Major Gist fell ill and missed the Battle of White Plains (28 October 1776). In December, Congress began to reorganize the Continental Army and, due to his performance at Brooklyn, Gist was promoted to Colonel and given his own regiment. As a colonel, Gist served his country in 1777 by putting down insurgent activities by loyalists in Somerset and Worcester counties, Maryland, and by participating in the Siege of Fort Mifflin and the Battle of Germantown during the Philadelphia Campaign. By early 1779 Gist had reached the rank of Brigadier General. In the summer of 1780 General Gist marched to South Carolina and linked up with his former commander, General Smallwood. The two suffered, despite the lauded performance of the Maryland regulars, a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden due to southern militias' inability or unwillingness to absorb the British attack. [18] Despite the defeat, the performances of Generals Gist and Smallwood were praised by the mortally wounded General Johann de Kalb. The two men also earned the gratitude of Congress: "Resolved, that the thanks of Congress be given Brigadiers Smallwood and Gist, and to the officers and soldiers in the Maryland and Delaware Lines...for their bravery and good conduct displayed in the action of the 16th of August last, near Camden, in the State of South Carolina." [19] Gist served until the end of the war and was present at the Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown. [20]

Fervently dedicated to the cause throughout the war, Gist only showed hesitance once due to the tragic loss of his second wife. Taking advantage of the break in battles during the winter of 1777-1778 while the Continental Army was stationed at Valley Forge, Gist returned home and married Mary "Polly" Sterrett on January 22, 1778. While suffering from a serious illness, Mary gave birth to their first son, Independent, in January 1779. [21] Shortly after the birth of his first son Gist wrote to William Smallwood describing that the prospect of his wife's recovery was "too gloomy to dwell on." [22] A month later she continued to deteriorate, causing Gist to decline General Washington's orders to rejoin the army by writing "It is with pain that I Inform You of Mrs Gists extreme Indisposition whose life is despaired of by her Physicians and it is an additional wound to my sensibility that this melancholy circumstance compels me to act Incompatible with Your Excellencys orders." [23] A definitive death date for Mary has not been found, but she probably died in 1779 or early 1780. 

After the Revolutionary War came to an end, Brigadier General Gist became a founding member of the Maryland chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, a fellowship of American officers committed to preserving the ideals of the revolution, denoting an enduring affinity for the same cause that animated him in 1774. The precise timeline and motive remain unclear, but shortly after the war Gist moved to Charleston, South Carolina. In contrast to many of the officers he served with, Gist never served in public office, preferring to lead a rather quiet existence on his plantation in Charleston. He was active, however, in the local Freemason lodge, an organization to which he belonged since 1775. He rose to the rank of Deputy Grandmaster in 1787 and served as the Grandmaster during his final years from 1790-1791. [24] In 1789, Gist apparently contemplated returning to public service and wrote to Washington requesting a position in his administrator or a post in his home state of Maryland. [25] In 1791, Washington considered Gist for several positions, writing "Little has ever been said of his [Gist's] qualifications as a General Officer. His activity, & attention to duty is somewhat doubtful; tho’ his spirit, I believe, is unimpeached." [26] 

In the 1780s, Gist married for a third time, wedding Mary Cattell, widow of a Captain B. Cattell and daughter of George McCall of Philadelphia. Mary gave birth to their daughter, Susanna, on December 10, 1784, who died in infancy in July the following year. The couple had their first and only son, States, on April 15, 1787. In addition to Gist's other son, Independent, Mary seems to have brought at least one other child from her previous marriage, William, who is referred to by Gist in his will as "my son William Cattel," suggesting a close relationship. [27] There is a bit of confusion as to exactly when Mordecai Gist died. His gravestone at Saint Michael's Church in Charleston states that he died on August 2, 1792, but witnesses to his Last Will and Testament claim that he signed it a month later on September 2. [28] His obituary from September 3rd in the Columbian Herald declared that he died "yesterday," meaning on September 2. [29] Other dates from a variety of source range between June-October 1792. In any case, Mordecai Gist was definitely deceased by November of 1792, as stated in his pension. [30]

During his service, General Gist proved himself to have unquestionable devotion to the cause of American Independence. He was precisely the opposite of what Thomas Paine called the "Sunshine Patriot," or, in other words, the man who is only a patriot when all is well. Gist experienced many dark moments, both personal and national, during the Revolution yet he endured with a stoic resolve. His greatest legacy will surely continue to be his participation at the Battle of Long Island, where the inexperienced Major and his small band of Marylanders fought against impossible odds and saved the rest of the Continental Army. For this, and indeed on account of the rest of his service, the young Mordecai Gist earned the gratitude of his even younger nation.

Daniel Blattau, 2013.


[1] Special Collections, Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore City Collection, Parish Register 1710-1933 [MSA SC 2652, MSCM 994-1].

[2] Special Collections, Gist Family Papers, Memorandum, Mordecai Gist, alleged Marriage Settlement made by Christopher Carnan, Baltimore Co [MSA SC130-1-6, 00/12/10/20].

[3] Grave of Cecil Carnan Gist. Find a Grave. Accessed 19 July 2013.

[4] Special Collections, Mrs. Brandford Gist Lynch Collection, The Gist Family of Maryland [MSA SC180-201, 00/09/01/05].

[5] Request of Mordecai Gist for debtors to settle accounts, Pennsylvania Chronicle, 3 October 1771.

[6] Thomas Gist to Mordecai Gist, Provincial Court Land Record, 1765-1770, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 725, p. 452; Thomas Gist to Mordecai Gist, Provincial Court Land Record, 1765-1770, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 725, p. 454.

[7] For Gist's various land transactions, see: Baltimore County Court, Land Records, Richard Graham to Mordecai Gist, 1772, Liber AL, No. E, p. 302 [MSA CE66-41];  Joseph Ensor to Benjamin Griffith and Mordecai Gist, "Hale's Folly," 1774, Liber AL, No. L, p. 307 [MSA CE66-47]; Mordecai Gist to Richard Graham, 1778, Liber WG, No. B, p. 23 [MSA CE66-52]; Absalom Boring to Benjamin Griffith and Mordecai Gist, "Hailes Folley," 1779, Liber WG, No. C, p. 393 [MSA CE66-53]; Mordecai Gist and Benjamin Griffith to John McClure, 1781, Liber WG, No. G, p. 108 [MSA CE66-57].

[8] "Thirteen Dollars Reward," Pennsylvania Chronicle, 3 October 1771.

[9] "Thirty Dollars Reward," Pennsylvania Packet, 15 October 1778; "Fifty Dollars Reward," Pennsylvania Packet, 24 October 1778.

[10] Ronald Hoffmann, A Spirit of Dissension: Economics, Politics, and the Revolution in Maryland (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973), 133-138.

[11] William Hand, Browne, ed., Maryland Historical Magazine. Vol V. Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 1905, 244.

[12] James H. Fitzgerald Brewer, History of the 175th Infantry (Fifth Maryland) (Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 1955), 1.

[13] Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution (Washington DC: The Rare Book Shop Publishing, Inc., 1914), 249.

[14] Brewer, James H. Fitzgerald. History of the 175th Infantry (Fifth Maryland). Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 1955), 5.

[15] For an extended overview of the battle, see David Hackett Fischer. Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[16] Judging by the following pay abstract, the companies who remained with Gist were likely all or partly the ones commanded by Captains Lucas, Bowie, Adams, Ford, and Veazey; Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, Pay Abstract of One Battalion of Maryland Regulars and Five Independent Companies under the Command of Col. Will. Smallwood, 31st August to the 30th September, MdHR 19970-6-5 [MSA S997-20, 1/6/2/42]. This finding is supported by Mark Andrew Tacyn, "'To the End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD diss, University of Maryland, College Park, 1999), 60.

[17] For Gist's account of the battle, see: "Extract of a letter from an officer of the Maryland Battalion," [Mordecai Gist], American Archives, series 5, vol. 1, p.1232.

[18] Special Collections, Mrs. Brandford Gist Lynch Collection, The Gist Family of Maryland [MSA SC180-201, 00/09/01/05].

[19] Heitman, 249.

[20] Special Collections, Mrs. Brandford Gist Lynch Collection, The Gist Family of Maryland [MSA SC180-201, 00/09/01/05].

[21] Ibid.

[22] Special Collections, Gist Family Papers, Correspondence, Mordecai Gist and others, including "Polly" letters, Baltimore and elsewhere [MSA SC130-1-7, 00/12/10/20].

[23] Mordecai Gist to George Washington, 18 February 1779, Founders Online, National Archives.

[24] John W. Simons and Robert Macoy, eds. The Masonic Eclectic; Vol III. (New York: Masonic Publishing and Manufacturing Co., 1867), 82-84.

[25] Mordecai Gist to George Washington, 25 July 1789, Founders Online, National Archives.

[26] George Washington, "Memorandum on General Officers," 9 March 1792, Founders Online, National Archives.

[27] Special Collections, Gist Family Papers, Certified Copy of the Last Will and Testament of Mordecai Gist, 1792 [MSA SC130-1-45, 00/12/10/20].

[28] Grave of Gen. Mordecai Gist. Find a Grave. Accessed 19 July 2013.

[29] Obituary of Mordecai Gist, Columbian Herald (Charleston, South Carolina), 3 September 1792.

[30] Pension of Mordecai Gist, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, National Archivees, NARA M804. 1-23, from

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