Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Joseph Butler
MSA SC 3520-16729


Joseph Butler was a first lieutenant in the First Maryland Regiment when he was killed at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, one of the first Marylanders killed in the American Revolution.

Butler was active in revolutionary groups in the years before the Revolutionary War broke out. In 1774, he was chosen as the clerk of the Harford County Committee of Correspondence. The committee was one of many established throughout the colonies to coordinate the American response to the Boston Port Act, which closed that city's harbor in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. While their goal was not yet independence from Britain, these committees were nevertheless important sources of organized opposition to British rule. Their main, stated purpose was to enforce a boycott of imported goods in the colonies. [1]

By early 1776, after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Congress had directed each colony to supply troops for the Continental Army, and Maryland responded enthusiastically, creating what became known as the First Maryland Regiment. Joseph Butler, long active in the Harford County militia, was selected as first lieutenant in the Fourth Company, which was raised in his home county. The company trained in Baltimore for six months, until July, when the First Maryland Regiment marched for New York, seeking to prevent the British from occupying the city. [2]

On August 27, 1776, the Americans faced the British Army at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), the first full-scale 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. During the retreat, the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, but were blocked by the swampy Gowanus Creek. While half the regiment was able to cross the creek, the rest, Butler's company among them, were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, the Marylanders mounted a series of daring charges, which held the British at bay for some time, at the cost of many lives, before being overrun. One of the Fourth Company's sergeants, William McMillan, described what happened:

My captain was killed, first lieutenant was killed, second lieutenant shot through the hand, two sergeants was killed; one in front of me…my bayonet was shot off my gun...My brother [Sergeant Samuel McMillan] and I and 50 or 60 of us was taken…The Hessians broke the butts of our guns over their cannon and robbed us of everything we had, lit their pipes with our money…gave us nothing to eat for five days, and then [only] moldy biscuits…blue, moldy, full of bugs and rotten. [3]

All told, the company lost 80 percent of its men, killed or captured like McMillan. Only the company's drummer, a dozen privates, and a sergeant made it back to the American lines. The Marylanders took enormous causalities, with other companies losing nearly as many men as the Fourth, but their action had delayed the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape, earning themselves the moniker "Maryland 400." [4]

Early in the battle, the Marylanders exchanged fire with British and Hessian soldiers, who were acting as a decoy, while the main British force was beginning to march around the American rear. During that initial encounter, it is likely that Butler was wounded. He was subsequently captured by the British, and died in captivity not long after. [5]

The night before the battle, the Fourth Company's commander, Capt. Daniel Bowie, wrote out his will, making provisions for his friends and relatives "if I fall on the field of battle," including a mourning ring for Butler. Butler was himself moved that night to take aside two of his fellow officers, one of whom, Lt. Joseph Ford, later gave a statement to the Register of Wills in Harford County:

[On] August 27, 1776, when Colonel Smallwood's Regiment was drawn up on Long Island in expectation to engage with the enemy, Lieut. Joseph Butler called Ensign [sic: Lt.] [Edward] Prall and myself out of the ranks, and desired we remember if he should be so unfortunate as to be killed that it was his desire that his brother or half brother should have his estate...He signified at the time that he did not know where his brother was, or whether he would ever apply [as beneficiary of the estate], as he had not heard from him for some time, and if he should not apply, that Miss Sarah Hall should be possessed of the whole estate..." [6]

Neither Butler's brother nor Sarah Hall can be identified further, and there is no additional information about the administration of Butler's estate. However, he is remembered as one of the Maryland 400, and as one of the first Marylanders to die in battle with the British in the American Revolution.

Owen Lourie, 2015

[1] "Meeting of the Inhabitant of Harford County," 11 June 1774. American Archives, Fourth series, vol. 1, pps. 402-403.

[2] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 11; Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 63; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987), 170. The experience of the Fourth Company is described in the pension of William McMillan, one of the company's sergeants. See Letter, William McMillan to Secretary of Treasury, ca. October 1828. Pension of William McMillan, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 2806, p. 33-35, from

[3] McMillan pension.

[4] Return of the Maryland troops, 27 September 1776, from; 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 an officer in the Maryland Battalion," 28 August 1776. American Archives, Fifth series, vol. 1, p. 1195; [Mordecai Gist], “Extract of a letter from an officer of the Maryland Battalion: giving a short account of the late engagement on Long-Island,” 30 August 1776. American Archives, Fifth series, vol. 1, p. 1212; "Extract of a letter from Philadelphia," 31 August 1776. American Archives, Fifth series, vol. 1, p. 1243; “Extract of a letter from New-York: Account of the Battle on Long-Island,” 1 September 1776. American Archives, Fifth series, vol. 1, p. 1232.

[6] Harford County Register of Wills, Wills, Joseph Butler, recorded 1777, Liber AJ no. 2, p. 31 [MSA CM599-2, CR 44758].

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