Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Alexander Roxburgh
MSA SC 3520-16740

Biography:

Alexander Roxburgh fought as part of the Maryland Line for the entire Revolutionary War. He joined Col. William Smallwood's First Maryland Regiment in January, 1776, part of Maryland's earliest contribution to the Continental Army, and remained in active service until the army's dissolution in November, 1783. Roxburgh even took part in combat after the British surrender at Yorktown in October, 1781. At the Battle of Brooklyn, on August 27, 1776, Roxburgh was one of the Marylanders who fought so bravely, now remembered as the "Maryland 400."

Roxburgh was a Scot by origin, according to some sources, and carried a Scottish surname. A resident of Somerset (now Wicomico) County, Maryland, in the years before the Revolutionary War, Roxburgh was an early supporter of American independence. He was a signer of the Association of Freemen in July, 1775, declaring his belief that "that it is necessary and justifiable to repel force by force, do approve of the opposition by arms, to the British troops" occupying the colonies. The following January, Roxburgh received a commission as a second lieutenant in the First Maryland Regiment. [1]

Roxburgh and his company spent several months training at Bladensburgh, in Prince George's County, and then at the state capital at Annapolis. In early July, the Maryland troops marched to New York, where it joined the Continental Army, under the command of General George Washington. On the eve of the march, Roxburgh was promoted to first lieutenant, and joined the Eighth Company, commanded by Captain Samuel Smith. This promotion and transfer may have spared Roxburgh death or imprisonment by the British in the impending battles around New York; Roxburgh's old company, the Third, took very heavy causalities. [2]

On August 27, 1776, Roxburgh and his fellow soldiers faced the British Army at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), seeking to resist the British attempt to take New York. 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 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. [3] Roxburgh's company was able to escape across the Creek, taking only a handful of causalities. Still, as his captain Samuel Smith described later in life, their retreat was not an easy one. During the retreat,

When the Regiment mounted a hill, a British officer appeared…and waved his hat, and it was supposed that he meant to surrender. He clapped his hands three times, on which signal his company rose and gave a heavy [fire]. I took my company through a marsh, until we were stopped by the dam of a …mill…that was too deep for the men to ford. I and a Sergeant swam over and got two slabs [of wood] into the water, on…which we ferried over all who could not swim. [4]

Roxburgh himself survived the battle, and stayed with the army through the rest of the difficult fall of 1776, a series of defeats that saw the Americans pushed out of New York, followed by revitalizing victories at Trenton and Princeton late that winter. When the Maryland troops were reorganized and expanded, he secured a commission as captain, commanding a company of his own in the newly reformed First Regiment in late 1776. [5]

Over the next several years, Roxburgh and the Marylanders fought against the British in the campaigns around Philadelphia in 1777 and 1778, and endured the legendary Valley Forge winter. In the spring of 1780, the Maryland troops were part of the American army sent to the Carolinas to counter the new British attacks in that region. As the Marylanders were heading south, Roxburgh was promoted to major of the Seventh Maryland Regiment. While that rank made him second in command of the regiment, he was actually the regimental commander for much of the time. [6] The battles in North and South Carolina were the most intense of the war, and the Marylanders took heavy causalities. They also proved themselves to be among the bravest and most effective troops in the army. In 1781, Roxburgh, now the Major of the Fourth Maryland Regiment, and his men traveled from South Carolina to Virginia, where they took part in the siege of Yorktown.

While the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 effectively ended the war, sizable British forces remained in America, and fighting continued. The Fourth Maryland was dispatched back to South Carolina, with the goal of pushing the British out of the South, and of liberating Charleston. They fought in one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War, at Combahee Ferry in August, 1782. [7] As 1782 drew to a close, with the British threat over, Roxburgh's regiment began the trip north, arriving in Maryland in early 1783 For his part, Roxburgh stayed in the army until that November, before being discharged when the Continental Army was demobilized. At the end of the war, he was one of the founding members of the Society of the Cincinnati. [8]

Returning to Somerset County, Roxburgh became an active member of the community, part of a sizable group of Scottish Presbyterians in the area. He married Frances Handy, the daughter of local official Col. Isaac Handy, in the 1780s, and they had three children: William, Matthew (d. ca. 1816), and Elizabeth (1789-1867). Roxburgh's wife died not long after they were married, probably in the early 1790s. [9]

In 1794, Roxburgh was appointed as the Brigadier General for the Maryland Militia in Somerset and Worcester counties, a position which was as much political as it was military. He accepted the post, which he held until 1801, writing "I suppose it would be thought strange for an Old Soldier to refuse a commission even in the militia, especially of such a [rank]...We have been very lax in this [Somerset] and Worchester Countys, in forming the [militia], but I imagine they will be put in Order now." [10] During his time as general, the Maryland Militia was dispatched to suppress the Pennsylvania Regulation (or Whiskey Rebellion), a revolt in the backcountry of western Maryland and Pennsylvania against the policies of the Federalist-dominated Federal Government. The uprising was vehemently opposed by Maryland's Federalist-aligned state leadership, including the governor who appointed Roxburgh, although Roxburgh's personal sentiments are unknown, nor is it clear if his troops participated in the military action.

During his lifetime, Roxburgh accumulated a significant amount of wealth and property. At the end of the eighteenth century, he owned about a dozen slaves, and lived on a 325 acre tract of land in Somerset County. In addition, Roxburgh possessed another 300 acres of land in Ohio and Western Maryland, which he received as a reward for his military service. After his death, probably in early 1807, Roxburgh's personal estate was much smaller than his land holdings might suggest, perhaps indicating that he had fallen on hard times, or had already transferred some of his property before his death. His inventory shows no slaves, and no livestock or farming implements. Roxburgh did own a large number of books, as well as an "old small sword," perhaps a relic of his previous military service. In 1812, his children Matthew and Elizabeth sold the land in Maryland that they had inherited, likely to support themselves, as a supplement the small estate that they received. [11]

Owen Lourie, 2015

Notes:

[1] L. Irving Pollitt, "Wicomico Presbyterian Church," in Swepson Earle, ed., Maryland's Colonial Eastern Shore: Historical Sketches of Counties and of Some Notable Structures (Baltimore, 1916), 189-190; Association of Freemen, 26 July 1775, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, MdHR 19970-15-1 [MSA S997-15-1, 1/6/2/44], published as Proceedings of the Conventions of the Province of Maryland, 1774-1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 78, p. 17; Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 9; Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 126.

[2] Pension of John Hughes, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 5594, from Fold3.com; Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety from July 7 to December 31, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 12, p. 16.

[3] Return of the Maryland troops, 27 September 1776, from Fold3.com; 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.

[4] “The Papers of General Samuel Smith. The General’s Autobiography. From the Original Manuscripts.” The Historical Magazine, 2nd ser., vol. 8, no. 2 (1870): 82-92. Smith wrote his autobiography in the third person; it has been converted to first person here for purposes of clarity.

[5] Archives of Maryland, vol. 18, p. 154; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com.

[6] Archives of Maryland, vol. 18, p. 243; Steuart; Journal and Correspondence of the State Council from October 27, 1779 to November 13, 1780, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 43, pps. 168, 319; Muster roll of Capt. Beatty's Company, 7th Maryland Regiment, June 1780, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 6, no. 17, MdHR 1997-6-17 [MSA S997-6-41, 1/7/3/11].

[7] Pension of Thomas Elliott, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 34805, from Fold3.com; Robert K. Wright, The Continental Army (Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center for Military History, 1983), 170; Steuart.

[8] Journal and Correspondence of the State Council from November 19, 1781 to November 11, 1784, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 48, p. 340; Archives of Maryland, vol. 18, p. 518.

[9] Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940), 294. The Guide to the Old Line State offers no documentation for its assertion that Roxburgh and Handy eloped. Written in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, the Guide essentially compiled and codified local stories and anecdotes from across the state. In cases like Roxburgh's, where no other evidence has survived, the Guide's stories serve as adequate substitutes; Will of Alexander Roxburgh, 1807, Somerset County Register of Wills, Wills, Liber EB 23, p. 113 [MSA T2538-1, 1/50/4/53]; Note re: death of Matthew Roxburgh, Annual Valuations, Somerset County Register of Wills, 1815-1827, p. 13 [MSA C1731-3, 1/50/5/37]; Roxburgh's surviving children, minors at the time of their father's death, sold the land in Somerset County they inherited from him in 1812, after they had reached adulthood. See Deed, Matthew Roxburgh and Elizabeth Roxburgh to Elijah Parsons, 1812, Somerset County Court, Land Records, Liber JP 1, p. 65 [MSA CE102-46]. If the children were of age by 1812, they had to have been born by the early 1790s; Burial of Elizabeth Roxburgh at Find a Grave.

[10] Adjutant General, Militia Appointments, vol. 2, 1794-1816, p. 90, MdHR 5587 [MSA S348-2, 2/6/5/10]; Roxburgh to Gov. Thomas Sim Lee, June 1794, Adjutant General, Militia Papers, box 53, folder 7, MdHR 4176-33 [MSA S926-33, 2/5/2/40].

[11] The 1798 Federal Direct Tax showed him owning nine slaves, and the 1800 census showed him with sixteen. Whether the different numbers indicate the acquisition of additional slaves or imprecise records keeping is unclear. 1798 Federal Direct Tax, general list of slaves, Somerset County, Rewastico Hundred, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 729, p. 3832; 1800 U.S. Federal Census, Somerset County; 1798 Federal Direct Tax, general list of land, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, p. 3787; general list of dwelling houses, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, p. 3737; Roxburgh will; Inventory of Alexander Roxburgh, 1807, Somerset County Register of Wills, Inventories, Liber EB 26, p. 156 [MSA C1772-9, 1/50/4/12]; Additional Inventory, 1808, p. 180; Account of Sale, 1808, p. 191.

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