Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Alexander Williamson (1752-1851)
MSA SC 3520-16806

Biography:

Alexander Williamson was a private in John Allen Thomas' Fifth Independent Company in the August 1776 when he took part in the Battle of Brooklyn. The company was one of seven that the Maryland Council of Safety raised in early 1776, initially intended to guard the Chesapeake Bay coast from a feared British invasion. By the summer, however, the independent companies were dispatched to New York, to help reinforce the Continental Army as it prepared to defend the city from the British. In total, twelve companies of Maryland troops traveled to New York that July and August: nine companies that comprised the First Maryland Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Smallwood, and the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Independent companies, the only three that were ready to travel.

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 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. These men, now known as the "Maryland 400," held the British at bay long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape, at the cost of many lives. In all 256 Marylanders were killed or captured by the British; some companies lost 80 percent of their men. Williamson and his company likely saw no combat. Instead, the Fifth Independent Company did not cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn until after fighting had begun, and did not venture into the field of battle. They did, however, perform valuable service assisting the Americans retreating through the Gowanus Marsh. [1]

During the rest of 1776, Williamson and the rest of the Marylanders fought a series of battles in New York: Harlem Heights (September), White Plains (October), and Fort Washington (November). While the Americans had some tactical successes at these engagements, by the winter they had been pushed out of New York entirely, though they secured revitalizing victories at Trenton and Princeton late that winter. The independent companies were disbanded and reformed as part of the regular Maryland troops at the end of 1776.

While it is relatively certain that Williamson was a member of the Fifth Independent Company in 1776, the rest of his military career is difficult to piece together. Over the years, he gave several varying accounts of his service while trying to secure a veteran's pension. In 1777, he reported, he was a member of the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment under Daniel Clymer as an orderly sergeant. Williamson also claimed to have been a lieutenant, wounded in either the hip or stomach at the Battle of Brandywine (September 1777), present at the battle of Yorktown (October 1781), and the commander of George Washington's Life Guard, an elite unit charged with protecting the Commander-in-Chief, none of which is supported by any evidence. [2]

Williamson did indeed serve after 1776, however. He enlisted for a nine-month term in May 1778 in the Second Maryland Regiment as a substitute, for his brother, he claimed, and served until that September, when was discharged after a stay in the hospital. From this it is possible to conclude that while Williamson's claim of being wounded at Brandywine was incorrect, he could easily have been wounded in June 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth. It is not inconceivable that Williamson also served in 1777, even in a Pennsylvania unit, but there is no evidence of that. He did serve, at least briefly, in the Calvert County militia in 1777. [3]

In the years after his discharge from the army, Williamson returned to Maryland, and lived in Calvert County. He was, at least in the first years after the war, a fairly typical small farmer. In 1783, he was recorded owning no land, although he did have 4 slaves, not a particularly unusual situation in Maryland, where land was difficult to acquire, even for someone wealthy enough to own several slaves. [4]

According to his pension application, Williamson lived in Maryland until 1794, when he moved to North Carolina. He lived first in Richmond County, on the border with South Carolina, and moved to Fallston, Iredell (now Cleveland) County, in the west-central part of the state, by the 1830s. It is unknown whether he ever married or had children, although none are referenced in his pension application, and none are shown living with him in the 1850 census. He was granted a veteran's pension of $20 per year in 1832. Williamson stayed in North Carolina until his death, in the fall of 1851, when he was nearly 99 years old; he gave his birthday as November 24, 1752. He was almost certainly the last living Marylander to have fought at the Battle of Brooklyn. [5]

Owen Lourie, 2016

Sources:

[1] 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; Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 154-155. 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.

[2] Pension of Alexander Williamson, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 7954, from Fold3.com.

[3] Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 147 [hereafter Archives of Maryland vol. 18]; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War, (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987), 147.

[4] General Assembly, House of Delegates, Assessment Record 1783, Calvert County, District 1, p. 11 [MSA S1161-3-1, 1/4/5/46]; Steven Sarson, "Landlessness and Tenancy in Early National Prince George's County," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 57, no. 3 (2000): 569-576, 582.

[5] Census of 1840, Iredell County, North Carolina; Census of 1850, Iredell County, North Carolina; Williamson pension.

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