Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Ridgely (1742-1821)
MSA SC 3520-16809


Born in 1742 in Queen Caroline Parish, Anne Arundel (now Howard) County, Maryland. Son of William and Elizabeth Ridgely. Fourteen siblings. Married Elizabeth Dorsey (b. 1742), the daughter of Philemon and Catherine (Ridgely) Dorsey. Eight children: Sarah; Charles Greenbury; Rachel; Samuel; William Pitt; Elizabeth; Amelia; Philemon Dorsey. Died in 1821 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Born into a wealthy and politically prominent family, William Ridgely was already a prosperous land owner, with a wife and children, when he volunteered to fight the British in 1776. The Ridgely family wielded great power in Maryland, particularly in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. William's first cousin Captain Charles Ridgely of Hampton was a renowned party boss in Baltimore County, and a leading voice in the House of Delegates, and Charles's nephew Charles Carnan Ridgely was Governor of Maryland from 1816 to 1819. [1]

William Ridgely took a commission as an ensign in the Third Company of the First Maryland Regiment in January 1776, the first unit of full-time professional soldiers from Maryland. At thirty-four years old, Ridgely was at least a decade older than many of his fellow junior officers, who were mostly young men in their early twenties; one of the Third Company's lieutenants was only nineteen. Ridgely's was particularly old for an ensign, the lowest commissioned rank. A number of officers left the First Maryland Regiment during the spring and summer of 1776 to take higher positions in the county militia or the Flying Camp, a military force raised that July and August. By remaining in his regiment, Ridgely perhaps demonstrated an eagerness to remain a part of the unit which would be the first to take on the British. [2]

After spending the first half of 1776 in Annapolis training, Ridgely and his fellow soldiers received orders in early July to march north to New York. On the eve of their march, Ridgely was promoted to second lieutenant of the Third Company. The Marylanders arrived in New York in early August, where they joined with the rest of the Continental Army, preparing to defend the city from an impending British attack. 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, Ridgely'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.

All told, the company Ridgely served in saw 60 percent of its men killed or captured, with only fewer than thirty of the company's seventy four total men returning. At least twenty two men in the company were taken prisoner, including Ridgely. The company suffered so greatly that its leader, Captain Barton Lucas, who had been sick and unable to lead his men on the field, "became changed in consequence of losing his company," and resigned his commission not long afterwards. [3] All of the Maryland companies took enormous casualties, with some losing nearly 80 percent of their men, but their actions delayed the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape, earning themselves the moniker "Maryland 400." [4]

After being captured, most of the Marylanders were held on board British prison ships. Ridgely and William Sterrett, the Third Company's other lieutenant, spent the first days of their captivity together. Sterrett later recounted that the notorious British Commissary of Prisoners Joshua Loring offered to release Sterrett and Ridgely from their "close confinement...[if they] took the oath of loyalty to the Crown." Upon refusing, the Maryland officers were told that they would "continue in confinement and be subject to the distresses which were about to threaten us." After the British captured New York in November 1776, the prisoners were transferred to make-shift prisons in the city, scattered in public buildings and private houses. Indeed, conditions for the Americans held in New York by the British were terrible, with little food and much disease, even for the officers. [5]

Ridgely was probably released in a prisoner exchange in March or April 1777, along with about half the captured Maryland officers; the rest would be held for another year. While he had been promoted to first lieutenant in the newly re-formed First Maryland Regiment while still a prisoner, Ridgely declined the position, and left the army. [6]

Returning home, Ridgely seems to have resumed the quiet life of a rich plantation owner. He lived in the Elk Ridge area of Anne Arundel (now Howard) County, and like his father before him, he called himself "William Ridgely of Elk Ridge." At one time, he owned as much as 900 acres, and usually owned about dozen slaves. At the time of his death in 1821, he was wealthy enough that he had lent out $6,300 to various number of people. When Ridgely's estate was sold after his death, it was described in a flowery newspaper ad as "A Farm so well known for its beauty of situation, fertility of soil, valuable timber, health, &c. it would be unnecessary to say more in favor of it." [7]

Owen Lourie, 2015


[1] Henry Wright Newman, Anne Arundel County Gentry, vol. III (Annapolis, 1979), 103-105; 109-110; Henry Wright Newman, Anne Arundel County Gentry, vol. II (Annapolis, 1971), 61-63; Edward C. Papenfuse, et al. A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol. II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 683-684.

[2] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 9.

[3] Pension of John Hughes, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 5594, from

[4] Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July 7, 1776 to December 31, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 12, p. 9; 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.

[5] William Sterrett to James McHenry, 2 April 1778. Maryland Historical Society, MS 1814; Edward Burd, “Extracts from the Diary of Captain John Nice,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 16, no. 11 (Jan. 1893), 404.

[6] Ridgely was not among the officers still held in 1778, who were enumerated by William Smallwood, and thus presumably was exchanged with the other officers the previous spring. William Smallwood to George Washington, 8 April 1778, Founders Online, National Archives; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 155; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from

[7] General Assembly, House of Delegates, Assessment Record, 1783, Patuxent Hundred, p. 3 [MSA S1161-11, 1/4/5/44]; Upper Fork & Bear Ground Hundred, 5 [MSA S1161-16, 1/4/5/45]; 1798 Federal Direct Tax, general list of land, Anne Arundel County, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 729, p. 65; particular list of slaves, Anne Arundel County, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 729, p. 259; particular list of dwelling houses, Patuxent and Huntington hundreds, Anne Arundel County, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 729, p. 226; Inventory of William Ridgely, 1821, Anne Arundel County Register of Wills, Inventories, Liber THH 1, p. 256 [MSA C88-14, 1/3/12/39]; List of Debts, 1821, Liber THH 1, p. 158; Account of Sale, William Ridgely, 1821, Anne Arundel County Register of Wills, Inventories, Liber THH 2, p. 33 [MSA C88-15, 1/3/12/40]; Will of William Ridgely, 1821, Anne Arundel County Register of Wills, Wills, Liber THH 1, p. 36 [MSA C153-9, 1/3/12/18]; "Valuable Lands for Sale." Baltimore Patriot, 20 July 1822.

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