Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Charles Riely
MSA SC 3520-17136

Biography:

Charles "Charley" Riely enlisted in the Fourth Company of the First Maryland Regiment, raised mostly in Harford County, on January 24, 1776, and served for about a year and a half. During that time he participated in at least one major battle, and was a member of the fabled "Maryland 400." [1]

By the time he enlisted in the First Maryland Regiment, Riely had already served in the Harford County militia since at least September, 1775, as had many of his fellow soldiers in the Fourth Company. After enlisting, Riely and his company spent the next six months training in Baltimore, until the regiment left Maryland in early July, traveling to New York to challenge the British attempt to capture 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 battle was a rout: the British were able to sneak around the American lines, and the outflanked Americans fled in disarray. During the retreat, Riely and the rest of 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, Riely'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 Riely's Fourth Company 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]

Although Riely's fate at the battle is a little unclear, it is likely that he was taken prisoner at Brooklyn or one of the other battles that fall, held in New York for several months, and then released on parole in December, 1776. Another Marylander taken prisoner at the Battle of Brooklyn, Thomas McKeel of the Sixth Company, recounted his experiences, which was probably similar to Riely's. McKeel was held as "a Prisoner on Board of a Prison Ship until the British troops got possession of New York. He was then taken ashore and imprisoned in New York with the Maryland officers and prisoners, until he was parolled." [5] A soldier on parole was allowed to return to his unit, but could not resume fighting until a formal prisoner exchange. Riely reenlisted in the First Maryland Regiment on December 10, 1776, although he appears to have not been formally been exchanged until the following May. He seems not to have served after that time, and his fate afterward is unknown. [6]

Owen Lourie, 2015

Notes:

[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 12 [hereafter Archives of Maryland vol. 18].

[2] 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 Fold3.com; ; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War, (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987), 172.

[3] McMillan pension.

[4] 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.

[5] Pension of Thomas McKeel, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 34977, from Fold3.com.

[6] Account of disbursements to men in Captain Bowie's company, c. February 1777, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers [MSA S9972-255, 1/7/3/8]; Archives of Maryland vol. 18, p. 155.

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