Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Harrison
MSA SC 3520-17145


William Harrison’s military career began when he received a commission as a First Lieutenant in Captain Edward Veazey’s Seventh Independent Company on January 2, 1776.[1] Harrison served with the company when it fought alongside the First Maryland Regiment at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 26, 1776.[2]     

The date and location of Harrison’s birth is unknown, but his commission into the Seventh Independent Company indicates he was probably a native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore as the company was predominately composed of men from Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. The initial role of the independent companies was different from that of the nine companies that made up Colonel William Smallwood’s First Maryland Regiment. While the Council of Maryland stationed the nine regular companies in Annapolis and Baltimore, they utilized the seven independent companies to guard the vast shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay.[3] The Council divided the Seventh Independent Company’s area of responsibility between Chester Town, Kent County, and Kent Island.[4]

Although Harrison was a junior officer, Captain Veazey entrusted him with commanding the half of the company stationed on Kent Island. Harrison took his responsibilities seriously and sought to arm and outfit his men, often appealing directly to the Council of Safety to meet the needs the men under his command. While problems supplying the soldiers with arms and provisions were common early in the war, the independent companies on the eastern shore were especially ill equipped.[5] In April 1776 the men in the Seventh Independent Company had yet to receive any arms or ammunition, and Captain Veazey and other officers on the eastern shore were “uneasy” that the companies on the western shore had already been completely outfitted.[6] By the summer of 1776 Harrison’s men were still in need of military equipment and in June 1776, after prompting from Harrison, the Council pledged to furnish his men with bayonets and coats as soon as possible. Harrison also had a personal complaint regarding his small quarters on Kent Island, leading the Council to instruct him to look for new quarters as they were “desirous of rendering matters as comfortable as possible for you.”[7]   

While the Council of Safety originally raised the independent companies for the defense of Maryland, the Council was sympathetic to the collective needs of the colonies and answered the Continental Congress’ plea for more soldiers early in the summer of 1776.[8] On July 7, 1776 the Council ordered the Seventh Independent Company (along with Smallwood’s Regiment and two other independent companies) to march to Philadelphia and then to New York to reinforce the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington.[9] Shortly after arriving in New York the Continental Army engaged the British at the Battle of Brooklyn.

Fought on August 26, 1776, the Battle of Brooklyn was the first combat experience for the men of the First Maryland Regiment. Unfortunately for the Continental Army and the Marylanders, the battle was a major tactical and strategic defeat. The British Army under the command of General William Howe secretly outflanked the Americans and easily drove them from the field, forcing them to retreat to their defensive fortifications at Brooklyn Heights.[10]

Despite their inexperience, the men of the First Maryland Regiment fought extremely well throughout the engagement. As the battle drew to a close, and cut off from the American lines, the Marylanders’ only option was to charge the numerically superior British force. The assault caused high casualties among the regiment but delayed the British advance, and enabled the rest of the army to retreat to Brooklyn Heights and later withdraw to Manhattan. The First Maryland Regiment’s sacrifice allowed the Continental Army to avoid capture, and earned the regiment the name “Maryland 400.”

As a junior officer Harrison would have fought alongside the enlisted men throughout the battle, leading and encouraging them. However, Harrison’s actual responsibilities were likely much greater as Captain Veazey fell dead early in the engagement, passing command of the company to First Lieutenant Harrison, the next highest ranking officer.[11] Harrison was fortunate to survive battle; on September 27, 1776 the company’s reported strength included only thirty-six men out of an original force of approximately 100 men.[12]

In the aftermath of the battle and Captain Veazey’s death, Lieutenant Harrison took command of the company. Harrison received a promotion to captain and he remained in command of the company as the regiment steadily retreated across Manhattan during the fall of 1776.[13] On October 28, 1776 Harrison fought at the Battle of White Plains, where the Continental Army was again defeated despite the heroic efforts of the Marylanders. In a letter to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, the president of the Council of Safety, following the battle, Harrison was critical of the army’s performance and specifically questioned the decision making of the army’s generals.[14] Harrison also lamented the loss of Fort Washington, a defeat he further attributed to the army’s poor leadership and tactics:

It seems the Garrison consisted of upwards of 2000 men, I am surprised then that they would leave the fort at any rate. It appears to me to have been rashness to have left it at such a distance as they did. It required little foresight to know, that as Genl Howe had his whole armament at hand, he would make a vigorous effort, if any at all; and as he was furnish'd with conveniences for passing Harlaem Creek, was it to be thought that he would confine his attack to one place?[15]

Aside from discussing recent battles, Harrison also informed Jenifer that he did not intend to stay in the army. Perhaps disillusioned by the issues of supply early in the war, the loss of his men at the Battle of Brooklyn, and the performance of the army at subsequent battles, Harrison “made a resolution…not to engage again in the service.”[16] Harrison was true to his word and resigned from the army, most likely in December 1776.[17]

Details about Harrison’s life following his resignation from the army are unknown. Some secondary sources state that he died in 1777 from wounds he received while in the army (some sources claim at the Battle of Brooklyn), but the origin of this information cannot be indentified.[18] Furthermore, in his letter to Jenifer, Harrison makes no mention of suffering a wound or any other health complications as a result of his military service. Also clouding Harrison’s supposed wounding and death is the fact that no primary source makes mention of the event, an unusual occurrence given that Harrison was an officer and company commander.

- Sean Baker, 2015


[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 28.

[2] The independent companies were originally created as a force separate from the First Maryland Regiment’s nine companies but fell under the command of the regiment when it left Maryland for New York in the summer of 1776. When referring to the First Maryland Regiment’s actions during the battle, this includes the three independent companies that served under the regiment’s command.

[3] Mark Andrew Tacyn, “‘To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), p. 33.

[4] Tacyn, p. 34.

[5] Tacyn, p. 38.

[6] Journal of the Maryland Convention July 26 to August 14, 1775, Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, August 29, 1775 to July 6, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 11, p. 318.

[7] Archives of Maryland Online vol. 11, p. 468.

[8] Tacyn, p. 43.

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

[10] Henry P. Johnston, The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn: 1878, reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), p. 191.

[11] "Extract of a letter from an officer in the Maryland Battalion," American Archives, series 5, vol. 1, p. 1195.

[12] Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, p. 92, From

[13] Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, Pay Abstract of One Battalion of Maryland Regulars and Five Independent Companies under the Command of Col. Will. Smallwood, 31st August to the 30th September 1777, [MSA S 997-20].

[14] Maryland State Papers, Red Books, Letter from Harrison to Jenifer, vol. 16, p. 60. [MSA S 989-23], published in Archives of Maryland vol. 11, p. 488.

[15] Maryland State Papers, Red Books, Letter from Harrison to Jenifer, vol. 16, p. 60. [MSA S 989-23], published in Archives of Maryland vol. 11, p. 489. Harrison was commenting on information that a portion of the garrison had engaged the British a mile from the fort and were easily separated from the safety of the fortifications, leading the garrison’s quick surrender. 

[16] Maryland State Papers, Red Books, Letter from Harrison to Jenifer, vol. 16, p. 60. [MSA S 989-23], published in Archives of Maryland vol. 11, p. 489.

[17] Maryland State Papers, Red Books, List of Regular Officers by Chamberlaine, vol. 12, p. 66. [MSA S 989-17].

[18] An inventory of the estate of a William Harrison of Talbot County was conducted in February 1777 (Talbot County, Register of Wills, Inventories, 1777-1786, IB A, p. 157 [MSA C 1872-8].) While the date of this inventory corresponds with the year of his death listed in some secondary sources, it is not conclusive that this is the same William Harrison that fought in the Revolution.

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