Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Harris
MSA SC 3520-17224

Biography:

John Harris enlisted in Captain Nathaniel Ramsey's Fifth Company as a fifer, part of the First Maryland Regiment, in early 1776. [1] The First Maryland Regiment were the first troops Maryland raised at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Maryland was more than willing to do its part to recruit the men needed to fill the Continental Army's depleted ranks. [2] A few days after independence was declared, the First Maryland Regiment was ordered to New York so it could join the forces of General George Washington. The regiment arrived there in early August, with the Battle of Brooklyn set between the Continental Army and the British Army, joined by their Hessian allies.

Fifers served an important role during the Revolutionary War as non-commissioned officers and received the same pay as corporals. The standard musical unit within each American company typically consisted of at least one fifer and one drummer, although shortages often plagued the Continental Army. Music commanded the lives of soldiers in the Continental Army, as fifers and drummers were assigned with governing "the soldier's every move" during battle as well as in camp. Drummers and fifers worked together to regulate marches, and often played popular tunes for company morale. Harris worked with James Murphey, the drummer, in the same company. [3]

He possibly served with at the Battle of Brooklyn in late August 1776 but maybe not with his company. Ramsey's company was placed at the front of the lines, but "hardly a man [in the company] fell," even though they took the first line of fire from the British. [4] This confirmed the assessment of the British Parliament's Annual Register which described, how "almost a whole regiment from Maryland…of young men from the best families in the country was cut to pieces" but it brought men of the Maryland 400 together. [5] Years later, Captain Enoch Anderson of the Delaware Regiment wrote about the Battle of Brooklyn, saying the following:

"A little before day, we marched towards the enemy, two miles from our camp we saw them. A little after daylight our Regiment and Colonel Smallwood's Regiment from Maryland, in front of the enemy took possession of a high commanding ground,--our right to the harbour. Cannonading now began in both armies...Colonel Smallwood's Regiment took another course,--they were surrounded but they fought hard. They lost about two hundred men, the rest got in. A hard day this, for us poor Yankees! Superior discipline and numbers had overcome us. A gloomy time it was, but we solaced ourselves that at some other time we should do better." [6]

The Battle of Brooklyn, the first large-scale battle, fits into the larger context of the Revolutionary War. If the Maryland Line had not stood and fought the British, enabling the rest of the Continental Army to escape, then the Continental Army would been decimated, resulting in the end of the Revolutionary War. This heroic stand gave the regiment the nickname of the Old Line and those who made the stand in the battle are remembered as the Maryland 400.

In the fall, only one musician is shown on the return of the First Maryland Regiment for the Fifth Company. [7] This means that either Harris or the other musician, James Murphey, was either transferred to a new company in the regiment, killed in action, or became a private. As a result, Harris's further military record after 1776 is not known. In the end, while no other details of his life, other than his military service, are known, Harris's story is worth telling.

- Burkely Hermann, Maryland Society of the Sons of American Revolution Research Fellow, 2016.

Notes

[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution Archives of Maryland Online vol. 18, 639.

[2] Arthur Alexander, "How Maryland Tried to Raise Her Continential Quotas." Maryland Historical Magazine 42, no. 3 (1947), 187-188, 196.

[3] William Carter White, A History of Military Music in America (New York: Exposition Press, 1924), pp. 20-21, 26, 29; Charles Patrick Neimeyer, The Revolutionary War (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), p. 137; Donald E. Mattson and Louis D. Walz, Old Fort Snelling Instruction Book for Fife: With Music of Early America (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1974), p. 6.

[4] "Extract of a letter from New York: Account of the battle on Long Island." American Archives S5 V2 107-108.

[5] Mark Andrew Tacyn, "'To The End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD Diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 4.

[6] Enoch Anderson, Personal Recollections of Captain Enoch Anderson: Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution (New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1971), 21-22.

[7] "Return of the six Independent Companies and First Regiment of Maryland Regulars, in the service of the United Colonies, commanded by Colonel Smallwood." American Archives v2:567; Return of the Independent Companies and First Maryland Regiment, September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, pp. 21. National Archives. NARA M246. Record Group 93. Roll 0034. Folder 35, from Fold3.com; Return of the Independent Companies and First Maryland Regiment, October 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, 1775-1783, pp. 92. National Archives. NARA M246. Record Group 93. Roll 0034. Folder 35, from Fold3.com.

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