Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Little
MSA SC 3520-17251

Biography:

William Little (or Lytle) enlisted as a private in the Fourth Company of the First Maryland Regiment on January 29, 1776, at the outset of the American Revolution. The company was largely drawn from Harford County, and was part of Maryland's first contingent of full-time, professional soldiers raised to be part of the Continental Army. In 1775, Little had trained with the Harford County militia, along with a number of men who later served in the Fourth Company with him. Little and his company were initially stationed in Baltimore, where it trained until early July. On July 9, 1776, the First Maryland Regiment was ordered to march north to New York, to protect the city from invasion by the British. Just days before it left, the company was assigned a new commander, Captain Daniel Bowie, and had only 58 men, instead of the 74 soldiers in a full strength company. [1]

On August 27, a month after arriving in New York, the Americans clashed with the British at the Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island), the first full-scale encounter of the American Revolution. 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, Little'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 the Fourth Company's sergeants, William McMillan, described what happened:

We were surrounded by Healanders [Scottish Highlanders] [on] one side, Hessians on the other...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. [2]

All told, the company lost 80 percent of its men, killed like Bowie, 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." [3]

Little's exact fate at Brooklyn is uncertain. There is a gap in his military service for several years, until a man named William Little from Harford County enlisted as a corporal in the Third Maryland Regiment in July 1780. That man served through the end of the war, until his discharge in November 1783. During that period, he likely fought in the ferocious battles of the Southern Campaign, including Cowpens (January 1781), Guilford Courthouse (March 1781), the siege of Ninety-Six (June 1781), and Eutaw Springs (August 1781). The Marylanders also saw some combat in South Carolina in 1782, where the British Army maintained a presence until the end of the year. [4]

After 1783, William Little's life is hard to document. There were several men with that name living in Harford and Cecil counties in the decades after the war, including one who was accused of bigamy in Cecil County in 1783. The last confirmed information about Little is that in 1785 he sold his pay certificate, essentially an IOU for back pay never received during the war. Many soldiers sold them, since the promise of receiving full payment in the future was outweighed by the need for immediate cash. Little may not have been in dire financial straits, but he was certainly in need of money. [5]

Owen Lourie, 2016

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]; S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War, (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987), 175; Proceedings of the Conventions of the Province of Maryland, 1774-1776, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 78, p. 198; Return of Ramsey's, Smith's, and Bowie's companies, 9 July 1776, Maryland Historical Society, Revolutionary War Collection, MS 1814.

[2] The experience of the Fourth Company is described in the pension of William McMillan, one of the company's sergeants. See Letter, William MaCmillan to Secretary of Treasury, ca. October 1828. Pension of William MaCmillan, National Archives and Records Administration, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, NARA M804, S 2806, p. 33-35, from Fold3.com.

[3] 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.

[4] Archives of Maryland vol. 18, pp. 343, 393, 450, 489; William Little, Pay Certificate, c. 1785, Maryland State Papers, Series A, MdHR 6636-53-17/1 [MSA S1004-75-11936, 1/7/3/60]; William Little, assignment of pay certificate to Ignatius Wheeler, 10 May 1785, Maryland State Papers, Series A, MdHR 6636-53-17/2 [MSA S1004-75-12338, 1/7/3/60]. There was another soldier named William Little from Maryland during this period, a private who served from 1780 until his death on August 1, 1783. It is very likely that William Little the corporal was the same man who fought in 1776, as one of his pay records refers to service in 1776 as well as with the Third Regiment later in the war. The service record of Private William Little (or Lillie) is documented in: Archives of Maryland vol. 18, pp. 544-545, Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; Return of clothing delivered to troops at Whetstone Point, 18 June 1781, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 7, no. 54, MdHR 19970-7-54 [MSA S997-7-55, 1/6/2/43].

[5] U.S. Federal Census of 1790, Harford County, Maryland, p. 88, 108; U.S. Federal Census of 1800, Cecil County, Maryland; David Smith to Gov. William Paca, re: accusations of bigamy against William Little of Cecil County, 13 April, 1783, Maryland State Papers, Red Books 23: 141, MdHR 4591-43 [MSA S989-35, 1/6/4/23]; pay certificate.
 

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