Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

James Berry
MSA SC 3520-17389

Biography:

James Berry was just eighteen when he enlisted as a private in Captain Edward Veazey's Seventh Independent Company in 1776, volunteering in the early days of the American Revolution to defend Maryland from a feared British invasion. He was born in America, probably on Maryland's Eastern Shore. [1]

Maryland's independent companies were formed in early 1776, and differed from the nine companies that made up Colonel William Smallwood’s First Maryland Regiment. While the Council of Safety, Maryland's Revolutionary executive body, used the nine companies of regular troops to fulfill the state's quota for the Continental Army, it dispatched seven independent companies throughout Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore to guard the vast shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay. Half of the Seventh Independent Company was stationed on Kent Island, while the rest, including Berry, were sent to Chestertown. In these first months, the company had great difficulty obtaining supplies, including uniforms and weapons. In the summer of 1776, Congress requested additional troops from Maryland to help reinforce the Continental Army, and the state agreed to shift the independent companies to that duty. When the First Maryland Regiment marched for New York in early July, it was accompanied by the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh independent companies; the rest followed later that fall. [2]

The Marylanders arrived in New York in early August, and prepared to protect the city from attack by the British. On August 27, 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. Half the regiment was able to cross the creek to safety. The rest, Berry's company among them, were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, these men, now known as the "Maryland 400," mounted a series of daring charges, which held the British at bay for some time, at the cost of many lives, before being overrun. [3]

The Seventh Independent Company suffered greatly during the battle. Its commander Captain Veazey was killed early in the fighting and two of the company's lieutenants were captured. First Lieutenant William Harrison was the sole officer in the company to escape, and only thirty six men avoided death or captivity, just a third of the company. Among those captured was James Berry. No details of his time in captivity are known, but Thomas McKeel, a sergeant in the Sixth Company of the First Maryland Regiment who was taken prisoner at the same time, reported that he "remained a prisoner on board of a Prison Ship until the British troops got possession of New York" in November 1776, and "he was then taken ashore and imprisoned in New York with the Maryland officers and prisoners, until he was parolled." Berry was likely also released around the end of 1776. [4]

Not long after being released by the British, Berry returned to military service. In March 1777, he enlisted as a private in the newly-formed Second Maryland Regiment. The regiment was largely composed of the disbanded independent companies, and Berry served in a company with many of his comrades from the old Seventh Independent. In August of that year, he and the rest of the Marylanders fought at the disastrous Battle of Staten Island, a battle much like Brooklyn, where the Marylanders were left to defend the rest of the army's retreat. The Maryland troops again took heavy casualties, with about 150 taken prisoner, including James Berry. [5]

It is not known how long Berry's second captivity lasted, but it was almost certainly much longer than his first. Another Marylander taken at Staten Island recalled being held for "one year and Eleven months." [6] There was a prisoner exchange in July 1778, but other Americans were not released until 1781 and afterwards. [7]

Nothing further is known about Berry's life. There were multiple people with the same name in Maryland, and it is not clear which of them, if any, were the twice-captured veteran of the Battle of Brooklyn.

Owen Lourie, 2016

Notes:

[1] Descriptions of men in Capt. Edward Veazey’s Independent Company, 1776, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, MdHR 19970-15-36/01 [MSA S997-15-36, 1/7/3/13].

[2] Mark Andrew Tacyn “’To the End:’ The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution” (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 33-34, 43; Journal of the Maryland Convention and Council of Safety 1775-1776, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 11, pps. 318, 468; Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, July-December, 1776, Archives of Maryland Online vol. 12, p. 4.  

[3] Tacyn, 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] Extract of a letter from an officer in the Maryland Battalion, 28 August 1776, American Archives, series 5, vol. 1, p. 1195; Return of the Maryland troops, 27 September 1776, from Fold3.com; Return of Prisoners from Captivity in New York, 1777, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 6, no. 25, MdHR 19970-06-25/01 [MSA S997-6-59, 1/7/3/11]; Pension of Thomas McKeel. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S34977, from Fold3.com.

[5] Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com.

[6] Pension of Cornelius Acord. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S39145, from Fold3.com. The reliably of Acord's account is uncertain; he claimed that he fought at the Battle of Germantown after his release, which cannot be true, since the battle occurred in October 1777.

[7] John Beatty to George Washington, 18 July 1778. Founders Online, National Archives; Betsy Knight, "Prisoner Exchange and Parole in the American Revolution," The William and Mary Quarterly 48:2 (Apr. 1991), 201-222.

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