Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Nicholas Watkins
MSA SC 3520-17565

Biography:

Nicholas Watkins enlisted as a private in the First Maryland Regiment's Seventh Company, commanded by Captain John Day Scott, on January 20 or 21, 1776; there were two men named Nicholas Watkins in the company, and it is not clear who enlisted on which day. The company was raised in the beginning of the year, then traveled to Annapolis in the spring, where it joined five of the regiment's other companies that were stationed there; three additional companies were in Baltimore. Commanded by Colonel William Smallwood, the regiment was the first unit of full-time, professional soldiers raised in Maryland for service in the Continental Army. [1]

In July, the regiment received orders to march to New York to defend the city from an impending British attack. The Marylanders arrived in New York a month later and joined the rest of the Continental Army, commanded by General George Washington. One of the company’s sergeants, William Sands, described the scene in mid-August: “Our Maryland Battalion is encamped on a hill about one mile out of New York, where we lay in a very secure place…We are ordered to hold ourselves in readiness. We expect an attack hourly.” [2]

That attack finally came two weeks later, on August 27, 1776, at the Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island), the first full-scale engagement of the war. The battle was a rout: the British were able to sneak around the American lines, and the outflanked Americans fled in disarray. As the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, they were forced to stop at the swampy Gowanus Creek. Half the regiment, including the Seventh Company, was able to cross the creek and escape the battle. However, the rest were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, this group of soldiers, today called the "Maryland 400," mounted a series of daring charges. They held the British at bay for some time before being overrun, at the cost of many lives. The Marylanders took enormous causalities, with some companies losing nearly 80 percent of their men, but their actions delayed the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape. In all, the First Maryland lost 256 men, killed or taken prisoner. [3]

Watkins survived the battle, as did most of the men in his company, although William Sands was among those killed. In October, Watkins fought with the Marylanders at the Battle of White Plains, where they again took the brunt of the fighting. They were ordered to leave their defensive position on the top of a hill and charge at the British. “Smallwood’s [regiment] suffered most, on this occasion, sustaining, with great patience and coolness, a long and heavy fire–and finally retreated with great sullenness, being obliged to give way to a superior force,” wrote one observer. Watkins’s company lost its captain and one of its lieutenants, Thomas Goldsmith, both killed. By November, the Americans had been pushed out of New York, and put on the run through New Jersey. Not until late that winter did they secure revitalizing victories at Trenton and Princeton. [4]

In December 1776, Watkins’s enlistment came to an end, and he signed on as a corporal for a three-year term. A number of the soldiers who had fought in the 1776 campaign received similar promotions, a reflection of the veteran leadership that they could contribute to the army. During his second term in the army, Watkins probably took part in the disastrous raid on Staten Island (August 1777), and the major battles of the Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine (September 1777) and Germantown (October 1777). The Marylanders also fought at the Battle of Monmouth (June 1778). Watkins was discharged in late December 1779. [5]

It is difficult to determine other information about Watkins's life after he left the army because there were other people with the same name. There were at least three Marylanders named Nicholas Watkins who served in the Revolutionary War, including the other man from the Seventh Company (who was often called Nicholas Watkins, of Stephen, after his father). Not enough is known about the post-war life of the Nicholas Watkins who left the army in 1779 as a corporal to differentiate him from the others. [6]

Owen Lourie, 2017

Notes:

[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 16-17.

[2] William Sands to John and Ann Sands, 14 August 1776, Maryland State Archives, Special Collections, Dowsett Collection of Sands Family Papers [MSA SC 2095-1-18, 00/20/05/28].

[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] "Extract of a letter from White-Plains," American Archives Online, October 28, 1776, series 5, vol. 2, p. 1271.

[5] Account of money paid sundry soldiers by Gen. Smallwood, paid to Nicholas Watkins, late 1776/early 1777, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 6, no. 7-6, MdHR 19970-6-7/6 [MSA S997-6-28, 1/7/3/11]; Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 173; Compiled Service Record of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, National Archives, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; List of receipts of soldiers who were paid upon discharge, 27 December 1779, Maryland State Papers, Revolutionary Papers, box 3, no. 7-21, p. 2, MdHR 19970-3-7/21 [MSA S997-3-94, 1/7/3/9]; Commissioner to Settle and Adjust Pay Due Officers and Soldiers, Depreciation Pay, vol. 2, p. 115 [MSA S169-2, 1/1/4/22].

[6] Nicholas Watkins, Commission as lieutenant in Anne Arundel County militia, August 1777, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 49, no. 82, MdHR 19999-49-82 [MSA S1005-52-83, 1/7/5/41].

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