Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Swan
MSA SC 3520-17569


John Swan enlisted as a private in the First Maryland Regiment's Seventh Company, commanded by Captain John Day Scott, in April 1776. 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 casualties, 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]

It is likely that Swan survived the battle, as did most of the men in his company, although William Sands was among those killed. In October, the Marylanders fought 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. The Seventh 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]

While Swan probably fought for the whole 1776 campaign, there is some uncertainty surrounding his military service. A "Benjamin Swan" is listed among the men still present in the company at the end of the year; no one by that name is recorded enlisting in the company, and John is the only person in the regiment with the last name Swan. As a result, it is quite likely, though not absolutely certain, that John Swan served for all of 1776, though he was listed as Benjamin at the end of the year, and left the army when his one-year enlistment ended. [5]

There were multiple people named John Swan in Maryland during and after the American Revolution, including one who was a private in the Third Maryland Regiment later in the war. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine which, if any, are the same man who fought at the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. [6]

Owen Lourie, 2017


[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 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; 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 Benjamin [John?] Swan, 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].

[6] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 164. There is no record of a Benjamin Swan serving from Maryland during the war.

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