Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Sewell
MSA SC 3520-17570

Biography:

William Sewell enlisted as a private in the First Maryland Regiment's Seventh Company, commanded by Captain John Day Scott, in March 1776. The company was raised in the beginning of the year, and was stationed in Annapolis, along with five of the regiment's other companies; 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]

Sewell 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]

In December 1776, Sewell’s enlistment came to an end, and he signed on again, for a three-year term. During his second stint in the army, Sewell 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). Sewell was discharged in late December 1779. In addition to his role in combat, Sewell had other duties during his time in the army. In the fall of 1777, "when the Maryland troops were marching towards Brandywine to meet the British Army," Sewell was "employed to drive the waggon which carried Col. [John Hoskins] Stone's baggage...and also the medicine chest." A fellow soldier recalled that Stone, the regiment's commander, "considered...Sewell an honest and good soldier." For a time in 1778, Sewell was designated as a waiter--a servant or aid--to his captain, Nathaniel Ewing, himself a veteran of the Battle of Brooklyn. [5]

After his discharge, Sewell returned to his native Annapolis, where he worked as a painter and glazier. The city had a large community of tradesmen and artisans, who were supported in part by contracts from the state government. Sewell, for example, received several contracts to paint and provide new glass for the Maryland State House. Tradesmen in Annapolis were able to secure themselves significant political power in the city--and thus state--government because of their economic position and the city's voting laws. Sewell was a regular voter, often supporting candidates with ties to the artisan community. [6]

Sewell married Rebecca Disney at St. Ann's Church in Annapolis on December 27, 1790. A few years later, they were able to purchase a house on Cathedral Street in Annapolis, where they lived with their children. Over the next decade, as his business thrived, Sewell was able to purchase two adjoining lots as well; he sold all three to his son John in early 1811. [7]

William Sewell's life took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1811. On July 2, 1811, he was injured while working on the State House. The Maryland Gazette reported:

"Yesterday morning, while engaged in painting the cornice of the roof of the State House, Mr. William Sewell and an apprentice were thrown from the hanging scaffolding on which they stood, by the ropes which supported one side giving way, by which unfortunate circumstance Mr. Sewell is so extraordinarily injured as to render his recovery doubtful. The Boy was much injured but we trust not so much as to endanger his life." [8]

Sewell did not, in fact, die from his injuries, but it is likely that he was never able to work again. Formerly a tradesman financially secure enough to purchase multiple lots in town, he now turned to the Maryland General Assembly for support, and in November he was granted a pension of $40 per year as a Revolutionary War veteran. It was a pension he probably would not have applied for or received if he had not been in dire financial straits. Sewell died in February 1814, although his pension continued to be paid out until 1827. [9]

After her husband's death, Rebecca Sewell remained in Annapolis with her family. In 1831, she received a pension of $40 per year from the state as the widow of a Revolutionary veteran, and in 1838 she got a similar pension from the Federal government, receiving $80 each year. In the 1840s, she moved to Baltimore, where she lived with her son Richard until her death on April 16, 1852, at eighty-five years old. [10]

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. 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. Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 160; 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. 1, MdHR 19970-3-7/21 [MSA S997-3-94, 1/7/3/9]; Pension of William Sewell. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, W 9285, from Fold3.com.

6. Sewell pension; Alexander J. Lourie, "'Have Honestly and Fairly Laboured for Money': William and Washington Tuck and Annapolis Cabinetmaking, 1795-1838" (M.A. thesis, University of Maryland College Park, 2004), 121-126; William Sewell, Account for work at State House, 1796, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 80, no. 31, MdHR 19999-80-31 [MSA S1005-87-42, 1/8/5/62]; William Sewell, Account for work at State House, 1796, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 80, no. 43, MdHR 19999-80-43 [MSA S1005-87-56, 1/8/5/62]; William Sewell, Receipt for glass, 1808?, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 84, no. 25, MdHR 19999-84-25 [MSA S1005-91-26, 1/8/5/65]; William Sewell, Account for State House repairs, 1808, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 85, no. 62, MdHR 19999-85-62 [MSA S1005-92-64, 1/8/5/66]; William Sewell to Governor, 1810, Maryland State Papers, Scharf Collection, box 58, no. 142, MdHR 19999-58-142 [MSA S1005-62-137, 1/8/5/48]. Voters in Annapolis needed to meet much lower property requirements than the rest of the state. In 1802, Sewell voted for John Shaw, a prominent cabinetmaker, for Annapolis City Council. See Annapolis Election Judges, Poll Book, July 1801 [MSA M32-3, 1/22/1/1].

7. Sewell pension; Anne Arundel County Court, Marriage Licenses, 1777-1813, p. 44 [MSA C113-1, 1/1/11/27]; Federal Direct Tax, 1798, Anne Arundel County, Annapolis Hundred, Particular List of Houses, p. 17, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, p. 111; U.S. Federal Census, 1810, City of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland; Deed, Peter Casanave to William Sewell, 1793, Anne Arundel County Court, Land Records, Liber NH 7, p. 52 [MSA CE76-35]; Deed, James Elliott to William Sewell, 1801, Liber NH 10, p. 508 [MSA CE76-38]; Deed, William Sewell to John Sewell, 1811, Liber NH 16, p. 401 [MSA CE76-44]; Deed, Basil Brown, executor of William Hammond to William Sewell, 1813, Liber WSG 2, p. 303 [MSA CE76-46]. The actual date of this last transaction is unknown. It was referred to in Sewell's 1811 deed to his son, but not formally recorded until 1813.

8. "Melancholy Accident," Maryland Gazette, 3 July 1811; Lourie, 137. Coincidentally, the story appeared in the Gazette just above the obituary of Henry Chew Gaither, who had also been in the First Maryland Regiment in 1776.

9. Maryland General Assembly, Session Laws of 1811, Joint Resolution 11., Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 614, p. 259; Treasurer of the Western Shore, Pension Roll, Military, 1811-1843, p. 41, MdHR 4534-4 [MSA S613-1, 2/63/10/33]; Sewell pension. No probate records can be found for William Sewell.

10. U.S. Federal Census, 1830, City of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland; U.S. Federal Census, 1840, City of Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland; Maryland General Assembly, Session Laws of 1831, Joint Resolution 16, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 213, p. 470; Treasurer of the Western Shore, Pension Roll, Military, 1811-1843, p. 51, MdHR 4534-4 [MSA S613-1, 2/63/10/33]; Sewell pension; U.S. Federal Census, 1850, Ward 12, Baltimore City, Maryland; The Sun (Baltimore), 17 April 1817.

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