Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Ofield
MSA SC 3520-17771

Biography:

John Ofield enlisted as a private in the Eighth Company of the First Maryland Regiment on January 27, 1776. The regiment, commanded by Colonel William Smallwood, was Maryland's first contingent of full-time, professional soldiers raised to be part of the Continental Army. The Eighth Company, led by Captain Samuel Smith, formed in Baltimore in early 1776, and it trained there that spring and summer. Two other companies from the regiment were located in Baltimore as well, while the rest were stationed in Annapolis. In July, the regiment was ordered to march north to New York, to protect the city from invasion by the British. The Eighth Company lost four men who deserted along the march, a problem which plagued the regiment that summer. [1]

On August 27, 1776, the Americans faced the British Army 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 Eighth, 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, losing 256 men killed or captured. [2]

Because the Eighth Company was able to escape the battle early, it lost only about six men. Still, as its captain Samuel Smith later described, the retreat was not easy. While withdrawing, "the Regiment mounted a hill, [and] a British officer appeared…and waved his hat, and it was supposed that he meant to surrender. He clapped his hands three times, on which signal his company rose and gave a heavy [fire]. I took my company through a marsh, until we were stopped by the dam of a…mill…that was too deep for the men to ford. I and a Sergeant swam over and got two slabs [of wood] into the water, on…which we ferried over all who could not swim." [3]

Ofield was among the men who survived the battle, and he went on to fight with the Marylanders through the rest of 1776. While the Maryland troops demonstrated their skill and bravery at Harlem Heights in September and White Plains in October, the Americans were nevertheless 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. At the end of the year, Ofield's enlistment expired. Like many of his comrades, he opted to stay in the army, signing on for a three-year term in the First Maryland Regiment. [4]

During Ofield's second enlistment, the Marylanders fought in the disastrous raid on Staten Island (August 1777), and the major battles of the Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine (September 1777) and Germantown (October 1777), all significant defeats. The Marylanders also fought at the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. How much combat Ofield himself saw is not clear. It is likely that he was wounded at some point, and he returned home to Maryland on furlough by the spring of 1778. He never returned to active duty. [5]

In the summer of 1780, nine months after his three-year enlistment had ended, Ofield was arrested in Harford County, Maryland, and jailed as a deserter. State authorities were actively seeking men to fill the army's depleted ranks, and were particularly vigilant in apprehending men absent without permission. Because Ofield had been in Maryland away from the army for more than two years, he likely had never received his official discharge certificate, leaving him with no way to prove he was not a deserter. After his arrest, however, he produced "a pass from General [William] Smallwood" giving permission "to continue [to stay at home] till his wounds got well." How this situation was resolved is not clear. [6]

Few details of Ofield's life are known after his military service ended. He lived in Baltimore County for most of the 1780s, and he probably had a wife and children, although their names are not known. They were poor, and owned no land. While Ofield was still in Baltimore in 1790, no other information is known about him or his family. [7]

Owen Lourie, 2018

Notes:

[1] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 18; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; "Eight Pounds Reward." Philadelphia Evening Post, 10 August 1776; 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].

[2] 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.

[3] Return of the Maryland troops, 13 September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 85, from Fold3.com; “The Papers of General Samuel Smith. The General’s Autobiography. From the Original Manuscripts.” The Historical Magazine, second ser., vol. 8, no. 2 (1870): 82-92. Smith wrote his autobiography in the third person; it has been converted to first person here for purposes of clarity.

[4] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 148.

[5] Compiled Service Record.

[6] Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, pps. 344, 400; List of deserters sent to Annapolis, 17 August 1780, Maryland State Papers, Red Books, vol. 26, no. 72a, MdHR 4594-72a [MSA S989-38, 1/6/4/26]; Journal and Correspondence of the Council of Maryland, 1780-1781, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 45, p. 50. Ofield may have served a separate stint in the army as a drafted militiaman in 1781.

[7] General Assembly, House of Delegates, Assessment Record, 1783, Baltimore County, Middle River Upper and Back River Upper Hundred, list of paupers, p. 1 [MSA S1161-2-10, 1/4/5/45]; U.S. Federal Census, 1790, Patapsco Lower Hundred, Baltimore County, Maryland.

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