Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Charles Thompson
MSA SC 3520-17826

Biography:

Charles Thompson's military career was relatively brief, but he nevertheless endured tremendous hardships, including captivity. Even after escaping from the British, Thompson was willing to stay on in the army, despite facing the risk of execution if recaptured. Thompson's plight and determination are all the more impressive because he was just fifteen years old when he enlisted in 1776, among the youngest known soldiers in the Maryland Line. [1]

Thompson was born on July 14, 1760, the sixth child of Robert and Elizabeth Thompson. He had eight siblings: Susanna (b. 1747), Athanasius (b. 1749), Elizabeth (b. 1752), Mary (b. 1755), Eleanor (b. 1757), Bennett (b. 1763), Mary (b. 1765), and James (b. 1767). The Thompsons were Catholic, just as many other residents of St. Mary's County were. The family were farmers, and while they owned land, they had only one hundred acres, less than even many middle class farmers. [2]

When Thompson enlisted as a private in the Fifth Independent Company in early 1776, he joined at the same time as his first cousin, Electious Thompson. Electious's parents had both died when he was quite young--his father James died in 1758, and his mother Grace died in 1760--and he had lived been raised by his uncle Robert, his father's brother and Charles's father. Electious was five or ten years older than Charles, and the two may well have been like brothers to each other. Enlisting with Electious is probably what made it possible for Charles to join. It was rare for Revolutionary War soldiers to be as young as Charles, and even rarer for them to enter the army by themselves, without relatives.

The Fifth Independent Company, led by Captain John Allen Thomas, was raised in St. Mary's County, and was one of seven independent companies that the Maryland Council of Safety formed across the state in early 1776, initially intended to guard the Chesapeake Bay's coastline from a feared British invasion. By that summer, however, the independent companies were dispatched to New York, to help reinforce the Continental Army as it prepared to defend the city from the British. In total, twelve companies of Maryland troops traveled to New York that July and August: nine companies that comprised the First Maryland Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Smallwood, and the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Independent companies, the only three that were ready to travel then. [3]

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. During the retreat, the Maryland troops fought their way towards the American fortifications, but were blocked by the swampy Gowanus Creek. While half the regiment was able to cross the creek, the rest were unable to do so before they were attacked by the British. Facing down a much larger, better-trained force, the Marylanders mounted a series of daring charges. These men, now known as the "Maryland 400," held the British at bay long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to escape, at the cost of many lives. In all, 256 Marylanders were killed or captured by the British; some companies lost as much as 80 percent of their men. Thompson and his company likely saw little combat. Instead, the Fifth Independent Company did not cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn until after fighting had begun, and did not venture into the field of battle. They did, however, perform valuable service assisting the Americans retreating through the Gowanus Marsh. [4]

During the fall of 1776, Thompson and the rest of the Marylanders fought a series of battles in New York: Harlem Heights (September), White Plains (October), and Fort Washington (November). While the Americans had some tactical successes at these engagements, by the winter they had been pushed out of New York entirely, though they secured revitalizing victories at Trenton and Princeton late that winter. The enlistments of the soldiers in the independent companies ended in December, and the companies were disbanded.

Thompson returned to Maryland as a civilian, but he volunteered to serve again soon after, joining the Second Maryland Regiment in July 1777. The regiment was largely composed of the former independent companies. In August of that year, he and the rest of the Marylanders fought at the disastrous Battle of Staten Island. The goal was to defeat a small Loyalist militia on the island, but the Americans instead found themselves facing a sizable force of British army regulars. In the ensuing American retreat, the Maryland Line was ordered to cover the rear, and took heavy casualties, just as they had at Brooklyn a year earlier. The Marylanders lost by some estimates about 200 men, including Thompson, who was taken prisoner. [5]

The Americans captured during the Revolution were held in horrible prison conditions, where disease and starvation were rampant, and thousands died. Thompson, "after being some Time in Gaol...agreed to enlist with the Enemy--and by that Means made his escape." Captured American soldiers being impressed or coerced into joining the British Army was not unheard of. At least three Marylanders captured at the Battle of Brooklyn suffered that fate: Peter McNaughton, Jacob Harman, and John McClain. Joining the British Army offered a way out of confinement in prison, and for some men, a chance to escape back to the Continental Army, as Thompson did. In fact, he was not even in British custody for very long, managing to return to the American lines in late November 1777, some three months after being captured. [6]

After returning to his old Maryland unit, however, the American commanders were unsure what Thompson's fate should be. In order to determine that, in April 1778 Thompson was "directed...to [headquarters] for that purpose, but the Army moved before he could get to [headquarters]," and so "he returned home." In the meantime, while Thompson had been given permission to leave his unit for his trip to meet with the army's high command, he was declared a deserter in July, having never returned to the army. In February 1779, John Steward, the Second Maryland Regiment's major, included Thompson in his report of deserters who had returned to Maryland. [7]

Steward had been a lieutenant in the Fifth Independent Company and served with Thompson in 1776. Thompson met with him in 1779 about returning to his regiment, but Steward recommended that Thompson "ought not continue in the Army, because if he should happen to be captured, he would be treated by the Enemy as a deserter," rather than as a prisoner of war, and thus liable for execution. Around the end of 1781, Thompson approached Steward again about rejoining the service, but was turned down a second time. [8]

Others in the army took a less sympathetic, or perhaps less informed, view of Thompson. In the spring of 1782, just a few months after his second meeting with Steward, Thompson was arrested as a deserter. Thompson sought out John Allen Thomas, his captain from 1776 and a respected community leader, to intercede on his behalf. Thomas testified to his former soldier's exemplary service in the war's first year, and to his efforts to return to active duty. A number of Continental Army officers had known where Thompson was, "but they never intimated to him that he ought to join [his] Regiment, for if they had, he would without Hesitation have done it." Thomas thought that, in light of Thompson's "Manner of making his Escape, and his Situation if again captured," he should have received a formal discharge. If, however, the state's military authorities "are of Opinion that he ought to be considered still as a soldier," Thompson should have been allowed to enlist or to furnish a substitute in his stead. [9]

The situation's resolution is not recorded, but given Thompson's particularly hard fate, and his influential friends, he was most likely allowed to go free, and he was not bothered further by the army. Accordingly, he remained in St. Mary's County for the next few decades. He lived as a farmer, and was able to achieve a modest degree of success. He owned several slaves, and eventually acquired about 150 acres of land. His land holdings included the fifty acres he inherited after his father Robert died in 1806 or 1807, half of Robert's holdings. [10]

By 1812, however, Thompson's financial security seems to have weakened. He sold most, if not all, of his land that summer, which earned him $600, a sizable sum. In 1816, Thompson petitioned the Maryland General Assembly for financial support as a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and he was granted a pension of $40 per year. In 1822, Thompson rented back some of the land he had sold to his brother Bennett a decade earlier, agreeing to pay $70 per year. Charles received pension payments until the end of 1824. It is not clear if his payments ended because he died, left the state, or was dropped from the pension list for some other reason. What became of him after that time is not recorded, and when or where he died is not known. [11]

Owen Lourie, 2018

Sources:

[1] John Allen Thomas to William Smallwood, 10 March 1782, Maryland State Archives, Special Collections, Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Smallwood Collection [MSA SC6205-1-7]; Birth records of Catholic families recorded at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Timothy J. O'Rourke, comp., Catholic Families of Southern Maryland (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985), 69. Many thanks to Linda Thompson Jonas for documenting Charles Thompson's life and explaining his relationship with the other Thompsons in Southern Maryland. She made it clear that the birth record is for the correct Charles Thompson.

[2] O'Rourke, 69; Charles E. Fenwick, St. Mary's County Tax Assessment Records, 1793-1849 (St. Mary's County Historical Society, 2004), 424; Will of Robert Thompson, 1807, St. Mary's County Register of Wills, Wills, Liber JJ 3, p. 137 [MSA C1720-6, 1/60/10/37].

[3] Mark Andrew Tacyn "'To the End:' The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution" (PhD diss., University of Maryland College Park, 1999), 33-45.

[4] Return of the Maryland troops, 13 September 1776, Revolutionary War Rolls, NARA M246, folder 35, p. 85, from Fold3.com; Tacyn, 48-73; Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 154-155. 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.

[5] Muster Rolls and Other Records of Service of Maryland Troops in the American Revolution, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 18, p. 169; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; Tacyn, 137; Steuart, 157; Thomas to Smallwood.

[6] Thomas to Smallwood; Compiled Service Record.

[7] Thomas to Smallwood; Compiled Service Record; John Steward to Council of Safety, List of Men Deserted from the 2nd Maryland Regiment, 22 February 1779, Maryland State Papers, Red Books, vol. 25, no. 68-2, MdHR 4593 [MSA S989-37, 1/6/4/25].

[8] Thomas to Smallwood.

[9] Thomas to Smallwood.

[10] U.S. Federal Census, 1790, St. Mary's County, Maryland; U.S. Federal Census, 1800, St. Mary's County, Maryland; U.S. Federal Census, 1810, St. Mary's County, Maryland; U.S. Federal Census, 1820, District 2, St. Mary's County, Maryland; Fenwick, 418; Robert Thompson will.

[11] Deed, Charles Thompson to Bennett Thompson, 1812, Court of Appeals, Land Record Abstracts, SM, Liber TH 27, p. 63 [MSA S1361-3, 1/27/2/12]; Deed, Charles Thompson to Peter Mugg, 1812, Liber TH 27, p. 64 [MSA S1361-3, 1/27/2/12]; Deed, Bennett Thompson to Charles Thompson, 1822, Court of Appeals, Land Record Abstracts, SM, Liber TH 29, p. 309 [MSA S1361-5, 1/27/2/14]; Maryland General Assembly, Session Laws of 1816, Resolution 17, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 635, p. 231; Treasurer of the Western Shore, Pension Roll, Military, 1811-1843, pps. 25, 41 MdHR 4534-4 [MSA S613-1, 2/63/10/33].

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