Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Bruce (1752-1825)
MSA SC 3520-17837


Tobacco was king of the summer. Its towering, fan-shaped leaves and pungent, musky odor permeated the fields of the Tidewater region during the colonial era. Like many of the places along this Tobacco Coast, Charles County, Maryland was a hub for transatlantic commerce, with its multitude of easily navigable rivers and bays where resident planters often exchanged their harvested tobacco, cereal crops, and vegetables for British manufactured goods, West African slaves, and sugar from the West Indies. [1] Of the various towns and parishes in Charles County, those that hugged the edge of the Potomac River often enjoyed the majority of this market success due to both their proximity to ports of entry and their nutrient rich soil that dominated the Tidewater region of Maryland. Port Tobacco, the largest of Charles County’s market towns, was at the epicenter of this water-borne trade: its central location along the Potomac River and its plethora of community shops and services made it a necessary terminus for merchants in the Chesapeake Bay region. [2] However, Port Tobacco was rarely the sole stop for merchants trading in the Chesapeake. Other Tidewater towns in Charles County, especially those nestled in the southeastern tip, found mercantile success as their proximity towards the mouth of the bay provided newly arriving vessels an initial opportunity for trade before further voyage up the inlet. It was in this rural southern Tidewater area where a hero of the Revolution would take his first steps along the road for independence.

Born in the William and Mary Parish of Charles County in 1752 to parents Charles and Jean Bruce, William Bruce was the fifth of eight children. [3] Although Charles had acquired five separate tracts of land along the Wicomico River (Marshall Land, Hamersley’s Marsh, Hamersley’s Meadow, Hatton’s Point, and Chestnut Point) from his father’s trustee Robert Yates in 1744, the Bruce family lived on their home plantation, Good for Little. [4] As with many parcels of land in Charles County, Good for Little’s name evoked the feelings of its owner--whether these were feelings of appreciation or resignation remains unclear. At only 86 acres, Good for Little was far different from the great plantations of the South Carolina low-country or even the larger farms of Charles County. Indeed, the Bruce plantation was among the smaller farms of the region. [5] In addition, its sandy clay soil had been exhausted from the continual strain of the tobacco harvest. [6] As the soil of Good for Little was no longer suitable for tobacco, the Bruce family was forced to grow cereal crops such as wheat and corn on their home plantation, while supplementing their income with revenue from the tobacco harvest of their other properties. [7]

Although their home plantation was dwarfed by the 500-acre lots that were harvested and inhabited by many members of Charles County’s planter aristocracy, William Bruce and his family nonetheless considered themselves rightful members of this gentry class. [8] The walnut desks and sterling silver spoon sets in their plantation house at Good for Little did much to validate the Bruce family’s position within the social hierarchy of the county. [9] Yet, the untimely death of their father Charles in 1758 complicated the roles that William and his siblings would eventually hold within this rigid social hierarchy. Without their well-connected patriarch, and too young to inherent their father’s property, the Bruce brothers were left in an awkward and temporarily stagnant position within the variegated social order of Charles County. [10] Wanting to be accepted as members of the gentry and not, as historian Jean B. Lee describes, “plain Country people,” William and his brothers John and Robert attempted to challenge this social order and establish their positions among the planter aristocracy by joining the movement for American independence. [11]

The passing of the Townshend Revenue Act, commonly known as the Coercive Acts, in 1767 not only encouraged colonial protest efforts in Charles County but it also forced residents to question both proprietary and imperial power that had begun to threaten their civil and economic liberties. [12] At the forefront of this protest was the gentry class, whose sympathy to the patriot cause led to the creation of various nonimportation agreements and trade embargo policies. [13] It was in the midst of this precarious economic state that William Bruce, along with his brothers Robert and John, saw an opportunity for social advancement through political and military involvement. William, who at the age of twenty-two had already begun to show a dedicated passion to the Patriot cause, took an early leadership position in the local community by becoming a member of the St. Mary’s County Committee of Correspondence in 1774. [14] In late 1774 and early 1775, this committee of the local gentry was responsible for discussing the proceedings of the First Continental Congress, which most likely concerned Parliament’s passage of the New England Restraining Act and other trading bans prohibiting the sale of colonial goods to nations other than Britain. [15] A youthful and steadfast Patriot, Bruce played a role in tilting his community’s support in favor of this movement for independence. Following his brief political stint, Bruce followed his brothers John and Robert into the ranks of the military, testing the endurance of their dedication to the Patriot cause.

Originating from gentry stock but not yet having established their own wealth, the Bruce brothers did not initially receive commissions as officers and instead enlisted in the Maryland fighting force as noncommissioned officers. Volunteering in July 1775, Robert was given the rank of corporal in the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, while his brothers William and John received the rank of sergeant and corporal, respectively, in Colonel William Smallwood’s First Maryland Regiment. [16] As a noncommissioned officer in the Ninth Company, a mobile and light infantry company of troops from western Maryland under the direction of Captain George Stricker, William Bruce’s military role was primarily based on direct conflict with the enemy. [17] However, as a sergeant, Bruce was also tasked with aiding the recruitment efforts of this Maryland fighting force. [18] Like all noncommissioned officers, Bruce knew that his chances of being promoted to an officer's rank and attaining a position among the military elite were contingent on both his performance in battle and ability to recruit. With the arrival of the British Navy in New York in the summer of 1776, Bruce was given his first taste of battle, his first opportunity to prove his worth.

Having become increasingly concerned with the his army’s vulnerable position along the coastal plain of New York, General George Washington requested immediate reinforcements as the looming presence of a full British blockade began to form at every point of entry. [19] Following their trek up the Chesapeake and through the fledgling nation’s capital of Philadelphia, Bruce and the rest of Smallwood’s Battalion arrived in New York on July 30, 1776. This battalion of men, who a colonial officer in Philadelphia had remarked as being one of the most dignified and brave bodies of men across the colonies, soon provided General Washington with necessary reliability and steadiness. [20]

Although initially arriving in lower Manhattan, Smallwood’s Battalion was ordered to march towards the Gowanus Heights in order to repel the incoming British forces under General James Grant. Smallwood himself was not on the battlefield—Washington insisted that he take part in a court martial—and so they were led by Major Mordecai Gist. Believing Grant’s forces to be the main prong of the British offensive, General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) arranged his troops, including the Marylanders, in an inverted V formation in order to envelop Grant’s attacking forces. [21] After realizing that Grant’s forces were actually a decoy for a flanking attack by generals William Howe and Henry Clinton to the left of the American lines, Stirling and Gist both ordered their men to retreat across the Gowanus Creek to the safety of the American defenses stationed on Brooklyn Heights. [22] The British army’s brilliant flanking maneuver led to disaster among the Continental ranks and thus set the stage for the defining moment of William Bruce’s military career.

During their retreat towards the Gowanus Creek, Stirling and Gist’s forces were met by the stiff opposition of General Charles Edward Cornwallis’s men, who had joined the flanking forces of Clinton and Howe at the Vechte-Cortelyou house. Realizing that this combined British force had effectively separated the right wing of the American forces from their defenses on Brooklyn Heights, Stirling and Gist ordered their men, including William Bruce’s Ninth Company, to attack the dug-in British forces at the Vechte-Cortelyou house. [23] Over the course of the battle, the Marylanders lost 256 men killed or captured, and the five companies that made this final stand lost between sixty and eighty percent of their troops. William Bruce’s Ninth Company lost more than half its men, and he was the only one of its four sergeants to make it off the battlefield. However, their action allowed for the successful escape of Washington’s remaining Continental forces across the East River into Manhattan. With their blood, Bruce’s comrades purchased that precious hour which saved the Continental Army from utter annihilation. [24]

Following this brave stand on August 27, William Bruce and other surviving members of First Maryland Regiment, along with men from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut, were ordered to remain in the fortifications of Brooklyn Heights and cover the retreat of the Continental Army. [25] After arriving in Manhattan, the First Maryland Regiment received orders in the beginning of September to once again delay the advancing British infantry, this time under the command of General Alexander Leslie, who sought to prevent the retreat of the Continental Army towards their new defenses at Harlem Heights. Fortunately for Smallwood’s men, the hilly terrain and thick shrubbery of this western portion of Manhattan aided the Marylanders in repelling Leslie’s forces and escaping along McGown’s Pass. [26] After retreating to Harlem, Bruce and the First Maryland Regiment were stationed in lower Westchester County until the end of October, when General Charles Lee assumed command and ordered the regiment to march south to White Plains to rendezvous with the remainder of Continental Army. [27] It was at the subsequent Battle of White Plains that Bruce saw his final military engagement of the New York campaign, a failed defense of Chatterton’s Hill that saw the Continental forces retreat to the town of North Castle prior to their eventual abandonment of New York in late November. [28]

With the end of many soldiers’ initial, one-year enlistments in December, a debate ensued among members of the Continental Congress and various state legislatures concerning reenlistment and the future organization of the Continental Army. Despite the Americans’ failure to repel the British forces, the Maryland troops had developed a strong sense of cohesion and camaraderie during the New York campaign, and they saw their bravery and sacrifice during the 1776 campaign as both purposeful and vital to the future success of this fledgling army. Consequently, the majority of Smallwood’s surviving regiment, including William Bruce, extended their enlistments for an additional three years. [29] Bruce, who after the New York campaign had remained with his regiment in New Jersey, reenlisted in Colonel John Hoskins Stone’s newly re-formed First Maryland Regiment on December 10, 1776, and served in Captain John Hancock Beanes’s Company. [30]

During the late evening of December 25, Bruce, along with his Maryland comrades, embarked with the Continental Army across the Delaware River into New Jersey. The following day, Bruce’s regiment, under the command of General Hugh Mercer, took up positions along High Street and surrounded both British and Hessian troops, helping force their surrender. [31] Over the course of the next week, Mercer again led this regiment of Marylanders into combat during the Battle of Princeton, where, after a failed assault on the British left flank, he was mortally wounded and his troops forced to retreat. [32] General Washington, who rallied Bruce and the retreating Maryland troops, squashed the British attack and led a successful assault on Princeton. [33] This monumental victory helped convince Americans, soldier and civilian alike, that this patriot cause could be maintained. Afterward, Bruce and his fellow Marylanders accompanied Washington’s forces to Morristown, New Jersey, where they spent the remainder of the winter. [34]

Bruce received a commission as a second lieutenant in the First Maryland Regiment in December 1776, and was made a first lieutenant on June 10, 1777. At the end of 1776 and the first part of 1777, the army had a desperate need for experienced men to serve as officers, as Maryland expanded from one regiment to seven. More than a dozen of the regiment’s noncommissioned officers of 1776 received commissions along with Bruce. His promotion was an important step, as becoming a commissioned officer represented a significant change in status, giving him a place one more befitting a member of the gentry. Bruce may have received his rank in part because of valiant performance in the field of battle, or simply because he had gained valuable combat experience. [35]

Still attached to the First Maryland Regiment, Bruce and his company participated in a failed raid on Staten Island before once more helping to repel a British attack at the Battle of Brandywine and allowing the Continental forces to retreat. Bruce and his company then fought alongside Continental forces at Germantown, but their attempts to avenge the loss at Brandywine and threaten the British defenses of Philadelphia ended in frustrating defeat. From there, the First Maryland Regiment retired to Wilmington, Delaware, for the duration of the winter. [36]

The 1778 campaign of the First Maryland Regiment was less active than it had been in both 1776 and 1777. Bruce and his fellow Marylanders remained stationed in Wilmington, waiting for a potential British offensive, before following the British forces that left Philadelphia for New Jersey. After a brief stay in Valley Forge, Bruce, along with the rest of the First Maryland Regiment, pursued the British forces into New Jersey before finally waging battle at Monmouth towards the end of June. [37] During this battle, Bruce’s company remained vigilant in preventing a British advance on American defenses near the town. After the battle ended in a stalemate and the British retreated to New York, Bruce and the Maryland Division set up camp in Middlebrook, New Jersey where they remained for both the summer and winter. [38]

By spring 1779, Maryland needed to raise 1,400 men in order to fulfill its quota set by the Continental Army. Accordingly, Bruce returned to Charles County that summer and accepted the task of recruiting soldiers. As part of his duties, Bruce was responsible for corresponding with Maryland's governor Thomas Johnson in order to secure funds for his recruiting missions, and to purchase arms and military supplies. [39] Around this time, Bruce had a miniature of himself painted by famed artist Charles Willson Peale. Peale painted a number of similar portraits of other Maryland officers, and was himself a native of Maryland. His brother James, an artist in his own right, served in the First Maryland Regiment as a lieutenant and captain at the same time as Bruce. The portrait was a tangible symbol of Bruce’s status among the officer corps and the gentry. Today, it is in the collections of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Following his persistent and successful recruiting missions during the summer, Bruce rejoined his regiment in the fall, then spent the winter in Morristown, New Jersey. [40] During arguably their most difficult winter, the Americans struggled to find adequate provisions and clothing.  In the spring of 1780, Bruce once again received a promotion, and was commissioned as a captain, in command of a company. [41]

The winter’s struggles lingered into the spring and summer of 1780, as Bruce and the First Maryland Regiment assisted General Horatio Gates’s army during their southern campaign. Gates, having garnered fame for his victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, hindered his army’s success and well-being by leading his men on a route to the Carolinas that lacked natural sustenance while also being unaware of British forces’ positioning near Camden, South Carolina. [42] Weakened by hunger, lack of rest, and dysentery, the First Maryland Regiment, along with the rest of Gates’s army, fell victim to General Charles Cornwallis’s early morning offensive on August 16, 1780. [43] With the American lines on the verge of collapse, Cornwallis ordered a full frontal assault with his dragoons and light infantry that ended in a lopsided British victory. [44]

The loss at Camden was as a deflating and humiliating setback for the Continental forces, who had sought to use their numerical advantage to threaten the British defenses around the key port city of Charleston. Following this poorly managed engagement, many within the Continental forces called for the immediate changes in the military personnel who were in command. Among those relieved of their commands following the Battle of Camden was William Bruce. [45] Bruce lost command of his company within the First Maryland Regiment and was ordered to march northward where he and other members of his regiment joined a detachment of Continental troops led by Major Thomas Lancaster Lansdale of the Third Maryland Regiment. [46]

 Lansdale’s regiment traveled to Maryland to recruit more men for the 1781 campaign. [47] After helping to rebuild the unit after its catastrophic losses at Camden, Bruce remained with Lansdale and fought alongside Continental and French forces at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. Afterward, they marched northeast and rendezvoused with General Washington and Comte de Rochambeau’s forces at Verplanck’s Point in 1782. [48] With the conclusion of the war in 1783, Bruce and rest of the Marylanders returned home, where they were furloughed in July, then officially disbanded in November 1783. [49]

After being discharged from the army, Bruce returned to Charles County, where he married Elizabeth Hamilton in the 1780s. [50] William and Elizabeth had two sons, Henry and Walter, and two daughters, Sarah and Jane. [51] Though his brother John inherited the majority of their father’s estate and wealth, Bruce attempted to capitalize on his military connections to establish his own economic success as both a planter and land speculator. [52] Bruce sought to reproduce the agricultural success of the gentry class that he had long coveted since the death of his father. Despite his military achievements, Bruce failed to replicate the economic success of his brother John, whose brief military career coupled with his father’s inheritance allowed for him to gain a large foothold in the land and tobacco industries during the Revolutionary War. [53]

Bruce received two hundred acres of bounty land for serving during the entirety of the war. However, the land that Maryland allocated for its veterans was in the far western region of the state, a remote and mountainous area. As one of Bruce’s fellow soldiers described, it was rocky and “absolutely good for nothing . . . unfit for Cultivation.” [54] As a planter by trade, Bruce could not use the rocky soil and hilly terrain of Allegany County to turn a profit, and like most soldiers never took his land. It was claimed as vacant in the 1830s, when plans for a westward railroad line brought new attention to the area. [55]

In an attempt to grow his agricultural business, Bruce began to purchase slaves and livestock, and more land. In September 1796, he purchased a 373-acre tract of land known as Boles Purchase in the Piccawaxon Hundred region of Charles County from James Simmes for £1,250. [56] Yet, Bruce’s agricultural aspirations failed to materialize even after the acquisition of this large and seemingly bountiful plantation. Whether his economic shortcomings were due to a lack of field hands or inability to find a niche in the volatile tobacco industry remain unknown. During the prime of his life, Bruce’s property included his plantation house (valued at $120), his 373 acre farm (valued at $2,226), and six slaves. [57] By the turn of the century, Bruce was in relatively dire financial straits compared to other members of the gentry class and sought assistance from the same fledgling country that he had desperately fought to protect.

Additionally, Bruce applied for a Federal pension in March 1818. [58] Unlike some veterans of the war who attempted to feign poverty in order to increase their annual income, Bruce’s pleas were genuine. Even John Rousby Plater, judge of the county court, attested to the fact that Bruce was a “revolutionary soldier, distinguished for his long faithful and constant duties during that glorious contest—his advanced age and reduced circumstances bring him within the provisions of the law.” [59] However, Bruce stopped receiving pension payments in 1820 after Federal legislation required applicants to disclose all property they owned. [60] Although Bruce faced serious financial difficulties, he was unable to qualify for a pension due to the size and value of his plantation—evidently his hardships were not dire enough to merit government assistance.

While Bruce and his family continued to struggle financially, he found solace and purpose in his postwar membership in the Society of the Cincinnati. As one of the society’s founding members in 1783, Bruce may have seen it as a means by which to reinforce the degree of group solidarity he had known while serving in the army, to preserve the memory of the Revolution, and to attain a coveted spot among the county’s gentry. [61] With membership reserved only for officers, the Society of the Cincinnati provided Bruce with a vital sense of exclusivity and pride during his post war life filled with economic hardship.

Although Bruce was never destitute, his post-war career failed to replicate the success he enjoyed in the military. Bruce spent the final years of his life maintaining his property while attempting to increase his profits and expand his business. He passed away at his home in Charles County on October 26, 1825, at the age of seventy-three. [62]

A man who rose through the military ranks and who seemed to be heavily involved in various aspects of the war effort, William Bruce fully embraced the Patriot cause. He was a man who dared to strive for mighty things in the hopes of achieving a success and status he had long envied and desired. Though his post-war career yielded little economic success, Bruce’s steadfast dedication to the Patriot cause and his heroic military service seemingly captured the hearts and minds of all who knew him.

When he died in 1825, his obituary, like that of any distinguished person, was far too brief. Yet, his legacy as a courageous soldier, loving father, and kind neighbor were remembered in a brief, poignant paragraph on the third page of the Maryland Gazette on November 10, 1825, nearly half a century after he marched off to fight for his country’s freedom. Noting “no one action, the remembrance of which could embitter his parting, or stain the cheek of his surviving family with shame,” Bruce’s obituary ignored the financial woes that plagued his later years and instead emphasized his admirable character and heroic military service:

He entered the Army in the spring of the year ’76, as a private [sic], fought through the whole war, and finally came out a Captain in the 1st Maryland regiment. From these trying scenes of hardship, hunger, and bloodshed, he returned to the quietude and duties of private life, and, as he had been a brave soldier, so he became an excellent citizen. [63]

Patrick O'Neal, Washington College, 2018


[1] Jean B. Lee, The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 4.

[2] Lee, 33.

[3] Will of Charles Bruce, 1757, Prerogative Court, Wills, Liber 30, p. 448 [MSA S538-44, 1/11/1/38].

[4] Deed, Robert Yates, et al., to Charles Bruce, 1744, Charles County Court, Land Records, Liber X 2, p. 106 [MSA CE82-28].

[5] Charles Bruce Will.

[6] General Assembly House of Delegates, Assessment Record, 1783, Charles County, District 1, p. 1 [MSA S1161-4-5, 1/4/5/47].

[7] 1783 Assessment.

[8] Lee, 45.

[9] Charles Bruce will.

[10] Charles Bruce will.

[11] Lee, 45.

[12] Lee, 109.

[13] Lee, 110.

[14] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), 5 January 1775.

[15] 1775 Timeline, “Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789,” Library of Congress.

[16] “Brothers in Arms,” Finding the Maryland 400.

[17] Pension of William Bruce. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, S 34668, from Stricker left the company in July 1776 for a leadership post in the German Battalion, and was replaced by Captain Benjamin Ford.

[18] Patrick K. O’Donnell, Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution (New York: Grove Press, 2016), 20.

[19] O’Donnell, 46.

[20] O’Donnell, 47.

[21] O’Donnell, 62.

[22] O’Donnell, 63.

[23] O’Donnell, 68.

[24] O’Donnell, 71.

[25] Mark A. Tacyn, “ ‘To the End’: The First Maryland Regiment and the American Revolution”(doctoral thesis, University of Michigan, 1999), 88.

[26] Tacyn, 90.

[27] Tacyn, 98.

[28] Tacyn, 103.

[29] Tacyn, 110.

[30] Bruce pension.

[31] Tacyn, 123.

[32] Tacyn, 125.

[33] Tacyn, 125.

[34] Tacyn, 126.

[35] Reiman Steuart, The Maryland Line (The Society of the Cincinnati, 1971), 62.

[36] Tacyn, 135-140, 143-148.

[37] Tacyn, 197-199.

[38] Tacyn, 199-201.

[39] William Bruce to Gov. Thomas Johnson, 22 July 1779, Maryland State Papers, Red Books, vol. 20, no. 176 [MSA S989-30, 1/6/4/18].

[40] Tacyn, 212.

[41] Steuart, 62.

[42] Ibid. 220.

[43] ibid, 222.

[44] Ibid. 223.

[45] Bruce pension.

[46] Bruce pension.

[47] Tacyn, 232.

[48] Pension of Thomas Lansdale. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, W 13604, from; William Smallwood to George Washington, 9 October 1782. Founders Online, National Archives.

[49] Bruce pension.

[50] Elizabeth Hamilton (1765-1832). Although the couple’s date of marriage could not be found, it is presumed to have been sometime after the conclusion of the war in 1783 and prior to the completion of the first federal census in 1790 as Bruce is listed as having three children in his household during that time. U.S. Federal Census, 1790, Charles County, Maryland.

[51] Will of William Bruce, 1823, Charles County Register of Wills, Wills, Liber WDM 15, p. 153 [MSA CM412-16, WK 246-247].

[52] Charles Bruce will.

[53] “Brothers in Arms,” Finding the Maryland 400.

[54] Tacyn, 259; Pension of Mark McPherson. National Archives, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land-Warrant Application Files, W 2144, from  

[55] Tacyn, 260; Land Office, Lots Westward of Fort Cumberland, Lots 2387-2390 [MSA SE1-1].

[56] Deed, Robert Rogers to William Bruce, 1791, Charles County Court, Land Records, Liber K 4, p. 306 [MSA CE 82-39]; Deed, James Simmes to William Bruce, 1796, Liber IB 2, p. 59 [MSA CE 82-41].

[57] Federal Direct Tax, 1798, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, Charles County, General List of Land, p. 1374.

[58] Bruce pension.

[59] Bruce pension.

[60] Bruce pension.

[61] Tacyn, 253.

[62] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), 10 November 1825.

[63] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), 10 November 1825.

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