Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Blackistone
MSA SC 3520-17842

Biography:

Although he was born into a family of great wealth and power, John Blackistone's own fortune and future were greatly limited. As the youngest of three sons, he inherited relatively little after his father's death. He joined the army in 1776 to fight for American Independence, a way that many young men sought to improve their standing. Blackistone served for only one year, but took part in legendary battles, including the Battle of Brooklyn.

A native of St. Mary's County, Blackistone was the son of John and Eleanor (Dent) Blackistone, and the great-grandson of Nehemiah Blackistone. Nehemiah was a powerful political figure in early colonial Maryland, and he was granted ownership of St. Clement's Island in the Potomac River, the site of the English colonists' first landing in Maryland, which was renamed Blackistone's Island. John Blackistone the elder died in January 1756, leaving behind three young children: Nehemiah Herbert, George, and John, who was no more than a few years old. The bulk of the property went to Nehemiah, the eldest son, and John was to receive land only if his brothers died first. [1]

This left young John Blackistone in an awkward position: clearly part of the gentry, but with few prospects of his own. It was a problem faced by many young men, who were either passed over in favor of their older brothers, or had no way to establish independent households while their fathers still lived. Men in his situation often found a home in the army, and Blackistone came of age just as the Revolutionary War broke out. A commission as an officer could enable a man to earn his own money, and to build a respectable career. While there was a need for quite a of number officers in Maryland in 1776, there were more sons of the gentry than available positions. Instead, Blackistone took the next best thing, a post as a sergeant, and joined the Fifth Independent Company. [2]

The company, commanded by Captain John Allen Thomas, was raised in St. Mary's County. It 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. Blackistone 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]

Blackistone and the rest of the Marylanders fought a series of battles in New York during the fall of 1776: Harlem Heights (September), White Plains (October), and Fort Washington (November). While the Americans had some tactical successes at these engagements, by November they had been pushed out of New York entirely, though they secured key victories at Trenton and Princeton late that winter. At the end of the year, the Maryland troops were reorganized and expanded from one regiment to seven, and Blackistone was finally able to secure an officer's commission. He was made an ensign, the lowest commissioned rank, in the Second Maryland Regiment, which was largely made up of men from the disbanded independent companies. Blackistone was made an ensign on April 14, 1777--but resigned from the army on April 30. [5]

Why Blackistone held the position for such a short time is not clear. Perhaps the reason related to this anecdote from near the end of his time in the army, which was passed down through his descendants:

"after the battle of Trenton [on December 26, 1776], and after the army had gone into winter quarters at Morristown, [Blackistone] obtained permission to visit his home...To reach his home by the shortest route, he had to pass through the enemy's lines, in doing which he was espied and pursued. Seeing that he was pursued, he broke [a branch] from a pear tree [to use as] a spur switch [i.e. riding crop], by the aid of which with a fleeter horse, he escaped capture, and in due time reached his home, having retained the pear tree switch." [6]

Whatever his reason for leaving the army, Blackistone settled into life in Maryland. He served for a time as a lieutenant in the St. Mary's County militia, although his unit was probably not called into active duty. Otherwise, he continued to live a life at the edges of the gentry. His brother George had died in 1774, and left John the 133-acre tract he had received from their father. It was a modestly-sized farm, with a small, simple house, and Blackistone himself probably never lived there. Instead he rented it to a tenant, and lived in a house on his brother Nehemiah's property. [7]

He lived there until his death in late 1801 or early 1802. He was survived by his wife Mary; there is no indication that they had any children. Although the site of his interment is not known, family tradition held that Blackistone grew a pear tree at his home from the branch he had taken in 1776, and that on his death bed he asked be buried beneath it, since "it saved me from a prison-ship during my life, and I wish to lie under its sheltering shade in death." [8]

Owen Lourie, 2018

Sources:

[1] Edward C. Papenfuse, et al, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789. Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 137-138; Henry Wright Newman, Charles County Gentry (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1971), 17; Will of John Blackistone, 1756, Prerogative Court, Wills, Liber 30, p. 45 [MSA S538-44, 1/11/1/38]; Inventory of John Blackistone, 1756, Prerogative Court, Inventories, Liber 61, p. 38 [MSA S534-60, 1/12/1/4].

[2] Jean B. Lee, The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 163; John A. Ruddiman, Becoming Men of Some Consequence: Youth and Military Service in the Revolutionary War (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 30-35.

[3] List of Regular Officers for Promotion, January 1777, Maryland State Papers, Red Books, vol. 12, no. 66, MdHR 4573-66 [MSA S989-17, 1/6/4/5]; 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] Steuart, 58; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, NARA M881, from Fold3.com; List of Officers of the Maryland Line, c. December 1776, Maryland State Archives, Revolutionary Papers, box 6, no. 12, MdHR 19,970-6-12 [MSA S997-6-18, 1/7/3/11].

[6] John F. Dent, "An Incident in the War of Independence," American Monthly Magazine 2: 1 (1893), 226-227.

[7] S. Eugene Clements and F. Edward Wright, The Maryland Militia in the Revolutionary War (Silver Spring, Maryland: Family Line Publications, 1987), 53; Will of George Blackistone, 1774, Prerogative Court, Wills, Liber 39, p. 743 [MSA S538-57, 1/11/2/6]; U.S. Federal Census, 1790, St. Mary's County, Maryland; U.S. Federal Census, 1800, St. Mary's County, Maryland; Charles E. Fenwick, St. Mary's County Tax Assessment Records, 1793-1849 (St. Mary's County Historical Society, 2004), 47-48; Federal Direct Tax, 1798, Archives of Maryland Online, vol. 729, St. Mary's County, General List of Houses, p. 2865-2866; General List of Land, p. 2809; General List of Slaves, p. 2841.

[8] Will of John Blackistone, 1802, St. Mary's County Register of Wills, Wills, Liber JJ 2, p. 296 [MSA C1720-5, 1/60/10/36]; Dent, 226-227.  

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