Monday, May 30, 2016

People: Samuel Smith


Lord Stirling

While writing The Patriot Spy, I had researched and was continuing to research, various people, places and things involved in the campaigns around New York in 1776. One of the key events in the campaign, and in the book, was the gallant attack of the "Maryland 400." The number of Marylanders was around 250 or so and the remnants of Haslet's Delaware Regiment who joined in the attack made up the difference.This was a forlorn hope attack led by New Jersey General "Lord" Stirling against a large body of redcoats under the command of General Lord Cornwallis. While Stirling claimed the title of lord (or in his case, laird as he claimed a Scottish peerage), Cornwallis was the real thing. And Cornwallis had the good ground and some 2,000 of the best troops in the army and two guns to face the small American force, now hopelessly cut off. Stirling led attacks that evinced some of the bravest minutes of the entire eight year war. Heated musketry was exchanged and the Americans from Maryland and Delaware made several attempts to reach the British line but in the end the force was eviscerated. All were  killed, wounded or captured. Except  the Maryland commander, Major Mordecai Gist and a handful that included the resolute Captain Samuel Smith.

Major Mordecai Gist

In The Patriot Spy, a young officer named Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed, the mysterious Irish immigrant,  executes a successful withdrawal and escapes across the Gowanus Creek. That act of gallantry is witnessed from the American defense works by General George Washington, who determines then and there to use the talented Creed in a war of intelligence against the British. The rest you will have to read in the novel. In my research, I of course had read of the event and the escape of a handful, including Gist. But with literary license I inserted the fictional Creed, commander of the Maryland Light infantry company. What I did not at the time know, was that a very real commander of the light infantry had indeed escaped with a handful of his men.

Haslet's Delware Line on Long Island

Fact meets Fiction

High point of the Battle of Long Island
So who was this real life person that I had inadvertently channeled in my novel? His name was Captain Samuel Smith, and oddly, although born in Pennsylvania, also of Irish heritage (his family hailed from County Tyrone). Smith's family moved to Baltimore when he was young and Smith eventually worked in his father's successful mercantile business. Young Smith sailed to Europe where he traveled extensively. The fictional Creed also traveled parts of Europe and other locales before settling in Maryland. Smith returned to America after the battles at Lexington and Concord in 1775. By early 1776, he received an appointment as commander of the 6th company in the First Maryland, Colonel Smallwood's Regiment. As noted in The Patriot Spy, Smallwood missed the action on Long Island while serving (with Colonel John Haslet) on court martial duty on Manhattan. Ironically, it was an espionage trial!

Mordecai Gist urging the Maryland 400 to glory on Long Island

As an 18th century company commander, Smith would be at the head of his troops in the attack, and at the rear in withdrawal. He likely braved fire on numerous occasions for, make no mistake of it, this was a battle of hell-like dimensions: massed volleys, withering skirmish fire, smoke everywhere, the crack of muskets and boom of cannon, overpowering the screams and cries of dead and dying. The evacuation by Smith and his men was no mean achievement. To do it, they had to brave enemy musket and cannon fire, avoid hot pursuit by bayonet armed regulars, and negotiate  rough terrain and finally work their way across swamp land and the Gowanus Creek itself. In the actual battle, Washington watched the action from a redoubt on nearby Cobble Hill (intersection of today's Court Street and Atlantic Avenue). Distraught at the destruction of finest troops he is reported to have said, "Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!"

Captain Samuel Smith leads his men on Long Island

I should note that the action there was the largest and bloodiest of the war - and the first pitched battle fought by the United States as a nation, coming just weeks after the Declaration of Independence.
Smith's military career continued with tempo following the action on Long Island. He fought conspicuously at White Plains and Brandywine. In 1777 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given the task of defending Fort Mifflin, on an island in the Delaware River.  Mifflin was one of two key forts protecting Philadelphia from the Admiral Lord Richard Howe's British fleet. Mifflin consisted mostly of mud walls and had a garrison of only 400 men. Yet Smith repulsed a determined attack by a squadron of British ships in October. A ship of the line and sloop o' war both ran aground under the pummeling fire from Mifflin's defenders. But the British returned in force in November. This time with frigates, floating batteries and land based batteries. They in turn now pummeled Mifflin from all sides with a horrific bombardment and often at point blank range. The defenders bravely fought on but suffered for it. They returned fire until all their guns were silenced by the heavier British shot. Toward the end, Smith was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated. Soon after, the rest of the defenders also evacuated the fort. But not before they had acquitted themselves well against great odds. Smith received a commendation from Congress for his action and the award of a commemorative sword. Smith recuperated and went on to fight at the battle of Monmouth in 1778. After the battle, he resigned his commission and returned to Baltimore where he became a privateer, sending ships out to harass and capture the British merchant fleet.

Sketch of British naval assault of Fort Mifflin 1777

A Man of Peace... and then again of War...

Following the war, Smith resumed his mercantile activities and became one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. In 1791, he was appointed commander of the state militia to assist in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. His popularity led in 1792 to a seat in the House of Representatives where he served four terms. Smith supported Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800 and served as Acting Secretary of the Navy until 1803. After that he became a US Senator. When tensions were building toward Britain, Smith was against going to war. Yet again he donned his uniform in 1814 when  combined fleet attacked Baltimore. As a major general and head of the militia once more, Smith arranged the defenses of the city from a combined sea and land attack. The results are legendary: repulse at sea at Fort McHenry (The Star Spangled Banner made this battle famous) and the lesser known repulse at North Point of the British landing force under another Irish man, British General Robert Ross. The British land forces at North Point were routed - a rare feat of arms that was overshadowed by the more famous route at New Orleans. In some ways, Samuel Smith saved the nation. Had the British taken America's most strategic port and divided the states geographically, the outcome might have proven grim.

Major General Smith may have
saved America at Baltimore in 1814

Final Years

Smith went back to the senate for several terms and eventually became mayor of Baltimore in 1836. Along the way, he helped found the Bank of Maryland, and was one of the projectors of the Washington monument and the Battle monument in Baltimore.

Samuel Smith as Senator

The brave captain of the Maryland 400 died in his city on April 22nd 1839. His funeral was a tribute to one of Maryland and Baltimore's finest as well as one of America's finest first patriots.

One of his biographers reminds us that these last rites were:

"...a tribute’ to the political achievements of the man who represented his State in the national legislature through the administration of seven presidents. As the procession reached Baltimore Street and turned east along the waterfront, the ships in the Patapsco lowered their colors to half-mast for the merchant whose ships had known the ports of the world from Europe to China. And as the throng of citizens watched the hearse with its military escort ascend Hampstead Hill, the guns of Fort McHenry boomed a final salute..."

Samuel Smith's life was noteworthy and well-lived by any measure. The once Captain of the Maryland 400 became one of the most popular and accomplished men of his time, although sadly, he enjoys little fame today. First Patriot Samuel Smith is buried at the Old Western Burying Ground, the intersection of Fayette and Greene Streets, Baltimore, Maryland.

Samuel Smith Burial Site

1 comment:

  1. That was a phenomenal write up of an individual who led an amazing life of adventure, profit, and statesmanship. It is amazing how one person, little referenced, accomplished so much and could have had a fulcrum role in the founding of our fledgling nation. Thank you!