An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: William Smallwood’s Role in the American Revolution

Aug 10, 2020 by

William Smallwood
William Smallwood

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. William Smallwood was a lesser known figure in the American Revolution, yet gave much of himself. Where was he born, and what do we know about his early years?

We know the birth year for William Smallwood: 1732. But apparently his parents never recorded the specific date of his birth, so like his fellow general Francis Marion, we can only approximate his age. Genealogists believe that Smallwood’s earliest American ancestor had moved from Middlewich, England to the colony of Maryland in the 1660s, and settled in Charles County. The Maryland State Archives website states that a location in that county known as “Smallwood’s Retreat” was probably his place of birth. It therefore seems unlikely that historians will ever know the exact details of his birth date or place.

  1. I understand that his parents actually sent him to Eton in England for his education. What did he study there, and how did it impact him?

Once settled in Charles County, William Smallwood’s first American ancestor became a tobacco planter. His business thrived, allowing him to leave a substantial inheritance for Bayne, his eldest son. In addition, Bayne’s wife brought an ample dowry with her when the two married. Using this wealth, Smallwood’s parents proved able to send William to a preparatory school in England, and then enroll him at Eton (then, as now, one of the most famous schools in the world).

This institution of higher learning has had a wealth of famous students pass through its doors since the 1440s, including many who became world leaders. One of them, the Duke of Wellington, paid the school the ultimate compliment when he said that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” But in the case of William Smallwood, historians know very little about his years at Eton, outside of the fact that he matriculated there.

  1. At the Battle of White Plains, apparently he was wounded twice. What was his contributions there?

Much as we have gaps in our knowledge about William Smallwood’s early life, historians have also proved unable to learn with any sense of certainty much about his first foray into the military realm. His biography on the Maryland State Archives website, for example, states that he served as an officer during the French and Indian War, but gives no specific details. Since most volunteers in that colony helped to secure the western part of Maryland around Fort Frederick during that conflict, it can be suggested that Smallwood most likely participated in that endeavor. Smallwood’s first provable association with the military came on January 14, 1776, when Maryland gave him command of its first regiment of volunteers for service in the Continental Army.

By the time his force marched northward to join George Washington, the British had evacuated Boston. Correctly anticipating the next British move, Washington concentrated his force of over 20,000 men in the area in and around New York City. Undaunted by this show of strength, in August of 1776, the British attacked the American defensive line at the Battle of Long Island, and inflicted a potentially crushing defeat on the Patriots.

Recognizing that he needed to buy time for his retreating force to reform, Washington ordered Smallwood’s regiment to seal the breach. Although it suffered heavy losses, the Marylanders did succeed in slowing the British advance long enough for Washington to safely evacuate the remnants of his army.

Unfortunately, the British pursued him to Manhattan, and forced him to retreat northward. In October of 1776, the British caught up with Washington’s retreating force, and attacked him at White Plains. In the ensuing battle, the right and center wings of the American Army held firm, but the left wing collapsed when assaulted by a force of Hessians. This exposed the American center wing, which included Smallwood’s regiment, to enemy fire from two directions. Rather than panic, however, these American soldiers kept their structural integrity as they retreated.

They abandoned the battlefield, but would live to fight another day. Throughout the battle, Smallwood displayed exemplary skill and courage. Even two wounds that the British inflicted on him did not prevent him from exercising effective control of his regiment!

Congress then rewarded his valor by giving him an appointment as a brigadier general in the American Army.

4). He apparently served under Washington at Germantown, and served honorably there. What occurred and transpired?

In the fall of 1777, the British decided that capturing Philadelphia might finally allow them to subdue the Americans. Accordingly, a British army under the command of General William Howe advanced on the nation’s capital in September. Examining the terrain between the advancing British and the city, Washington determined that the banks of Brandywine Creek offered him an excellent defensive position. Placing his men with great care, he awaited a British attack. Much as he had done at Long Island, however, General Howe maneuvered a force around Washington’s defensive position, threatening to rout the Americans.

Along with the other units comprising the American right wing, Smallwood’s regiment attempted to shift to meet the British flanking movement, but soon found itself compelled to retreat. Only the arrival of a division commanded by General Nathaniel Greene prevented the total annihilation of the American Army. After evacuating Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Battle of Brandywine, in October of 1777 George Washington attempted to make good his loss by attacking the British at Germantown. In this battle, a brigade commanded by Smallwood had the greatest success of any American unit, as it inflicted heavy losses on the British right wing. Because the other American units did not reach their objectives, however, Smallwood had to order his men to retreat.

  1. Interestingly enough, he served not just the American Revolution, but his home state of Maryland. What did he contribute there?

After his participation in the unsuccessful campaign to defend Philadelphia, Smallwood next saw action in the South. Ordered to accompany General Horatio Gates in his effort to regain control South Carolina after the fall of Charleston, Smallwood and his men participated in the American debacle at the Battle of Camden. Although clearly a disaster for the Americans, Camden could have been much worse had it not been for a determined stand that Smallwood’s men made as everything collapsed around them.

Because his actions had allowed at least a portion of the American force to avoid death or capture, Congress promoted Smallwood to major general. After Camden, he commanded a militia force for a short period of time, but soon went home to Maryland, where the end of the war found him in 1783. His fellow citizens elected him to Congress in 1785, but they also chose him as their governor. Smallwood declined the Congressional post, but accepted the position as governor. He served three terms of one year each, and then held a seat in the State Senate. Smallwood died in 1792, and years later the State of Maryland made his final resting place a state park.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about his endeavors and successes?

William Smallwood fought in some very sanguinary battles during the American Revolution, with units under his command often finding themselves in literally the thick of the fighting. He obviously fought well, as he received two promotions based on his battlefield efforts. Some readers might point out that every battle he played a major role in resulted in an American defeat, and might therefore feel that Smallwood does not deserve inclusion in any list of great American generals. These skeptics do not understand a salient feature of the American Revolution, however.

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. William Smallwood was a lesser known figure in the American Revolution, yet gave much of himself. Where was he born, and what do we know about his early years?

We know the birth year for William Smallwood: 1732. But apparently his parents never recorded the specific date of his birth, so like his fellow general Francis Marion, we can only approximate his age. Genealogists believe that Smallwood’s earliest American ancestor had moved from Middlewich, England to the colony of Maryland in the 1660s, and settled in Charles County. The Maryland State Archives website states that a location in that county known as “Smallwood’s Retreat” was probably his place of birth. It therefore seems unlikely that historians will ever know the exact details of his birth date or place.

  1. I understand that his parents actually sent him to Eton in England for his education. What did he study there, and how did it impact him?

Once settled in Charles County, William Smallwood’s first American ancestor became a tobacco planter. His business thrived, allowing him to leave a substantial inheritance for Bayne, his eldest son. In addition, Bayne’s wife brought an ample dowry with her when the two married. Using this wealth, Smallwood’s parents proved able to send William to a preparatory school in England, and then enroll him at Eton (then, as now, one of the most famous schools in the world).

This institution of higher learning has had a wealth of famous students pass through its doors since the 1440s, including many who became world leaders. One of them, the Duke of Wellington, paid the school the ultimate compliment when he said that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” But in the case of William Smallwood, historians know very little about his years at Eton, outside of the fact that he matriculated there.

  1. At the Battle of White Plains, apparently he was wounded twice. What was his contributions there?

Much as we have gaps in our knowledge about William Smallwood’s early life, historians have also proved unable to learn with any sense of certainty much about his first foray into the military realm. His biography on the Maryland State Archives website, for example, states that he served as an officer during the French and Indian War, but gives no specific details. Since most volunteers in that colony helped to secure the western part of Maryland around Fort Frederick during that conflict, it can be suggested that Smallwood most likely participated in that endeavor. Smallwood’s first provable association with the military came on January 14, 1776, when Maryland gave him command of its first regiment of volunteers for service in the Continental Army.

By the time his force marched northward to join George Washington, the British had evacuated Boston. Correctly anticipating the next British move, Washington concentrated his force of over 20,000 men in the area in and around New York City. Undaunted by this show of strength, in August of 1776, the British attacked the American defensive line at the Battle of Long Island, and inflicted a potentially crushing defeat on the Patriots.

Recognizing that he needed to buy time for his retreating force to reform, Washington ordered Smallwood’s regiment to seal the breach. Although it suffered heavy losses, the Marylanders did succeed in slowing the British advance long enough for Washington to safely evacuate the remnants of his army.

Unfortunately, the British pursued him to Manhattan, and forced him to retreat northward. In October of 1776, the British caught up with Washington’s retreating force, and attacked him at White Plains. In the ensuing battle, the right and center wings of the American Army held firm, but the left wing collapsed when assaulted by a force of Hessians. This exposed the American center wing, which included Smallwood’s regiment, to enemy fire from two directions. Rather than panic, however, these American soldiers kept their structural integrity as they retreated.

They abandoned the battlefield, but would live to fight another day. Throughout the battle, Smallwood displayed exemplary skill and courage. Even two wounds that the British inflicted on him did not prevent him from exercising effective control of his regiment!

Congress then rewarded his valor by giving him an appointment as a brigadier general in the American Army.

4). He apparently served under Washington at Germantown, and served honorably there. What occurred and transpired?

In the fall of 1777, the British decided that capturing Philadelphia might finally allow them to subdue the Americans. Accordingly, a British army under the command of General William Howe advanced on the nation’s capital in September. Examining the terrain between the advancing British and the city, Washington determined that the banks of Brandywine Creek offered him an excellent defensive position. Placing his men with great care, he awaited a British attack. Much as he had done at Long Island, however, General Howe maneuvered a force around Washington’s defensive position, threatening to rout the Americans.

Along with the other units comprising the American right wing, Smallwood’s regiment attempted to shift to meet the British flanking movement, but soon found itself compelled to retreat. Only the arrival of a division commanded by General Nathaniel Greene prevented the total annihilation of the American Army. After evacuating Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Battle of Brandywine, in October of 1777 George Washington attempted to make good his loss by attacking the British at Germantown. In this battle, a brigade commanded by Smallwood had the greatest success of any American unit, as it inflicted heavy losses on the British right wing. Because the other American units did not reach their objectives, however, Smallwood had to order his men to retreat.

  1. Interestingly enough, he served not just the American Revolution, but his home state of Maryland. What did he contribute there?

After his participation in the unsuccessful campaign to defend Philadelphia, Smallwood next saw action in the South. Ordered to accompany General Horatio Gates in his effort to regain control South Carolina after the fall of Charleston, Smallwood and his men participated in the American debacle at the Battle of Camden. Although clearly a disaster for the Americans, Camden could have been much worse had it not been for a determined stand that Smallwood’s men made as everything collapsed around them.

Because his actions had allowed at least a portion of the American force to avoid death or capture, Congress promoted Smallwood to major general. After Camden, he commanded a militia force for a short period of time, but soon went home to Maryland, where the end of the war found him in 1783. His fellow citizens elected him to Congress in 1785, but they also chose him as their governor. Smallwood declined the Congressional post, but accepted the position as governor. He served three terms of one year each, and then held a seat in the State Senate. Smallwood died in 1792, and years later the State of Maryland made his final resting place a state park.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about his endeavors and successes?

William Smallwood fought in some very sanguinary battles during the American Revolution, with units under his command often finding themselves in literally the thick of the fighting. He obviously fought well, as he received two promotions based on his battlefield efforts. Some readers might point out that every battle he played a major role in resulted in an American defeat, and might therefore feel that Smallwood does not deserve inclusion in any list of great American generals. These skeptics do not understand a salient feature of the American Revolution, however.

To succeed, the Americans did not need to triumph on the field of battle: they merely needed to survive. Nathaniel Greene eloquently phrased this principle by saying “we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” By staving off complete disaster at White Plains and Camden, William Smallwood played just as important a role in the American Revolution as those generals who won battles.

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