History of Old Line
Holding the Line:
“The Origin of the “the Old Line State”
Ryan Polk, Research Archivist, Maryland State Archives
Maryland earned the nickname “Old Line State” in the American Revolution. The Maryland Line, Maryland’s regiments of regulars, achieved a reputation as the saviors of the Continental Army and the cause of independence. References to the “Old Line” are a tribute to the Maryland Line, but more specifically, to the first incarnation of the Maryland Line, the men who first mobilized in December 1775 and early 1776 and fought at Long Island on 27 August 1776, serving under William Smallwood, Francis Ware, Thomas Price, and Mordecai Gist. The battle-worn survivors of this regiment ostensibly reorganized in December 1777, continuing their enlistments “for three years or during the war.” But by the close of 1777, few remained from the original line Washington witnessed at Long Island. Bled weak by fighting in the vanguard of the war, they received reinforcements from the Maryland companies of the Flying Camp, and earned recognition for their sacrifices in the form of a nickname.
Evidence of its existence and comprehension appears in multiple contemporary sources, most notably in the writings of commanders of the Continental Army, George Washington and Nathaniel Greene. The Maryland Line’s reputation will be forever associated with their heroic sacrifices at the Battle of Long Island and the ensuing defense covering the rear of the Continental Army as it retreated. After all of the immediate witnesses and survivors had passed, the name came to mean more as subsequent generations sought a connection to a proud past. The Old Line that once earned Maryland soldiers such an untarnishable reputation in 1776, now stands fast as a symbolic name for the entire state.
According to popular tradition, Washington bestowed his high esteem upon the Maryland Line after viewing their heroic stand at the Battle of Long Island. Given the order to defend the American withdrawal from Long Island, the Maryland Line saved the Continental Army from annihilation in the first major battle of the war. “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose,” Washington remarked to Israel Putnam as he witnessed the Marylanders repeatedly charge Cortelyou House, effectively holding back the British advance. Later, Washington described their efforts as an “hour more precious to American liberty than any other.”
Trusting in their proven discipline and courage from that point through the end of the war, Washington utilized the Maryland Line in positions vital to the success of the army. Along with Nathaniel Greene’s Rhode Islanders, the Maryland Line displayed soldierly conduct that rivaled or exceeded the best in the Continental Army. The performance and conduct of the troop was a product of their time spent drilling before joining the ranks of the Continental Army – training that differentiated the Maryland Line from other state’s troops. While other states responded to Congress’s call for recruits with untrained militia, on 18 January 1776, the Maryland Provincial Convention working, under the assumption that paid soldiers furnished with rations and suits of clothes would be better soldiers, established the Maryland Line as a regiment of uniformed regulars. The Convention’s assumption proved correct as the Line exemplified a cohesive, disciplined unit, especially in comparison to the throngs of untrained militia that formed the bulk of the Continental Army.
As few troops would stand and fight in the face of England’s battle-tested professional army, the fact that the Maryland Line functioned and operated as a disciplined unit was not lost on Washington. The Maryland Line’s record of service made a lasting impression as Washington remembered the old line in his personal writings, and though Washington referred to every state’s regiments as a “line,” Washington’s use of “old line” may have had substantial influence on the adoption of the “Old Line State” nickname. Washington addressed the Maryland Line frequently as he corresponded regularly with the Maryland General Assembly, General William Smallwood, Governor Thomas Johnson, and others.
By the end of 1779, the first wave of enlistments expired, though questionable wording in enlistment papers left this open to debate. In 1776, soldiers had enlisted for “three years or during the war.” Most of the veterans re-enlisted, and more recruits joined their ranks. As Congress called for states to furnish their quota of recruits, Washington believed more Marylanders served than the state was accredited, and furnished the Continental Army with a disproportionately large number of regiments. Washington argued for a more accurate count of the men who enlisted and served in the Maryland regiments in his 16 February 1779 letter to General William Smallwood, referring to the “old Soldiers of the Maryland line,” i.e. the survivors who fought in the Battle of Long Island and the ensuing northern military campaign. Washington’s letter acknowledges that Maryland exceeded its quota of volunteers by the first reorganization in 1779. Then in a 28 May 1779 letter to Governor Thomas Johnson, Washington recommended commissions for “Gentlemen of merit” who have “long acted as officers of the line.”
Around the time of reorganization, officers of the Maryland Line complained to Nathaniel Greene that with their numbers dwindling and much of the commanding field staff positions vacant, they worried that Congress would appoint officers from outside their ranks. The Marylanders referred to themselves as an “Old Regiment” whose reputation and record would be “diminished by being obliged to serve under them [newly appointed officers].” In the eyes of its members, the Maryland Line was a well-established, “old” regiment by 1780. “Old” is at once a reference to their record of reliability and an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by the first soldiers of the line. Nathaniel Greene responded, remarking of the reorganization of the army, “…the officers of the Old Regiments shall compose the officers of the new….” Greene held the Marylanders in high regard, and further offered his compliments, “nothing would give me greater pleasure then to have it in my power to oblige a corps of officers whose service have been so important to their country, and so honorable to themselves.” In 1780, the Maryland Line (the first two Corps) reorganized as the first and second Maryland, and became the backbone of Greene’s southern army. At the end of the decisive victory at the Battle of Cowpens on 17 January 1781, the Maryland Line (the 2nd Maryland) held the center of General Daniel Morgan’s command. In a diary entry dated 22 July 1781, Washington reflected on his “old lines thrown up in 1776” in Harlem Heights – a clear reference to the line of the combined Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware regiments that checked the advance of the British at the Battle of White Plains, allowing the Continental Army to evacuate Manhattan Island.
A few months before his death, on 14 December 1799, Washington advised Alexander Hamilton regarding selection of officers for the army. “If Genl. Wilkinson should be promoted, it will be expected, no doubt, that the oldest Lieutt. Colo. Commandant should step into his Shoes as Brigadier; of course the oldest Major of the old line, would succeed to the vacancy occasioned thereby…” This letter may be the origination “Old Line” as attributed to Washington. Though born in Calvert County, General James Wilkinson initially served under General Horatio Gates, but did not serve in the Maryland Line. Wilkinson received his Maryland pension after 1815, and died in Mexico in 1825. In his memoirs, although desperate to salvage his disgraced reputation, Wilkinson did not lay claim to sharing the fame of his state’s line. In referring to the “old line” in 1799, Washington was merely being consistent in his use of “line” to refer to troops in general.
After the war, members of the Maryland Line maintained relationships formed during the Revolution. In the last days of the Revolution, the Society of the Cincinnati formed chapters in each of the thirteen original states. William Smallwood called for the first assembly of the Maryland Society of the Cincinnati on 20 November 1783; a day later, Smallwood and Mordecai Gist became the first officers of the Maryland chapter of the society, which consisted entirely of officers of the Maryland Line. One of the express purposes of the society was to foster fraternal camaraderie and honor their collective military history. Effectively meeting for reunions as long as there were survivors, the first members of the Cincinnati likely cultivated and propagated the story of the old line. As the revolutionary generation dwindled, perhaps the first “greatest generation” in American history, the last survivors were venerated as patriotic icons of a glorious past, and the cause and ideals for which they fought were canonized as hallowed tenets of the American democratic state. There was a legitimate fear that with their passing so would pass the democracy they established, as if they alone held the nation together. So revered was the unifying force of the passing revolutionary generation that uncertainty prevailed as to whether, in the fragmented partisan age that followed, the nation could continue to exist. During their lifetimes, to members of the Maryland Line the name “old line” referred specifically to their regiments, but in the years after the death of the revolutionary generation, the pride formerly invested in members of the Maryland Line grew into a source of statewide identification – the old line became immortalized as the Old Line State. The revolutionary generation, and the “Old Line” for Marylanders in particular, provided a common heritage, a symbol of continuity and identification for an increasingly heterogeneous population.