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Mordecai Gist papers

Identifier: MS 0390


This collection contains the correspondence of Brigadier General Mordecai Gist during the American Revolution. Topics include military affairs and the Maryland Line, accounts and returns (1779-83), and Gist family records.


  • 1772-1813


Conditions Governing Access

Public use of this collection is restricted to microfilm: Manuscripts Department microfilm MS 390, 3 reels.

Conditions Governing Use

The reproduction of materials in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. It is the responsibility of the researcher to determine and satisfy copyright clearances or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections. For more information visit the MCHC’s Rights and Permissions page.

Biographical / Historical

In 1776 Mordecai Gist was commissioned a Major only three days after requesting it. A young merchant from Baltimore, Gist was born in Maryland on February 22, 1742. There is very little information available on Gist prior to the Revolution. The best evidence for his vocation in this period is the Charles Willson Peale portrait executed about 1774; for a description of it see Charles Coleman Sellers, Portraits and Miniatures of Charles Willson Peale (Philadelphia, 1952), 87.

Gist was a member of a Maryland family with a strong military tradition, formed one of the first militia units in Maryland to support the American causes as delineated by the Continental Congress, and studied military tactics. He was a fervent patriot. He had been a leader of the Baltimore delegation involved in the burning of the Peggy Stewart for violation of non-importation and later served on the committee formed for the implementation of non-importation in Baltimore and on the Committee of Observation for Baltimore County. When he decided that he could best serve as a soldier, Mordecai Gist was eagerly accepted by a Maryland government lacking experienced and able military leaders.

During the year he served as commander of the Baltimore Independents, Gist paraded troops and suppressed small riots. For the first six months as a Major in William Smallwood's battalion, his only function was to examine military accoutrement. Had it not been for the scare in Baltimore when the British sloop Otter approached and his involvement in the Eden-Germain affair, Gist, eager to be that useful citizen, might have resigned. His restlessness was eased when in July 1776 Congress ordered Maryland troops to New York to reinforce Washington's army.

At New York Gist experienced his first combat. The Marylanders, part of Lord Stirling's brigade and utilized as an advance post, skirmished with the British landing troops on Long Island. One week later, on August 27, a major engagement occurred there. Gist, assuming command in Smallwood's absence, helplessly watched the American army crumble as the enemy swept in behind on a poorly guarded road. Remarkably, Gist and his troops retained their position for several hours allowing the bulk of the army to escape. Although some three-fifths of his command were killed or wounded, Gist received praise for his conduct. One man observed I think that melancholy day on Long Island convinced us of the want of Field officers, having none but Major Gist to command us, who behaved as well as Man could do.

James Hindman to Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, October 12, 1776, William H. Browne, et al., eds., Archives of Maryland (Baltimore, 1883), 12: 344-346.

Major Gist again commanded the Maryland detachment from October, when Smallwood was wounded at White Plains, until the end of 1776. These final months of his first campaign were dismal. His greatest problem was not the enemy but in fielding a force at all. From an original 750 troops Gist had less than 300 by November and by December less than 200. Finally, after the Trenton victory, Gist, now a Colonel, was allowed to return to Maryland to assist in rebuilding his command. Travelling home in the winter cold Gist had little to be optimistic about.

Until April both Smallwood and Gist were unable to recruit. Aided by the British the Loyalists on Maryland's Eastern Shore revolted and in early February Gist was dispatched there to imprison the leaders and break the insurrection. Neither officer was elated by this duty and when the Maryland government considered the possibility of maintaining regular troops there they dissented. Both considered recruiting and procuring supplies as more essential. Hindered by this duty, the dissatisfaction of some veteran officers over promotions, a general shortage of clothing and other military accoutrement, a smallpox epidemic, and poor morale, Gist still succeeded by July in sending 200 new troops to the main army.

When at the end of July 1777 a large British fleet with Philadelphia as its destination was sighted in the Chesapeake Bay, Gist and Smallwood were ordered to command the militiamen called out by Congress. Colonel Gist returned to the Eastern Shore to organize the troops and then lead them to the Head of Elk within a convenient distance to harass and annoy the Enemy's right Flank.

George Washington to Mordecai Gist, August 31, 1777, Gist Papers, MS.390, Maryland Historical Society.

Plagued by a lack of equipment and officers, Gist was unable to move until September 10. By then the British had decidedly defeated the Americans at Brandywine, and he was reordered to attack the enemy's rear to allow Washington to regroup. For a week Gist and Smallwood acted separately, neither too effectively. Fearing that the Marylanders might be cut off, Washington directed them to join him as soon as possible. Gist and Smallwood formed together and hurried to fall in with General Anthony Wayne's division. Just prior to reaching Wayne the British routed Wayne's troops which also panicked the Maryland militiamen. Gist, managing to re-form his troops, covered the rear of the retreating Americans. In this exposed position Gist was ambushed and narrowly escaped injury: my Horse received two Balls through his Neck but fortunately only fell on his Knees and Hams otherwise I must have received the Bayonet or fallen into their Hands.

Mordecai Gist to John Smith, September 23, 1777, Emmet Collection No. 6610, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

Several days later the Marylanders caught up with Washington.With the main army Gist participated in the battle at Germantown on October 4, 1777. Here, according to Gist, his troops behaved with a degree of Courage becoming the oldest Veterans. The defeat Gist attributed to the Weakness of the Human Heart, the ability of the British commander, and a heavy fog as if designed by Providence to favor the British Army.

Mordecai Gist to John McClure, October 10, 1777, M. Gist Letterbook, Myers Collection, NYPL.

Despite this Gist remained in a good humor. He cheerfully wrote to a friend that he possessed a tollerable State of Health-have plenty of Ghizim, my Spirits neither depressed nor elevated, my time glides smoothly on and each revolving Sun Shines out to make me happier in the defense of Virtue and my Country.

Mordecai Gist to Ezekiel Forman, October 30, 1777, Letterbook, NYPL.

During the final months of 1777 Gist's revolving Sun disappeared behind clouds. At White Marsh his time was occupied with discharges, promotions, supplies, and deserters. Angered by the promotion of an officer who had never been Subjected... to the Hazzard of his life in the Field [preventing] his displaying such Military talents as can Justify upon a proper Principle such Recommendation or Appointment,

Mordecai Gist to John McClure, November 19, 1777, Letterbook, NYPL.

Gist considered retirement. His attitude did not improve when the campsite was changed to Valley Forge. He could not understand why a location had been selected which allowed the enemy to forage and harass at will and subjected the troops to damp huts and diseases. Gist thought the army should be removed to Germantown where the soldiers would bear the loss of Constitution through the Winter Campaign with some degree of Cheerfulness.

Mordecai Gist to John McClure, December 16, 1777, Letterbook, NYPL.

Colonel Mordecai Gist did not share in the suffering he prophesied. A widower for nearly a decade, Gist married Mary Sterett of Baltimore in late January 1778. To remarry in the midst of a war was a difficult decision. Only several months before he had advised a fellow officer to consider marriage carefully: The Enchanting pleasures of Venus can never stand in competition with God like Mars when the Soldier has Virtue enough to remember his Country.

Mordecai Gist to John Steward, June 13, 1777, Maryland Box, Maryland Troops Folder, NYPL.

For his own situation Gist was correct. Returning to camp after a brief stint of recruiting, Gist's separation from his young bride produced a gloomy Indisposition of mind.

Mordecai Gist to Mrs. Mary Gist, August 9, 1778, Revolutionary War Collection, MS.1814, MHS.

To make matters worse in September he learned that his pregnant wife was seriously ill. Unable to return immediately he complained about the sacrifices of his profession. Finally arriving at Baltimore in October he remained with his wife until May. The birth of a son and a promotion to Brigadier General in January 1779 lessened the weight of his sacrifices.

For the remainder of the year Mordecai Gist was in good spirits. He wrote to a friend that the British do not dare to come forth to Battle with us in the field and even predicted a general peace.

Mordecai Gist to William Hammond, September 29, 1779; Mordecai Gist to?, September 29, 1779, Letterbook, NYPL.

Satisfied that peace would develop soon Gist had his business associates endeavoring to locate for him a good farm. In April 1780, however, General Washington ordered the Delaware regiment and the Maryland Line to South Carolina to reinforce the army there. For Gist the next two years would be the hardest and most eventful in his military career.

In the South Gist participated in the engagement at Camden on August 16, 1780. When the militia retreated, Gist and Smallwood with a small force withstood for a short time the entire British army. Both were thanked by Congress for their bravery and good conduct.

Worthington C. Ford, et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C.: 1903-1937), 18:924.

Gist told Congress that the Sentiments contain'd in this Resolve are truly Flattering to a Soldier who is conscious of doing nothing more than his Duty. The pleasure I must ever feel in the discharge of that, can only be Augmented by the Approbation of those who have Honor'd me with their Confidence.

Mordecai Gist to the President of Congress, October 24, 1780, Gist Family Papers, Library of Congress.

This was the highpoint of his career. Camden was General Gist's last combat action for over a year. In late September Horatio Gates sent Gist back to Baltimore to recruit. When Nathanael Greene succeeded to the head of Southern department in October, he placed the supervision of procuring men and supplies in Maryland and Delaware in Gist's hands. The fall of Charleston in May 1780 and the defeat at Camden had nearly ended organized resistance in the South. Men such as Gist were indispensable if the South was to be recovered.

Gist arrived at Baltimore aware of the importance of his efforts. In a long letter to a Virginia legislator Gist wrote that the present period is critical and may involve the Southern States in the most imminent danger, their situation requires the most spirited exertions to counteract the designs of a barbarous, cruel Army. Because of this he was critical of Virginia continuing to enlist men for eighteen months; this caused an unnecessary Tax on the people and was ruinous to the Continental Army for as soon as these soildiers learned the common duties of a Military life, their time expires. The result of such practices was a relaxation of Discipline, which must even be followed by misfortune and Disgrace in Action. Can it be supposed, he continued, that by raising Recruits and giving them the name of regular Troops, they shall at once become metamorphosed into Veterans, and inspired with a confidence to oppose an equal number of experienced Troops at the point of the Bayonet?. Gist was certain that such recruiting also produced poor morale. Supplied with inferior soldiers, the army could not exact success and for a soldier success alone is merit.

Mordecai Gist to Robert Munford, October 24, 1780, MS.390, MHS.

Faced with gathering 2000 troops, Gist designed a new system of recruitment. The population of Maryland was to be divided into equal (according to property) classes. A class would furnish one representative. If this man was killed or deserted, his class would supply another. General Gist predicted a number of advantages in this plan. First, there would be a constant number of troops in the field. Second, it would engage every Citizen to be equally interested in the Success of our Arms or event of an Action. Third, it would discourage inferior recruits in whose Services or Integrity no confidence can be placed. Forth, it would prevent the harbouring and concealing [of] Deserters. And, finally, it would give respectability to our line, and... general satisfaction to the good people of Maryland.

Mordecai Gist to the President of the Committee Appointed to Take into Consideration the Requisition of Major General Greene, October 1780, MS.390, MHS.

Gist presented this plan to the Maryland legislature in October but not until February 1781 was it adopted. Although he had great faith in the class system, others did not share his optimism. Washington did not believe it would work. A Maryland officer, Colonel Peter Adams, thought the legislature did not want to raise troops but rather to throw the Burthen of the war on the shoulders of any Other state.

Peter Adams to Mordecai Gist, January 12, 1781, MS.390, MHS.

In retrospect Adams' pessimistic estimation appears the better assessment. Although the plan appeared fine on paper the recruiting service did not substantially improve. In May, only two months after the bill's passage, General Greene complained of Maryland's lack of concern to provide troops even when their own state was endangered. Gist could not even establish locations for the recruits to rendezvous.

Recruiting was not the only responsibility that harassed Mordecai Gist. Controversies over rank, resignations, requests of all kinds, supervision of troop transports to the South, even a controversy with the legislature over jurisdiction of an artillery company added to Gist's problems. Of all these problems the most serious was a lack of money which personally affected Gist. He wrote to Governor Thomas Sim Lee that he had been using his own money for military operations and now found himself largely indebted for the Support of my Table.

Mordecai Gist to Thomas Sim Lee, August 7, 1781, State Papers, Brown Books, III, 72-73, Maryland Hall of Records.

Not surprisingly these duties wearied Gist. In March he wrote of a long and tedious Indisposition.

Mordecai Gist to Nathanael Greene, March 28, 1781, MS.390, MHS.

Even by May his condition had not substantially improved. Shortly before the British surrender, Gist appeared at Yorktown with a considerable force. For Gist the surrender was the highlight of his military career. I feel my happiness augmented, he wrote, by having had the honor to become one of the Generals commanding in the Trenches for the three last days of the Seige and particularly so when I reflect that the Surrender of Cornwallis and his Army must establish our Independence and pave the way to an honorable peace. While there Gist visited General Cornwallis and recorded his impressions: His defense of the post was not so obstinate as might be expected from an experienced and determined Officer.

Mordecai Gist to John Sterett, October 12, 1781, MS.390, MHS.

Although he thought peace was near, Gist along with troops from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia headed southward to join Greene in the Carolinas. Endeavoring to strengthen his command, he faced the old problems of lack of supplies and men. He was certain, however, that his foremost difficulty was a countryside so much ravaged that it was impracticable to forage.

Mordecai Gist to John Sterett, April 12, 1782, MS.390, MHS.

With the summer came increased illnesses. Despite the poor condition of his light infantry, Gist was assigned the duty of protecting the right flank of the Southern army and to strike at them [the British] wherever you may find them.

William Pierce, Jr. to Mordecai Gist, August 23, 1782, MS.390, MHS.

However, brief skirmishes and the capture of an enemy galley loaded chiefly with foodstuffs were the extent of his activity.

By the early fall of 1782 the disagreeable weather had finally affected Gist himself. Ordered to remain at Kiawah Island to recover, he had not even a surgeon to attend him. By mid-November he hoped to return to duty, but, in fact, was also beginning to look forward to his retirement. When the British finally evacuated Charleston in December 1782 he was still too unwell to continue his command. Because of his condition he was given the relatively easy command at James Island outside of Charleston. At the end of July he left South Carolina and in November 1783 officially retired from the military.

Although he briefly sought a political office in Maryland and was a charter member of the Maryland chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, Gist, by 1784 was a resident in Charleston where he remained until his death. In early 1784, a widower for several years, he married Mrs. Mary Cattell of that city. His final years, obscured by the paucity of records, were largely consumed by his duties as a Mason and his business affairs. On August 2, 1792 Mordecai Gist died leaving behind a considerable estate and a grateful country.

A copy of his will and inventory are in the Gist Family Papers, MS.2003, MHS.


2.29 Linear Feet (5 full Hollinger boxes; 1 half Hollinger box)

Language of Materials



This collection is arranged chronologically.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Mordecai Gist Papers were donated to the Maryland Historical Society in three installments by Dr. J. Paul Cockey. In early 1850 he presented several orderly books and some miscellaneous documents; in July 1855 and January 1856 he gave the remainder of the collection. How Dr. Cockey acquired these papers is not known for certain. Gist's mother was Susannah Cockey and possibly the documents came into Dr. Cockey's hands through this connection. The Cockeys were extremely proud of the General, and a number of their sons were named after him.

Related Materials

This collection is the largest pertaining to Mordecai Gist held by any historical agency. The Society also has numerous other materials on the family (nine separate collections), although MS.390 is the only one with Mordecai Gist papers. Both the Maryland Hall of Records and the Library of Congress have small Gist family collections which contain some Mordecai Gist correspondence. There are a considerable number of Gist letters in the Library of Congress' Washington Papers, but the majority of these have been published in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, 39 vols. (Washington, D. C., 1931-1944). The New York Public Library owns a Gist letterbook covering the years 1777 to 1779, and other than the Society's this letterbook (with nearly 100 letters) is the most important Gist manuscript collection. There is a transcript of this letterbook in the Peter Force Papers at the Library of Congress.

In addition to the Mordecai Gist Papers, the Maryland Historical Society owns a number of other collections containing records on the military aspects of the American Revolution. Most abundant are muster rolls, payrolls, returns, accounts, and officers' lists. The most significant collections relating to the Maryland Line are the Otho Holland Williams Papers (MS.908) and Otho Holland Williams Accounts (MS.908.1, 908.2), the extensive papers of a fellow officer of Gist's, and the Revolutionary War Collection, MS.1814, which has a wealth of material on the regular army and militia units of Maryland. There are many papers of important figures of Maryland during the Revolution; for these refer to Avril J. M. Pedley, comp., The Manuscript Collections of the Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore, 1968) and the recent accessions lists published regularly in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

The Maryland Hall of Records also houses a considerable amount of papers relating to Maryland's military role in the Revolution. The most important are in the Maryland State Papers, Red Book and Brown Book series, and Executive Papers. Many of these have been published in William H. Browne, et al., eds., Archives of Maryland, 72 volumes (Baltimore, 1883-1972). The Hall of Records has also published several excellent calendars to their collections.

Processing Information

When the Maryland Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution approached the Society with funding for a preservation project, this microfilm edition was suggested and accepted. The only stipulation was that the money be used for Revolutionary War papers. The Mordecai Gist Papers (MS.390) were the logical choice. This collection, although relatively small, is nevertheless one of the most important and hence most used groups of Revolutionary War papers held by the Society. This importance, its fragile condition, and its inadequately organized state encouraged its selection for microfilming.

Many people have aided in this work. Dr. Curtis Carroll Davis of the Maryland Chapter of the Sons of the Revolution and Chairman of the Library Committee of the Society was enthusiastic in supporting this project. Mr. P. William Filby, Director of the Maryland Historical Society, deserves a special thanks for allowing me to devote so much time to it apart from my regular duties. Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse and Miss Phebe Jacobsen of the Maryland Hall of Records were extremely helpful in my research in their institution. Many manuscript curators and librarians across the country aided my search for additional Gist documents. Miss Alice Chin, Assistant Curator of Manuscripts, and Miss Phyllis Thompson, Microfilm Assistant, were essential in the completion of the edition. And finally, Mrs. Vera Ruth Filby critically read this pamphlet.

Scope and Contents

The Mordecai Gist Papers consist of over 700 documents, mostly letters, both to and from Gist. There are also proceedings of courts martial, weekly and monthly regimental returns, muster rolls, accounts, officers' lists, guard reports, and orderly and account books. The papers range in date from 1774 to within several months of his death in 1792.

The greatest value of this collection lies in its information on the military operations of the Revolutionary War. Over three-quarters of the collection falls within the years of 1781-1783 and thus reflects Gist's involvement in the Southern Campaign. Although Gist was not an outstanding military strategist or theorist, he was a capable field commander who was not afraid to express his opinions concerning the conduct of the war. Of immense importance are letters to and from such figures as George Washington, William Smallwood, Horatio Gates, Thomas Sim Lee, Baron Von Steuben, and Nathanael Greene.

The obvious lack in the collection is its documentation of Gist's personal life. Although there are some manuscripts which demonstrate his involvement in the Masons and the Society of the Cincinnati, there is very little else apart from his military duties. In a few letters he writes of his personal life, family, or health, but this does not appear to have been a typical subject for him.

Guide to the Mordecai Gist papers
Under Revision
Richard J. Cox
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Revision Statements

  • 2019-07-30: Manually entered into ArchivesSpace by Mallory Herberger.

Repository Details

Part of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library Repository

H. Furlong Baldwin Library
Maryland Center for History and Culture
610 Park Avenue
Baltimore MD 21201 United States