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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

* Col. John Gunby Served Under General Washington In The Revolution

Salisbury Times - September 7,1959

About 20 Years ago, Judge J. Harry Covington, in an address before the Eastern Shore Society of Baltimore City, said, "I dare say few of us has have known that one of the most gallant officers of the Maryland Line under Gen. Smallwood, was Col. John Gunby, of Somerset who entered the service with the Declaration of Independence and remained for seven long years until   

peace and the recognition of our freedom as a nation was forced upon Great Britain."

Those interested in Maryland history are more or less acquainted with the fact that the Maryland Brigade, usually referred to as the Maryland Line, played a distinguished role in the American Revolution from the Battle of Long Island to the siege of Yorktown, which ended the war. Yet Col. John Gunby, who was an officer in the Maryland Line and considered by some as probably the most brilliant soldier whom Maryland contributed to the War of Independence, is little heard of or known by the present generation.

The Gunby's, coming from England in the 17th century during the time of the third Lord Baltimore, took up a grant of land in Queen Anne's County. Around 1710 the grandfather of Col. Gunby moved to Somerset County . The family exercised substantial influence wherever they settled. The father of John Gunby was the owner of many acres of land and also a number of vessels with which he engaged in coastal trade.

John Gunby was born on March 10, 1745, on a farm at Gunby's Creek just a few miles from present day Crisfield. As the Gunby home was considered somewhat of a rendezvous for the people of the neighboring country, young John Gunby had the opportunity to mingle with persons from different walks of life. Although the Gunbys were considered loyalists and active supporters of the Church of England, somewhere along the line the seeds of liberty were planted in the mind and heart of John Gunby.

When the Revolution broke-out, the father sided with the loyalists, which was not unusual when one remembers that Somerset County was a leading Tory stronghold. But in the spring of 1775 John Gunby volunteered as a minute-man for which his father warned him that he was running the risk of being hanged as a traitor. John Gunby is said to have replied: "I am determined to join American forces; I would sooner sink into a patriot's grave than wear the crown of England."

John Gunby not only joined the American forces but formed an independent military company at his own expense. The equipping and maintaining of this company, which was among the first to be organized, cost Gunby most of his wealth. The company, including officers, numbered a hundred and three men.


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At first Gunby and his men spent much time in breaking up Tory camps which were to be found on the lower part of the peninsula; but after the company was made ready, it was marched to the front in the north. Gunby took part in Gen. Washington's campaigns, especially the Battle of Long Island where the Maryland line first achieved fame. A report of this battle gives an account of Gunby's bravery with other Marylanders exhibited while covering the retreat of General Washington's main force-action which, although it cost more than half of the Marylanders engaged, saved Washington's army. This in itself was not unusual, for, as one man written, ," Wherever the Maryland Line met the enemy they made their mark and wrote their names high in the annals of fame."

Gunby, by devotion to duty, sound military judgment and outstanding courage on the field of battle, soon rose from lieutenancy to higher ranks. On Dec. 10, 1776, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 7th Maryland Regiment and on April 17, 1777 he was commissioned colonel and transferred successively to the Second and First Regiments.

During 1779 and the early months of 1780 heavy fighting took place in the south, where Generals Lincoln and Gates were not able to save Charleston nor hold back British forces. The Southern Department being hard and pressed, appealed to the Continental Congress and General Washington for aid. Washington sent General De Kalb with 1,400 Maryland and Delaware troops to help stem the British side. But this force did not arrive in time to prevent the surrender of Charleston.


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NATHANIEL Greene, probably the most outstanding American general, next to Washington, took command of the Southern Department in December, 1780. Most of Greene's men were untrained or at least not battle-wise; yet fortunately he had two strong assets. He had a very good array of military officers to serve under him and he had the Maryland and Delaware veterans, especially the regiment commanded by Col. Gunby. The fame of the 1st Marylanders was great that it had become known as the "Tenth Legion" of the Continental Army, in reference to the famous Tenth Legion in the Roman Army under Julius Caesar.

Early in January, 1781 the American troops won a victory at the famous Battle of Cowpens, after which Gen. Greene dallied until he again brought his forces together to give battle to Cornwallis, March 17, 1781, at Guilford Court House. This was one of the hardest fought battles of the war. Lord Cornwallis, when he saw the Marylanders under Col. Gunby fighting at Guilford Courthouse, exclaimed, "I never saw such fighting since God made me!" During this battle Gunby's horse was shot and fell on him but still the Colonel was able to carry on. One source says that through it all Gunby showed promptitude of cool and decisive action in the most perilous crisis, and the 1st Maryland could not have been what it was, "if its Colonel had not been a brave and able leader, every inch a soldier." The writer went on to say that Gunby and his men made a charge which has not been surpassed in the annals of war.

However, the writer did not mention the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, which Col. Gunby and the Marylanders have been accused of losing-justly or unjustly. Howard H. Peckham, in his recent military history of the Revolution, claims that when one of the Maryland companies fell back in disorder when its captain was killed in this battle, Col. Gunby, instead of rallying it, ordered the whole regiment to withdraw and re-form. "This error in judgment opened a hold which the British came whooping through. When the colonel of the other Maryland regiment was hit his men began to retire. Only the Virginians were holding... A court of inquiry blamed Gunby for his 'extremely improper and unmilitary' retreat in the midst of battle."


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WHEN GEN. Greene complained that Gunby's action caused the loss of the battle, Gunby requested a court of inquiry. The supporters of Gunby maintained that Greene's premature withdrawal was the true cause for defeat; that Gunby's action in steadying his men had prevented a complete rout by enabling Greene to form his own broken units behind this firm regiment. Although the court of inquiry found Gunby's retreat "extremely improper and unmilitary" and the single reason for the Americans not winning a complete victory, it was decided that Gunby had actively exerted himself in rallying the retreating companies, that the regiment was again formed, and that it did hold back the enemy when they appeared in the attack.

Gunby continued in the army and on September 30,1783 was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. Shortly thereafter, Gunby retired from the army to his farm near Snowhill. He was one of the original founders of the Maryland Branch of the Society of Cincinnati and was chosen presiding officer of the local chapter. But Gunby refrained from taking part in politics of holding public office.

For the remaining twenty-four years of his life he wanted peace and quiet. He became greatly interested in the building of roads and houses for the poorer classes. It has been said that he would put up houses for the poor and await their convenience for repayment. He was also very interested in the work of the Presbyterian Churches in the lower part of the peninsula, and his son, Dr. John Gunby, is supposed to have erected the Gunby Memorial Church at Stockton, Maryland. It should also be noted that he displayed a sincere and generous interest in the welfare of his comrades in arms, and it is said that he maintained at his own expense the families of several officers who were slain in the Southern Campaign.

He died May 17, 1807 at his farm in Snow Hill, and was buried in the family plot.


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