Battle of the Severn: Final Skirmish of English Civil War – In America!

 
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Battle of the Severn: Final Skirmish of English Civil War – In America!

"The Battle of the Mouth of the Severn" by James Edward Kelly
Painting executed c. 1876-1881; source, the New York Public Library
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 25, 1655

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

The English Civil War (1642-1651) had deposed and beheaded a king. It is therefore probably quite surprising to most Americans that the last skirmish of the English Civil War actually took place on this side of the Atlantic.

Background

The colony of Maryland (originally Marie's Land, named for the wife of King Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria) was granted to Cecil Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore in about 1632. As a Roman Catholic, Lord Baltimore envisioned Maryland as being a place where Catholics and Protestants could live together peacefully.

The terms of the royal charter should be mentioned; the Maryland colony was a palatinate, an unusual but not unknown system. Lord Baltimore was designated the Lord Protector of the colony, holding the colony directly from the king. Settlers enjoyed the rights of all Englishmen, but Calvert: owned all the land; received all the rents, taxes and fees; exercised absolute political and judicial authority. He further held the power to build fortifications, confer honors and titles, incorporate boroughs and towns, and license trade. Further, he was head of the church in Maryland and could consecrate churches and chapels. And, Calvert had the power to make grants of land.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore (1605-1675); Oil painting by Florence MacKubin (1910)
Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore (1605-1675)
Oil painting by Florence MacKubin (1910)

The granting of a charter to Lord Baltimore did not sit well with the nearby Virginia colony. The Maryland grant was essentially carved out of land that was originally chartered to Virginia. In fact, a Virginia settlement on Kent Island was pushed out, which did not contribute to good feelings. Neither did the tolerant attitude that the Calvert family exhibited towards Catholics.

In September 1644, William Claiborne – the former head of the Kent Island colony – returned to Maryland with military forces, captured the capital of St. Mary's City, re-occupied Kent Island and forced the governor, Leonard Calvert (who was the brother of Lord Baltimore), to flee to Virginia in exile. Along with a Captain Richard Ingle, Claiborne spent the next two years raiding throughout the Maryland colony, robbing landowners and capturing Jesuit priests to send them back to England. Finally, in 1646 Leonard Calvert returned to Maryland with his own forces, recaptured his capital city and forced out Claiborne and Ingle. This two-year period is referred to in Maryland history as "The Plundering Time."

William Stone, Third Colonial Governor of Maryland (served 1649-1656); Painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1853); From a larger work in the Senate Lounge, Maryland State House, in Annapolis
William Stone, Third Colonial Governor of Maryland (served 1649-1656)
Painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1853)
From a larger work in the Senate Lounge, Maryland State House, in Annapolis

After the death of Leonard Calvert in 1647, Cecil Calvert was on the horns of a dilemma. He wanted to retain his colony as a tolerant base for all religions, but he did not want to give Parliament any leverage against him. Hoping to reach a compromise of sorts, in 1648 Calvert appointed William Stone as the new governor of his colony. Stone was a Puritan, who formerly lived in Virginia until he and his fellow religionists were forced out of that land. With the appointment, Stone became the first Protestant governor of Maryland. A year later, Stone signed the Religious Toleration Act, which guaranteed freedom of religion to all Maryland residents.

In December of 1649, Governor Stone granted a request from several hundred Virginia Puritans to settle in Maryland. This request was the result of a requirement that all colonial landowners must take an oath of loyalty to Parliament, as well as convert to the Church of England. As a result, these Puritans moved to the area of the Severn River, founding a settlement which they called Providence. This action also had the effect of providing a barrier to the various Indian tribes, who had been a perceived threat to the rest of the Maryland colony. These new settlers began planting tobacco and developing trade in the area.

Despite the outcome of the English Civil War, with Parliamentary forces triumphant, the Virginia colony had declared itself loyal to Charles II, the son of the recently-beheaded monarch. Eventually, Governor Stone and his officials declared that all landholders in the Maryland colony must take an oath of loyalty to Lord Baltimore, a roundabout way of saying they also supported royal, rather than Parliamentary, rule.

As a result, in March of 1652 a small fleet of ships arrived in Chesapeake Bay bearing two threatening cargoes: two Parliamentary commissioners, and several hundred soldiers – most of them veterans of the recent civil war – with the express purpose of bringing the Virginia and Maryland colonies under Parliamentary rule. One of the commissioners, Richard Bennett, became governor of Virginia. William Stone, after capitulating to the overwhelming forces, was reappointed governor of Maryland in June.

While recognizing Parliament as the overall authority, Governor Stone insisted that all Maryland landholders should still take their oath of fidelity to Lord Baltimore. The Puritan settlers of Providence objected, then contacted Governor Bennett of Virginia requesting soldiers to defend their lands. Finally, on July 20, 1654, Stone resigned from the governorship, citing the presence of armed men opposing him.

Then, in January of 1655, the ship Golden Fortune arrived at St. Mary's City with a letter addressed to "Captain Stone, Governor of Maryland." In addition, another passenger reported to Stone verbally that Lord Baltimore's colonial patent was still in effect. On the basis of these two pieces of information, Stone challenged the authority of Parliament, called upon the St. Mary's Militia to muster, and took over the government of Maryland. Stone was determined that, as the center of the challenge to his authority, he would march on Providence and overcome the Puritans.

1920 map of Annapolis, MD; town was called "Providence" in 1655; The area marked "Eastport" was the site of the 1655 battle; https://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/maryland.html
1920 map of Annapolis, MD; town was called "Providence" in 1655
The area marked "Eastport" was the site of the 1655 battle
https://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/maryland.html

On March 20, Stone with about 200-300 men, along with 10 or 12 small boats to navigate the many small streams and rivers, began their march on Providence. A message was sent ahead to Providence, asking the Puritans to "deliver themselves up in a peaceful manner." They refused, saying "they would rather die like men than live like slaves." The St. Mary's Royalists arrived at the mouth of the Severn River on the evening of March 24, landed at Spa Creek and made camp for the night.

Meanwhile, the Puritan leader Captain Fuller mustered his own followers in preparation for a confrontation. Fuller contacted Captain Roger Heamans of the armed ship Golden Lyon, commanding him to aid their cause. Heamans sent an armed sloop up the Severn to Spa Creek, effectively blocking the line of retreat for the St. Mary's forces. The next day, Sunday March 25, the St. Mary's militia formed up under the black-and-yellow banner of Lord Baltimore, anticipating an attack from the mouth of Spa Creek. 

Flag of Lord Baltimore; Image courtesy of https://www.elmersflag.com/product/lord-baltimore
Flag of Lord Baltimore
Image courtesy of https://www.elmersflag.com/product/lord-baltimore/

Unknown to them, Captain Fuller with about 170 men had marched from Providence and maneuvered behind the Royalist forces. A St. Mary's sentry saw the approaching Parliamentary forces, firing his matchlock in warning. Stone managed to rearrange his forces to meet the threat. The St. Mary's militiamen mustered in a large clearing with heavy forest surrounding them, with some undergrowth and a few trees scattered about. Spa Creek was close to their rear. The battle was delayed to later in the morning, when Puritan commander Fuller sent Heamans back to his ship to procure a Commonwealth banner – the only one known to be in the colonies. Once that was done, the two sides approached each other. An attempt to parley proved fruitless, and the battle of the Severn commenced.

Flag of the Commonwealth, flown by Parliamentarian troops
Flag of the Commonwealth, flown by Parliamentarian troops

Pike and Shot in the Early-Middle Seventeenth Century

During the early seventeenth century the primary infantry components of most European armies were pikemen and musketeers. The pike was a very long spear, anywhere from 12 to 18 feet long, tipped with an eight-inch long steel head. Depending on the country – or the economic background of the individual – a pikeman could be wearing steel armor, including breastplate, "tassets" as armor to protect the legs and a steel helmet; sometimes a simple leather jacket (known as a "buffcoat"); or, possibly even no armor whatsoever. Up to about the year 1600, pike-armed infantry were the undeniable decision makers of the battlefield, lining up in very deep squares up to 15 ranks deep to deliver the punch to defeat the enemy.

Pikemen & musketeers, in English Civil War-era kit; Image courtesy of http://www.ecwsa.org/severn99photos.html
Pikemen & musketeers, in English Civil War-era kit
Image courtesy of http://www.ecwsa.org/severn99photos.html

Musketeers, armed with arquebuses and later with matchlocks, had replaced longbows and crossbows of the mediaeval era as the missile-armed troops of the battlefield. The early versions of these weapons were inaccurate, had limited range and were slow-loading, leaving their wielders vulnerable to enemy cavalry. A block of pikemen usually had a block of musketeers on each flank, sometimes with a couple of ranks of musketeers in front of the pike block as skirmishers (called a "Forlorn Hope"). No more than two or three ranks of muskets could fire at any given time, but a continuous fire could be kept up with other ranks loading while some were aiming and firing.

However, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in central Europe, the Swedish monarch Gustavus Adolphus began to tinker with this basic formation. He limited his pike and musket blocks to only four to six ranks, thus turning the formation into a rectangle instead of a square. Also, he introduced the concept of volley fire (then known as a "salvee"), with all the musketeers firing as one, putting a great deal of flying lead into the enemy formations at one time. Further, he assigned to each battalion four small cannon, usually 3 or 4-pound pieces. This innovation allowed his infantry battalions to move about independently and not suffer greatly from a lack of any artillery support.

Battle of the Severn

Re-enactment of the battle of the Severn at St. Mary's City MD, from 1999; By the English Civil War Society of America; Image courtesy of http://www.ecwsa.org/severn99photos.html
Re-enactment of the battle of the Severn at St. Mary's City MD, from 1999
By the English Civil War Society of America
Image courtesy of http://www.ecwsa.org/severn99photos.html

Both sides had musketeers and pikemen, though the Puritan/Commonwealth forces commanded by Captain Fuller probably had a higher ratio of musketeers to pikemen, probably about three to one. [It is also possible, though not conclusively so, that all of Fuller's men were musketeers.] A large number of these men were veterans of the English Civil War. Their battle cry this day was, "God is our Strength!" The St. Mary's Militiamen were likely still using the more standard ratio of two musketeers to one pikeman, as the Virginia and Maryland colonies still thought there was a threat of invasion from the Spanish (their nearest possession was Florida). The royalist militiamen used a slogan of "Hey for St. Mary's!" Some of the militiamen added, "Hey for our wives!"

Effective volleys of Parliamentary muskets led to the inevitable "push of pike," eventually routing the St. Mary's militiamen. A small force of militiamen remained as a rearguard, using a large downed tree trunk for cover. Their firing only momentarily stopped the Puritans, who finally advanced and overran the rearguard. The militiamen threw down their weapons, and ran for their lives. Finally, a badly wounded William Stone asked for quarter, which was granted. The battle of the Severn was over, an incredibly short battle – about half an hour – by any standards.

Aftermath

Casualties for the St. Mary's militia totaled 17 dead and 32 wounded, with the Puritans acknowledging 4 killed and only a few wounded. Five royalists managed to escape back to St. Mary's City with word of the battle. All of the royalist militiamen's boats, arms and supplies were captured.

Two days later, a Council of War condemned ten of the royalists – including William Stone – to death for treason. Four of the men – William Eltonhead, Esq.; Capt. William Lewis; John Legatt; and John Pedro – were executed before some of the Puritan wives of Providence begged their men to show mercy. As a result of the women's exhortations, further executions were suspended, including the one set for Governor Stone. However, the property of Stone and other notable men was confiscated, freedom of worship was repealed and Maryland Catholics again lost their legal rights.

Footnote #1: It should be noted that, under the "rules of war" prevailing at that time, soldiers who had been granted quarter were immune from execution. After their victory at the Severn, the Puritans joyfully ignored this guideline.

Footnote #2: Following the battle, Lord Baltimore complained to the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell that he had been "interrupted" in his rights. Witnesses of the battle returned to England to report the events to Cromwell, who was anxious to have the whole affair settled. In November 1656, Philip Calvert – who was a half-brother of Cecil Calvert – arrived in America as the "Principal Secretary of the Province" of Maryland, acting as the immediate representative of Lord Baltimore in Maryland. In 1658, the Calverts once again regained their proprietorship of the colony. Religious toleration was restored, and Catholics again regained their rights.

Footnote #3: Despite the restoration of Calvert rule, Protestants still sought a change of government. Finally, a citizens' revolution took place in about 1689, coinciding with the "Glorious Revolution" in England which deposed James II and brought in William of Orange and his wife Mary to rule. The final result for Maryland was the revocation of the Calverts' charter and the appointment of royal governors by the crown. In addition, Maryland's capital was moved from St. Mary's City north to…

Footnote #4:…a new settlement across the Severn River from the former Puritan settlement of Providence. The newly-located site was first named "Anne Arundel's Towne" for the wife of the 2nd Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert. Later, in 1708, this was changed again to Annapolis, for the new English monarch Queen Anne (1707-1704), last ruler of the House of Stuart.

Footnote #5: William Stone's great-great-grandsons contributed mightily to the history of the state of Maryland. Thomas Stone signed the Declaration of Independence; Michael J. Stone represented Maryland in the 1st U.S. Congress; John Hoskins Stone was the seventh governor of Maryland (1794-97); and, William Murray Stone served as the Episcopal Bishop of Baltimore from 1830 until his death in 1838.

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