Friday, November 9, 2012

Caulk's Field

Today we'll find out about Caulk's Field, an Eastern Shore Battlefield that has miraculously survived the centuries more or less intact - meaning it can still provide information about the war as it was fought on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. SHA Chief Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky provides the details...

Caulk’s Field: Maryland’s Best Preserved War of 1812 Battlefield

To commemorate the War of 1812 bicentennial, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) secured a National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) grant to conduct an archaeology survey across Caulk’s Battlefield.  The battle was an American win and the site remains relatively unaltered. DBED chose the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) and University of Maryland (UM) to carry out the archaeology survey and mapping project to determine troop and artillery locations, areas of intense fighting, and battlefield boundaries. 

During the month of August 1814, the citizens of Kent County observed a British ship and associated barges in the Chesapeake Bay. Captain Peter Parker anchored his frigate, HMS Menelaus, just off of Poole’s Island in an attempt to keep the eastern shore militia from coming to the aid of the Americans in western Maryland. Parker and his men came ashore several times to take supplies from the local farms and to burn private property to keep it from being used by American troops. 

Drawing of HMS Menelaus and Eclair by Lt. William Innes Pocock.
On the night of August 30, 1814, the British burned and looted Richard Frisby’s farm and took four enslaved African American men as captives.  When Captain Parker interrogated the slaves that night, he learned the location of American Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reed’s camp. The British landed around 11:00 that evening to search out and destroy the American camp, take prisoners, and extract information from the troops regarding the protection of Baltimore.  

View of British taking livestock, supplies, and slaves (Courtesy the Patuxent River Naval Air Station)
At 11:30pm that same night, Reed received word from his picket that the British landed near Waltham’s farm. Believing their intent was to burn and pillage, Reed took his men and marched towards Waltham’s farm. Within minutes he learned the British were actually in pursuit of them! At this point, he countermarched, moved his camp into Caulk’s field and positioned the troops on “the rising ground about three hundred paces in the rear—the right towards Caulk’s house and the left retiring on the road, the artillery in the centre, supported by the infantry on the right and left.”  A fortified line took the center of the field, and an advance troop of Americans lay in wait for the British.

As soon as the British came into view, the Americans fired into them and then fell back to the fortified line with the artillery. The British attempted to take the American left flank, but were unsuccessful. They continued to push the front American line and forced Reed to fall back. After almost an hour of fighting, Reed’s men were running low on ammunition, but they held their position. Casualties escalated rapidly into the dozens, and Captain Peter Parker was killed in the action. Finally, the British quit the field and returned to the Menelaus.

Colored map of the battle at Caulk’s field drawn by Acting Commander Henry Crease while aboard the HMS Menelaus. Reed’s account places his left flank on the road, not the artillery as shown here.
The Archaeology

In the spring and fall of 2012, the SHA and UM archaeologists, along with volunteers from BRAVO, conducted a metal detector survey across 40 acres of the battlefield.  The archaeologists searched for lead and ferrous munitions (musket balls, buck shot, rifle shot, and canister shot), brass clothing buttons, and other battle-related artifacts. Where each artifact was found, an archaeologist mapped the location with a total station to record its exact position.

View towards northeast of battlefield and archaeologists setting up total station to record the exact location of artifacts. 
After the artifacts were mapped, they were collected and taken back to the SHA laboratory for processing and cataloging.  The musket balls were studied closely, measured, and weighed. Lead shot was separated into three main categories: buckshot (.25-.36 cal.), rifle/pistol shot (.37-.58 cal.) and musket shot (.59-.75 cal.). British and American lead musket shot can be distinguished from each other by measuring the diameter of the ball. The standard issued British gun during the War of 1812 was the Brown Bess musket. It had a 0.75-inch bore and was loaded with 0.69-0.70-caliber lead shot. The Americans held guns with smaller bores and therefore, their musket shot measures approximately 0.62 inches in diameter. 

Archaeologists recovered 35 pieces of shot from Caulk’s Field : 

8 British musket shot - 6 dropped and 2 fired
11 American musket shot - 7 dropped and 4 fired 
7 unidentified fired musket shot
3 rifle shot 
4 buck shot 
2 heavily impacted unidentified shot 

All of the shot pictured above was fired out of a musket aimed at a soldier. All of the above appear to have missed their mark. 

Most of the recovered musket shot was unfired, suggesting the lead balls were likely dropped during loading of a gun or perhaps spilled out of a cartridge box.

In addition to musket shot, archaeologists collected military buttons, canister shot, and other pieces of brass and iron. Based on the patterns of the artifacts, it is now possible to see where the different troops stood and fought on the landscape.  For example, a concentration of dropped American musket shot show where the Kent County men stood as they fired towards the oncoming British, while dropped British musket shot shows how far up field they pursued the Americans. This week archaeologists are surveying an additional 40 acres of agricultural field along MD 21 in an attempt to find how far back the Americans fell from their initial position. By the end of the project, we will have reconstructed the entire battle.

NOTICE: The battlefield is privately owned and trespassing is prohibited. Metal detecting was only performed under the guidance of professional archaeologists. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Bladensburg Battlefield

In this post, we’ll find out about the archaeology of an episode that historian Daniel Walker Howe called "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” and "the most humiliating episode in American history": The Battle of Bladensburg. I know, I’ve really set it up to sound glorious, right? Actually, there really were Americans who comported themselves with an appropriate degree of military ardour that day (Commodore Joshua Barney, looking at you), but they were outranked by ineffective and pusillanimous officials who made a complete hash of things. 

On the morning of August 24th, 1814, General William H. Winder hastily positioned his American militia units in the fields above Bladensburg, Maryland. Until 1813, Winder had been a lawyer in Baltimore. Then he had a midlife crisis or something and became an Army officer. If you read about the Battle of Bladensburg in greater detail, you might get the sense that Winder was, perhaps, promoted beyond his capacity. Wikipedia tactfully suggests that he “failed to show effective command” in the Battle of Bladensburg, which is really putting it lightly. 

The British forces were led by Major General Robert Ross, a British Army officer who started his military career in 1789 and served with the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War. You’re probably thinking that this is a significantly more impressive resume than that of poor General Winder. Yeah. You’re totally right.

Robert Ross!
British troops entered the town of Bladensburg around noon. Colonel William Thornton's 85th Regiment of Foot began an assault across the small bridge spanning the Eastern Branch – now known as the Anacostia River. The first units suffered some pretty gory casualties, but the British Empire wasn’t built by people who wilted just because of a little musket fire. The British managed to push across the bridge and establish strategic positions in the thickets along the riverbanks.

A sketch map of the battle
Commodore Joshua Barney (more on him in later posts) had scuttled his Chesapeake Flotilla  - including his flagship the USS Scorpion - in the Patuxent River two days earlier. He arrived at the battlefield with about 400 sailors and a contingent of 120 marines under Captain Samuel Miller. 

They rolled two large 18-pounder cannon into the middle of the Bladensburg Turnpike, along with three 12-pounders on the right flank right on the border of Maryland and DC. The sailors were armed only with cutlasses and boarding pikes, while the marines carried muskets. Just to be clear: these guys had been fighting the British in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Patuxent River for months, blew up their ships and barges, and then they marched to the Navy Yard in DC, grabbed some cannons, and dragged them all the way to Bladensburg where they kept right on fighting the British. So…major props to Barney and the flotilla guys.
The British paused briefly as this apparently unimpressive band of reinforcements assumed their defensive position, but soon resumed their attack. In turn, Barney's men fired their 18-pounders "with the most destructive effect, sweeping the road and staggering the column." The British mounted several assaults directly into the line of cannon until they were forced to seek cover along Dueling Creek. Despite being pummeled by cannon fire, the British maintained heavy musket fire into the artillery positions, eventually shooting Barney's horse out from under him.  

 The British followed the deep channel of Dueling Creek around to Barney's right, and from this position drove off the militia units defending the hilltop. By this time, General Winder had ordered a retreat, leaving the "flotilla men" to fend off the British – which, you guys, they totally did. Barney suffered a serious wound from a musket ball to his upper right thigh.

Outflanked and out of ammunition, Barney ordered his sailors and marines to spike their guns and retreat.  Some sailors remained at their stations, and it was reported that they were bayoneted at their guns with fuses smoldering in their hands.  Washington fell to the victorious British that night.

Other battlefields, especially those from the Civil War, have been lovingly preserved, studied, and interpreted for the public. Bladensburg Battlefield, however, has been largely forgotten. The area where this battle was fought now contains suburban residences, a cemetery, parkland, and commercial developments. If you were to drive down Bladensburg Road today, trying to replicate the path the British took on their way to Washington, you would probably conclude that nothing of the original landscape survives. But archaeologists have discovered that in several places around the town, little pockets of this intact battlefield still survive. 
Looking for the Battle of Bladensburg at Fort Lincoln Cemetery
Using metal detectors, archaeologists have found several artifacts from the time of the battle, and are working with the National Park Service to create a plan for the management and interpretation of the Battlefield.
Musket balls from the Battle of Bladensburg

The last time someone saw this piece of lead shot, it was flying toward someone's vital organs in 1814.
You can find out all about the archaeology at Bladensburg Battlefield, and other archaeological projects in Bladensburg, at SHA's interactive website. You can even watch this video about the battle! Have fun, and check back soon for more 1812 archaeology!