Saturday, December 1, 2012

In Search of the Elusive British Encampment at Benedict

By Julie M. Schablitsky

On August 19, 1814 General Robert Ross landed 4,370 men on the shore of Benedict. The troops camped on the hills and slopes above Benedict in the event of a western overland attack from the Americans and to have an unobstructed view of the port. During their first night on land, they rested and prepared for their march to Washington.  British Lt. George Robert Gleig (1821) reported:

            On the brow of the hill, and above the centre of the line, were placed the cannon, ready
            loaded, and having lighted fuses beside them; whilst the infantry bivouacked immediately
            under the ridge; that is, upon the slope of the hill which looked towards the shipping;

Benedict was only a temporary camp and in the morning the men pushed towards Washington. After defeating the Americans in the Battle of Bladensburg (See November 2, 2012 post) and burning the nation’s capital, the troops marched back to Benedict. On August 29th, they camped here once again and boarded their ships in the morning.

The Search…

Since last spring, Charles County and Maryland State Highway Administration archaeologists have been searching for evidence of a War of 1812 British encampment along MD 231. Although the archaeological signature of a 200-year old campsite occupied for no more than two nights would be a challenge to find, we thought it was worth a try. Much like a swarm of locusts, we knew that 4,000 men could not pass through Benedict and not dropped something on the grassy hills. Military uniforms, especially ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, were adorned with dozens of buttons located on waistcoats, uniform coats, sleeves, and pant legs---they even had button fly.  Typical use on land or sea would cause the strings to wear---button loss was common. Perhaps the infantry needed to cast munitions in preparation for battle, so burned earth from a hearth and lead sprue may have survived the farmer’s plow and erosion.  Even dropped musket shot and coins could have fallen out of cartridge boxes and pockets only to be found by an archaeologist years later.

An example of a circa 1812 British Uniform
The first step in any historical archaeology project is to hit the archives and other scholarly repositories to seek out old maps and primary documents. These written accounts and images direct our research. Luckily for us, a nice colored map exists of the Benedict camp and it shows the exact locations of the British pickets on the landscape. As suggested by the map, as well as Gleig’s report, the men camped on top of the hills and the slopes above Benedict as they prepared for an intense overland march. The road depicted on this map travels west out of Benedict.  This eastern road trace out of Benedict is gone, but the current alignment of MD 231 is sitting right on top of the old colonial road just east of the hills.

Today, MD 231 is a paved, busy highway lined with utility poles.  The top of the hills, where the British had camped, is now crowned with homes and outbuildings.  In order to make a nice flat surface to build in the 20th century, the hills were graded and steep driveways cut into their sides. Some of the residents even added a below ground swimming pool and underground garage. All of these modifications likely erased any evidence of a British encampment here; however, the slopes below the hills were only plowed and some areas may contain intact archaeological deposits. Metal detecting over the years by relic collectors may also have removed a significant number of artifacts associated with the encampment. But, there was only one way to find out if anything still survived into the 21st century.

Admittedly, the archaeological signature of the War of 1812 camp occupied for less than 48 hours would be subtle at best and excavating small holes across the area to look for a sparse collection of military artifacts would be leaving too much to chance.  Since almost everything lost or discarded by the British would be metal, the best way to find where “X” marked the spot was through a systematic metal detector survey. We were well aware that relic collectors had been there before us, especially in the fields below the hills where the African American Civil War camp once stood.  But, there was a good chance that metal artifacts remained undetected and preserved in the soils.  So last spring, we placed metal detectors in the arms of archaeologists and we surveyed along the highway right of way and hills in search of brass and lead. 

After a few weeks of metal detecting and digging small holes that revealed mostly aluminum cans and random iron, we finally unearthed a small number of .69 caliber musket balls on the north side of MD 231.  This size of shot could have only belonged to a British musket. 

In addition to shot, we also discovered three plain, brass buttons that date to late 18th to early 19th century.  These undecorated buttons cannot be unequivocally connected with the War of 1812 encampment, however, their proximity to the shot and historic context of a 200 year old camp site, makes it probable that at least some of these buttons fell from a British uniform.  

Does this mean we found the camp? Well, not exactly.  We needed to find something more than a handful of buttons and bullets to say we located the British camp site—all we can really say is that the British passed through here.  So, what would be our smoking gun?  Of course, buried remnants of an old campfire sprinkled with lead and War of 1812 British buttons and other military artifacts---something with size and diversity.  With a landscape that has been eroding for 200 years, a few decades of active metal detecting, and a site occupied for less than 48 hours, we had our work cut out for us. And being scientists, we really needed something more to convince us.
October 2012

The paucity of War of 1812 artifacts we found last spring pushed us to look harder, try new methods, and dig deeper to understand what was happening with the soil and why this camp was so hard to find.  We felt that the north side of MD 231 was searched pretty thoroughly, so we concentrated our efforts on the south side of the highway----after all, the camp did straddle the road. The first thing we did was put away our metal detectors and instead, pulled out an even bigger (and much more expensive) piece of technology from our tool kit: the magnetometer.

The magnetometer was taken out to search the area for remnants of old fire hearths and pits. After a few days of survey, a map was produced that showed over a dozen anomalies, or curious buried features, that could be natural or cultural.  The archaeologists excavated small holes into each one of them---all came back negative for cultural material except for one. 

In a gently sloping area we found a very well preserved fire hearth that appeared to have repetitively used for quite some time.  The soil was heated to such a high temperature for such a long time that the ground became rock hard and turned red.  A large test unit was used to further investigate the fire hearth.  Could this be a British camp fire?  Or was this fire hearth associated with the nearby African American Civil War site, Camp Stanton? We found very few artifacts, but the ones we did uncover included cut nails, calcined bone, and a few broken ceramic sherds from tea wares that dated the fire to the mid-19th century. 

Unfortunately, we never found the exact location of the British War of 1812 encampment in Benedict, but we did learn a few things.  First, the landscape above and just below the hills we searched is eroded and unlikely to contain any intact archaeological deposits dating before the Civil War. Although it is possible to find a few early artifacts, those items were likely re-deposited during rain storms and construction events during the later 19th and 20th centuries. Although much of the area just below the hills has also been eroded and somewhat impacted through plowing and heavy metal detecting, parts of Camp Stanton still survive---and those parts can tell future archaeologists the size of the camp and how the African American soldiers and their officers lived and trained during the winter of 1863-1864. Our search for the War of 1812 has concluded in Benedict, but our quest for how African American Civil War soldiers lived and trained in this part of Charles County has just begun! 

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