Thursday, February 21, 2013

Archaeologists Search for Traces of the War of 1812 at Nottingham

This week, we'll explore some recent discoveries in Prince George's County courtesy of Mike Lucas and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission

Department of Parks and Recreation Unearths Clues to the War of 1812 at Nottingham, Maryland

During 1813 and 1814 British and American troops clashed at many sites along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay—often referred to as the Chesapeake campaign of the War of 1812. The most significant events of the Chesapeake campaign happened during the summer and fall of 1814, culminating in the British attack on Fort McHenry at Baltimore. A major component of the Chesapeake campaign was the British march on Washington DC. On their march toward the capital, British ground troops established several encampments, including one on the outskirts of the small village of Nottingham, Maryland.

Archaeology program staff of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s (M-NCPPC) Department of Parks and Recreation are in the midst of a three year historical and archaeological project to explore the War of 1812 at Nottingham—a project with two basic goals:

1.       Locate, define and gather information about the British encampment on the outskirts of town.
2.       Determine the role that the town of Nottingham played in the War of 1812.

MNCPPC Archaeologists mapping artifacts in the field - Archaeology in Action!
Nottingham is located on the Patuxent River in eastern Prince George’s County, Maryland, approximately 20 miles southeast of Washington DC.  The town of Nottingham was established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1706 and continued to thrive as an important economic port throughout the eighteenth century.  An official tobacco inspection station established in the town in 1747 solidified Nottingham as a player in the lucrative regional tobacco trade.  Nottingham reached its height of prosperity during the nineteenth century with an ever-expanding steamboat trade with Baltimore. 

Town of Nottingham, as mapped in 1861
The War of 1812 came to Nottingham just as it was becoming the primary anchor community for southern Prince George’s County.

In the summer of 1814 British Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered ground troops under the command of Major General Robert Ross and naval forces led by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane to attack Washington from the southeast via the Patuxent River.  This two-pronged assault began at Benedict, Maryland, roughly 30 miles to the south. 

Over 4,100 ground troops landed at Benedict on August 19, 1814 with two goals in mind: 1) to deliver a demoralizing blow to the Americans by sacking the capital, and 2) to capture the small fleet of shallow draft barges used by Commodore Joshua Barney to harass the British war ships.  Cochrane chased Barney upstream while at the same time supplying their ground forces on the shore as needed.  British troops established the base camp at Nottingham, which was along the way, on August 21.

Department of Parks and Recreation Fieldwork at Nottingham

At Nottingham, a fieldwork strategy has been employed, which combines:

Traditional shovel testing
Excavation units  
Geophysical testing

We have completed the first phase of archaeology and have gathered enough information to plan phases two and three of the project.

What’s Been Unearthed at the British Encampment

Based on historical research, we laid out a 200-by-400-foot-north-south oriented excavation block at the encampment site for metal detector survey and identified 729 artifacts. Over 500 of these artifacts were generic nail or spike fragments, but many were related to the British encampment. 

We found: A single bayonet tip; two British half pennies; lead artifacts, including two possible flint pads and a chunk of partially melted lead bar stock; a variety of generic buttons, one with the 75th regiment insignia; a strap and stock buckle; four iron worms, which were used for cleaning the barrels of Brown Bess muskets; a George III Half Penny; several horse shoes, and 62 unfired musket balls (about .67 to .69 caliber).

  Three musket balls recovered from the encampment.  All of the musket balls have been cut, except for two(this was presumably done to increase their destructive power).

Conserved worms used to extract musket shot lodged in the barrel.

Brass button with the 75th Regiment insignia.

Photo of a stockbuckle.

George III Half Penny.

Preliminary data suggest several directions for future research. The concentration of artifacts near Nottingham road may suggest that the rear guard was concerned with protecting the encampment from attack from this primary road into town.  Unfired musket balls combined with the lead bar stock indicate the production of munitions on site, perhaps while the rear guard was waiting for the return of the main army.

One of the goals of the next phase will be to test other areas of the field to determine the extent of encampment debris and to detect other activity areas.

What We’re Learning about the Town of Nottingham

We’ve recovered over 23,000 artifacts where Nottingham town buildings were anticipated through a total of 738 shovel tests.  Subsurface features were identified in most of the areas tested.  Nearly half the artifacts were recovered from the 1.5 acre portion of Nottingham known to have contained commercial buildings.  This may have also been an area used by Commodore Joshua Barney when he occupied the town with his flotilla men during the summer of 1814, so we have targeted this lot for future testing.  We designated this portion of the site the Stamp lot.

The identification of several features coupled with the distribution of artifacts support a number of preliminary conclusions about the early nineteenth-century occupation of the Stamp lot.  First, the volume of artifacts suggests that the north half acre of the lot was the most intensely developed, with one deep feature, probably a cellar and at least two early nineteenth-century refuse deposits discovered during shovel testing.  Comparatively few nineteenth-century artifacts were recovered from the southern portion. 

There is tremendous potential for additional archaeological excavations at the Stamp lot based on our historical research and preliminary archaeological survey.  The Stamp lot provides an opportunity to study how a single commercial block changed from just before the American Revolution to the end of the War of 1812 and perhaps aid in determining the economic impact of both wars.

Our next phase of archaeology will begin this spring with comprehensive geophysical testing at the encampment site and the Stamp lot, followed by limited text excavations based on the magnetometer and GPR (ground penetrating radar) data.

M-NCPPC Archaeologists sharing their findings at the Nottingham Public Day! 
There will be more Public Days in April, so stay tuned and we'll let you know when that happens and how you can get involved - meanwhile, the volunteer coordinator for archaeology is Kristin Montaperto: 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Farmers, Patriots & Traitors

I'm sure many of you have thought about the War of 1812 and wondered, "Well, other than sitting here and reflecting on the fact that there was a War of 1812, what can I, a layperson, do to commemorate the War of 1812?" 

GOOD QUESTION. Here is one answer, provided courtesy of the Jefferson-Patterson Park & Museum in Calvert County - you can go see their latest exhibit on the War of 1812, or even take a self-guided tour of the park with an audio tour about the War of 1812. You should go there anyway, since it's beautiful AND they house the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, the main repository for archaeological collections for the whole State of Maryland! That place is amazing and they find out all kinds of crazy stuff

FARMERS, PATRIOTS and TRAITORS: Southern Maryland and the War of 1812

By Erin Atkinson
Special events and marketing coordinator
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum

Maryland now features War of 1812 license plates, a lottery ticket, a new National Park Service Historic Trail, and a sword from 1812 was even recently featured on Pawn Stars; but do we really know the details of this important time in history?

Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum (JPPM) offers an opportunity to explore the War of 1812 in an exhibit titled "FARMERS, PATRIOTS and TRAITORS: Southern Maryland and the War of 1812.”  

JPPM is in a good location to tell a compelling story about the war: the waters adjacent to the park & museum were the site of the largest naval battle in Maryland’s history, let alone the War of 1812.  In the early morning of June 26, 1814 the town of St. Leonard was awakened by the sounds of cannon fire.  It was in these waters that Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla fought to break through the British blockade at the head of St. Leonard Creek. 

The exhibit, educational programs, an audio tour, and The 1812 Fair and Reenactment are just a few ways JPPM is connecting the public to the War of 1812.  For more information on the exhibit and other programs visit

Okay, I want you all to brace yourselves, because there are going to be pictures of people enjoying museum exhibits. These never quite communicate the interest and excitement of the actual exhibits, do they? But this is your chance to see tons of 1812-era artifacts in carefully arranged tableaux created just for your enjoyment, in the very spot where a major part of the War of 1812 took place! 

The exhibit opened in April of 2011 and is available to the public every Tuesday from 10am-4pm in St. Leonard, Maryland. Once JPPM begins their 2013 season in mid-April, the exhibit will be open Tuesday, Saturdays, and Sundays.  Admission to the park is always free. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Why Should Anyone Care About Joshua Barney?

We have a bunch of great posts coming up, but before we get to those, it's very important that we introduce a few key players from the War of 1812 so we all know who's who and confusion can be minimized. We're starting with Joshua Barney, because he deserves it. I know a few people who think he's overrated, since his most famous actions kind of involved him getting run over by the British right before they burned the White House. BUT. CONTEXT, people - context is very important. The reason he got run over by the British on their way to conquer Washington was because he was basically the only person who bothered to stay and fight them. So, without further ado, let's all find out why Joshua Barney deserves to be your biggest War of 1812 crush.

As described in the first post on this blog, the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, and after a few skirmishes in Canada…nothing happened. The British were still fighting with Napoleon and simply had no time to apply themselves to a war with their former colony. So, months passed and nothing happened. And then, in 1813, the British started taking this whole war thing seriously.

The British Admiralty initially appointed Admiral Sir John B. Warren to command efforts against the United States, but Warren was sort of a lazy whiner. The Atlantic coast of North America is a lot of territory to cover, and they didn't have enough ships, and Warren was evidently an uninspired commander. Here he is:
Sir John Borlase Warren, by Daniel Orme, 1799
The Brits replaced him with Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced “Coburn,” since I'm sure you were wondering how you were ever going to discuss him in mixed company). Cockburn came to the Chesapeake Bay in March 1813, and began a devastating six-month rampage in the Chesapeake, from Norfolk (VA) to Havre de Grace (MD). I expect the British felt that was a bit more like it. Here's Cockburn, looking energetic and pleased with himself while Washington goes up in flames behind him:
Admiral Cockburn by John James Halls, ca. 1817, courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The U.S. Navy Department just didn't have enough ships to engage the enemy in battles on the open seas. They couldn't even muster the force to defend the coast, perhaps because of a shortsighted naval policy originating in Jefferson’s administration, which focused on gunboats instead of larger vessels. During the spring of 1813, Secretary of the Navy William Jones relied on “a cheap, prompt and efficient temporary force” composed of a gunboat and four leased schooners. This small force proved ineffective against the British fleet, to the surprise of exactly no one.

Really, William Jones? A gunboat and four schooners? Five ships against the British Navy?

Luckily, many of the residents of Maryland’s coastal regions had been coping with British depredations in the Chesapeake since the Revolutionary War. They had a slightly better grasp on reality than William Jones.

Ugh, getting looted and burned by the British is the worst.
In response to the need for a sensible plan and more inspired leadership, Joshua Barney came out of retirement with a less dismal proposition for the Secretary of the Navy. Barney recommended the construction of a number of lightly armed, shallow draft barges or galleys that could be either sailed or rowed. These would be faster and more maneuverable in the silted-in rivers than the larger and more heavily laden British vessels. His plan relied on swift attacks and rapid escapes that utilized his smaller, lighter craft to full advantage.
Joshua Barney! 
He received approval to begin construction in August, 1813. He was promoted to Commodore, and on May 24, 1814, Barney commanded the Chesapeake Flotilla against a British force vastly superior in both numbers and weapons. I imagine him grumbling a lot about how if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself.
The Scorpion, a sloop-rigged floating battery that could be sailed or rowed, was built in 1812. On February 18, 1814, the Scorpion reported for duty at Baltimore as part of the Chesapeake Flotilla. Commodore Barney made her his flagship. Barney left Baltimore with a fleet of 18 vessels and a convoy of merchant ships he planned to escort to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, but before long, he was waylaid by the British (the Battle of Cedar Point). The British Navy forced Barney to withdraw into the Patuxent River with the merchant convoy.

Within a week, the British received reinforcements, and Barney retreated to the shallows of St. Leonard's Creek. There were further skirmishes between June 8-10, which became known collectively as the First Battle of St. Leonard's. The British simply could not roust the Flotilla. Frustrated, they started laying waste to the surrounding countryside. 

On June 26, after the arrival of troops commanded by U.S. Army Colonel Decius Wadsworth and U.S. Marine Captain Samuel Miller, Barney made a breakout attempt: he launched a pre-dawn attack from two directions—from the bluffs above the mouth of the creek as well as by water—and succeeded in slipping between the British vessels and the bluff, thereby moving the Flotilla further up the Patuxent River. 

Barney ordered  two gunboats to be scuttled in a cove of the creek. The two boats were slow, awkward, and difficult to sail; they could not hold both men and cargo, and kept neither dry. In short, they were liabilities that Barney could afford to sacrifice. He also left some of the merchantmen behind.

Barney had been ordered to march overland to defend Washington. On the morning of August 22, 1814, the British rounded Pig Point and saw the Flotilla stretching for three miles upriver. In rapid succession, 16 of the 17 vessels were set afire and sunk; only one was captured when the fire failed to take hold.

Here's an eyewitness account from Admiral George Cockburn:
As we opened the reach above Pig Point I plainly discovered Commodore Barney's broad Pendant in the headmost Vessel, a large Sloop, and the remainder of the Flotilla extending in a long line astern of her. Our boats now advanced towards them as rapidly as possible, but on nearing them we observed the Sloop bearing the Broad Pendant to be on fire, and she very soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned and on fire with trains to their magazines, and out of the seventeen vessels which composed this formidable and so much vaunted Flotilla sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth, in which the fire had not taken, were captured ... I found here lying above the Flotilla under its protection thirteen merchant schooners, some of which not being worth bringing away I caused to be burnt...

Barney and his flotillamen, along with the supplemental troops from Wadsworth and Miller, joined the American forces in time for the Battle of Bladensburg. The battle was a complete rout. The American troops, except for Barney and his men, turned and fled, earning the battle the nickname "The Bladensburg Races." Barney was wounded and captured after hours of hand-to-hand combat with cutlasses and pikes. There were also guns. Barney took a musket ball in the upper right thigh, and complications from the wound eventually killed him, four years later.

Embrace of the Enemies, by L.H. Barker (copyright 2011)
When the British officers met him, they remarked that they knew it had to have been him and his men who held their ground, since they were the only ones who had given them any fight at all. The British pardoned and returned Barney to his men. Everyone likes a person who can make even losing look cool. Ladies and Gentlemen, Commodore Barney was the real deal. 

Posted 2/11/2013 by Lisa Kraus