Friday, March 8, 2013

Finding Fort Hollingsworth - Part I

This is the first in a series of posts that will share the discovery of Fort Hollingsworth at Elk Landing in Cecil County. The location of Fort Hollingsworth has been known (or at least suspected) for many years, but prior to this project, no evidence of the fort's remains, of its shape and configuration, had ever been found.

X Marks the Spot

In all likelihood, unless you hail from Cecil County, Maryland, and/or are a history buff, you don't know much about Fort Hollingsworth. So, let's start with some background. I shall now turn you over to archeologist Jim Gibb, who has generously provided us with this interesting series of posts...

Part I

The British navy began raiding public landings in the late summer of 1812, soon after the US Congress issued its declaration of war against Great Britain. The Admiralty used these raids as part of a strategy to coax American regular army troops off of the Canadian frontier (documented in a letter from Lord Bathurst, secretary for War and the Colonies, to Colonel Sir Thomas Beckwith of the British Army, dated March 20, 1813; also a letter from Vice-Admiral Cochrane of the Atlantic Squadron to Canada’s Governor-General Sir George Prevost, dated March 11, 1814). But British tactics turned to revenge when Canadian towns burned and British citizens faced winter weather without food, clothing, and shelter (documented in a letter from Admiral Cochrane to Rear Admiral Cockburn dated April 28, 1814). Beginning in the spring of 1814 and increasing in ferocity throughout the rest of that year, British marines looted and burned not just public facilities, but plantations and small towns along the Chesapeake’s coastline. Raiders used the slightest provocation to justify destruction of private properties throughout the Bay region. Most of their attacks occurred during the spring through late autumn, part of the British fleet retiring to Bermuda for the winter while individual vessels cruised the Atlantic or blockaded the Bay.

A current USGS Topo Quad showing critical locations of all this drama
When British marines attacked, they did so without warning, setting out from their ships in large boats, or barges, landing at a plantation, public wharf, or town at dawn. In part because of surprise, but also because the region was inadequately defended, the attackers met with little resistance, and any resistance served as justification for theft and destruction of the property of non-combatants. (For years after the war, citizens sought restitution from the US Congress.) If militia responded, they generally arrived too late, the marines having rowed back to their ships.  One can envision a ‘Keystone Cop’ scenario, militia rushing from one attack site to the next, always too late and too feeble to have protected citizens and their property.

There was nothing comical about loss of farms, stores, and tobacco awaiting shipment, or of the occasional loss of life. But even more serious was a plan considered by the British Admiralty in which they would use a pincer movement to attack Philadelphia, one of the new nation’s largest and commercially most important cities. One prong would be a ship-borne invasion force arriving via the Delaware Bay and River; the other an overland march from Elkton after British marines secured the town (Letter of Admiral Cockburn to Admiral Cochrane dated July 17, 1814). The burning of Frenchtown, just downriver from Elkton, and of Havre de Grace on the Bay, showed what British forces were willing to do -and capable of doing. Despite the vulnerability of the Bay and of the cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia, the central government provided few resources with which to defend the region; a decision that led to the burning of the national capital in 1814.

Marylanders, often without any kind of federal aid, defended themselves, raising and equipping militia, and planning and building defensive works, particularly in the upper part of the Bay. The people of Cecil County were exceptional in this regard, and it is their story that the Archeological Society of Maryland is researching and writing and that I address in the next blog.

More to come! Stay tuned...

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