Monday, March 18, 2013

Finding Fort Hollingsworth: Part II

We now bring you Part II of our ongoing series of blogs by Jim Gibb about the archaeological project to locate Fort Hollingsworth, near Elkton, MD.

The Baltimore Patriot newspaper reported measures undertaken by the people of Elkton and the surrounding countryside at the onset of the 1813 fighting season:
[A] meeting of the people of the town [Elkton] and county [Cecil] was called, when not less than 200 convened at the court-house, and in a few minutes $1,000 was raised; a committee of three appointed; and on Saturday the ground laid out for three breast-works; one at Elk Landing [Fort Hollingsworth], one between the landing and Frenchtown, and one at Frenchtown. On Saturday [April 17, 1813] the first was nearly completed—300 feet of a semi-circle; and mounts five 6-pound cannon; the trench sufficient to contain 500 (Baltimore Patriot, 22 April 1813; quoted in Eshelman et al., 2010: 110, 112).
This brief news item brims with historical information. First, the people at the head of the Bay organized their own defense. This wasn’t an undertaking of the national or state governments, or even of county government. Local folks, purchased their own arms, contributed funds for the purchase of cannons, powder, and shot, and built their own forts. There is no evidence of regular army involvement, and the people of Cecil County appear to have built the three forts without the benefit of trained, experienced military engineers.

When the United States declared war in 1812, it was the first time since the Battle of Yorktown—the last major conflict of the American Revolution—that the nation fought a ground war. Militias in the Northwest Territories and the Southeast battled Indian nations and President Washington led regular troops into Western Pennsylvania to quash the Whiskey Rebellion; but for thirty years the United States had only a very small trained ground force and only a nascent military academy at West Point (established 1802) for training officers and engineers.

The people of Cecil County, possibly informed by reading military works of classical antiquity, or perhaps even 18th-century French and English works on the proper conduct of warfare, largely relied on native intelligence and their knowledge of British tactics and local geography. The fortifications that they built, unlike the grand Fort McHenry in Baltimore, are best seen as vernacular architecture: products of local traditions informed to a greater or lesser extent by academic writings.

Even the contributor to the Baltimore Patriot, in the quotation above, betrays a hazy sense of fortifications and how they work when he stated that the trench was “sufficient to contain 500.” The trench was a source of material for constructing the breastwork, but its role—apart from providing soil for the earthwork—was that of a dry moat; an obstacle for attackers to overcome. Placing infantry outside of the earthwork and into the trench would hinder their retreat, if necessary, and they would have fire-belching cannons discharging over their heads. The trench might well have fit 500 men, but that was not how it functioned.

On the earthwork the defenders placed five cannons that fired six-pound solid shot. Although light and maneuverable, these were not imposing guns. In contrast, American gunboats of the time were designed to carry 18- and 24-pounders.

 In the end, however, the size guns mounted on fortifications and gunboats depended on what could be procured from the foundry near the mouth of the Susquehanna River (across from Havre de Grace, just east of Perryville), furnished by visiting militia and flotilla-men, or captured from the enemy. Those five guns were fired at British marines during the only engagement in which Fort Hollingsworth participated, the subject of the next post...

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