Friday, December 20, 2013

Archaeology Takes Back Loser's Day

The town of Essex, Connecticut has something in common with Bladensburg, Maryland: both were invaded by the British in 1814, and neither town came out of the engagement covered in glory.

Late one April night 1814, a British raiding party rowed six miles up the Connecticut River to burn the privateers of Essex, then known as Pettipaug. Within six hours, they had torched 27 ships and taken or destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of rigging materials and had, according to history, met little to no resistance. The raid resulted in the single greatest loss to American shipping of the entire war.

Detail from the map Connecticut, from actual survey, Hartford, CT: Hudson & Goodwin, 1811 – University of Connecticut Libraries’, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC) -  Via.
You can read a more in-depth account of the attack on Pettipaug/Essex here at

Essex has a sense of humor about the event now known as The Great Attack. Every second Saturday in May, there is a parade down Main Street. It is led by the Sailing Masters of 1812, dressed in period U.S. naval uniforms, and they march to the waterfront at the Connecticut River Museum (site of the British landing), accompanied by fifes and drums, to raise the flag in commemoration of an event now known as "Loser's Day." Maybe now it can be "At Least We Tried" Day?

But now, an archaeological project is bringing new evidence to light - evidence that suggests the British met more resistance at Pettipaug than originally thought. This story about 1812 Archaeology in the news by Eric Hesselberg comes from The Hartford Courant, and was printed September 30, 2013:
OLD SAYBOOK — Archaeologists have found evidence of a shipwreck in the Connecticut River that could be linked to a 200-year-old battle in which the British set fire to 25 ships in Essex harbor, the largest maritime loss of the War of 1812.
The wreck lies in several feet of water off Watrous Point, a mile south of Essex harbor, and is indicated by a "ballast pile," an oblong mound of stones that were once in the ship's hold for stability. The stones remained after the hull disintegrated. 
Under gray skies Friday, archaeologists from the University of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Research Center stood waist deep in the chilly river water removing hundreds of pounds of the ballast stone to the reach the hull beneath. Waves from passing boats jostled the crews as they struggled to keep their footing. 
Two hours in the water yielded only some fragments of charred wood and a rusty nail, which were bagged for further examination. The team plans to return with a suction dredge in coming days to remove more mud and debris, believed to be covering the ship's timbers. 
"With archaeology, what you don't find can be just as important as what you do find," said UConn archaeologist Kevin McBride, who is leading the project along with battlefield historian Jerry Roberts, former executive director of the Connecticut River Museum. 
Roberts and McBride, who is also Research Director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, are working to identify battlefields linked to the Essex Raid, which took place April 8, 1814, two years into the War of 1812. The project is funded by a grant to the Connecticut River Museum in Essex from the Battlefield Protection Program of the National Parks Service. It seeks to have an area on both sides of the Connecticut River between Essex and Saybrook Point designated as a battle site on the National Register of Historic Places. 
Roberts is also writing a book on the subject for Wesleyan University Press, which is due out next spring. 
In Old Saybrook, the researchers are trying to determine whether the wreck is the long-lost privateer, Young Anaconda, which was captured by the British and later sunk. The 300-ton brig had run aground while British marines were attempting to tow her downriver as a prize. It was later set ablaze. 
"This fits the location for our ship really well," said Roberts, adding that if some of the hull can be recovered, construction details can be used to determine whether it was a privateer. "Privateers were built quickly and cheaply, so we should be able to find evidence of that," Roberts said. 
UConn marine archaeologist Kroum Batchvarov, a leading authority on shipwrecks, is assisting with the investigation. 
"My firm belief is that you have a shipwreck with a ballast pile like this," Batchvarov said. "There is a ship here. I don't know where it is, but it's here." 
Digging on a nearby lawn has turned up more than 20 musket balls, fueling speculation that the wreck is the American privateer. "There was some major action here," McBride said. 
Roberts learned of the shipwreck several months ago from the property's owner, Andrew Carr, who spotted the ballast pile years ago while building a dock. A boater, himself, he said the location of the stones made it unlikely that they were anything else by a shipwreck. 
"I heard Jerry talk about the Essex Raid and how the British captured a ship and then burned it right about here, and I thought this just might be the one," Carr said. 
The British Raid on Essex was prompted by the harassing of British ships by American privateers during the War of 1812, some sailing out of Essex, then a center of shipbuilding and trade. Connecticut skippers had turned to privateering to recoup their losses from the British blockade of Long Island Sound. 
In this government-sanctioned piracy, captains were issued "letters of marque," allowing them to seize enemy ships as prizes that were then sold at auction, with the profits divided among ship owners, captain, crew and the government. 
The success of Essex privateers drove the British to respond with a bold attack on the night of April 8, 1814, when 136 Royal Marines stormed ashore and proceeded to set fire to the town's fleet, some vessels still on the stocks being built. 
The traditional view was that Essex, then known as Pettipaug, gave up without a fight, and the town for years has marked the day with a parade and celebration locals refer to as Loser's Day. 
Roberts and McBride are helping to change that view. Both the Americans and the British, they believe, fought valiantly. 
"I'm an historian – I'm about story," Roberts said. "But in order to verify this battle site, you need archaeology. Kevin will tell you that without artifacts you can't prove that a story really happened. So we make a good team."
Check out some photos of the shipwreck exploration over here at the Hartford Courant

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Madisons' Missed Connections

Continued from the last post (Dolley's Difficult Run), Architectural Historian Matt Manning concludes this tour of Dolley & James Madison's travels through Washington, Maryland and Virginia in the aftermath of the British attack on the U.S. capital. 

Wednesday, August 24, 1814

In the morning, James Madison receives a plea from General William Winder, commander of the American forces in defense of Washington, requesting the president’s urgent counsel. Madison first rides to Winder’s camp southeast of the President’s House where he meets with members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State James Monroe, Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Attorney General Richard Rush, Secretary of the Treasury George Campbell, and Secretary of War John Armstrong. From there, Madison continues to Bladensburg to meet with General Winder as British troops approach the town from the southeast. Before departing Washington, he gives instructions to his wife, Dolley, to abandon the President’s House should the imminent battle turn for the worse.

In the intense afternoon heat, Madison watches above Bladensburg as the battle unfolds. He moves back as the fighting intensifies, and turns to retreat when British forces disrupt the American lines and the poorly trained American militia is unable to regroup and turn back the battle-hardened British regulars.

The battle lost and the American army in disarray, Madison makes his way back to Washington. He stops briefly at the President’s House around four o’clock to find his wife has already left for Bellevue. In Washington, Madison is joined by Brigadier General John T. Mason, Richard Rush, and other aides. Madison’s initial plan called for the group to reconvene in Frederick, Maryland, in the event that Washington would fall, but he at some point reconsidered. (Missing from the rendezvous are Armstrong and Campbell, who were apparently not advised of the change in plans; both traveled to Frederick.) Without time to reach Dolley at Bellevue, Madison sends word for the First Lady to meet him at Foxall Foundry; however, when he finds the road crowded with refugees, he again changes plans, calling for the parties to regroup at Wiley’s Tavern in Virginia.

Unable to continue northwest beyond Georgetown, Madison travels to Virginia via Mason’s Ferry, which crosses the Potomac River at present-day Theodore Roosevelt Island.

A map of Mason’s Ferry as it appeared in 1818, just a few years after James Madison’s flight from Washington. The ferry was established by George Mason IV in 1748 when he was granted a charter by the state of Virginia. The ferry, which crossed from Georgetown to the Virginia shore, incorporated the northern tip of a large island Mason’s father had purchased in 1717. In the 1790s, John Mason, who would later travel with James Madison from Washington following the Battle of Bladensburg, constructed a Neoclassical-style summer estate on the island. The estate incorporated landscaped terraces south of the house, planting fields to the north, and an allee of trees along the road between the ferry and the house. The ferry itself included boats or flat-bottomed scows powered at different times by cable or livestock. In 1807, a causeway replaced the boat crossing that originally linked the island with Virginia. The island was occupied by Union Troops during the Civil War and was afterward used for a variety of recreational purposes before it was transformed as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt in the 1930s. Robert King's 1818 map, courtesy of The C&O Canal Companion, JHU Press
Arriving in Virginia shortly before sunset, Madison confers with his aides about the next appropriate course of action. Accounts of the President’s movements at this stage are few, provided primarily by Paul Jennings, Madison’s teenaged slave, who is left to follow on foot, and by others who later claimed to have seen him at various points along his route.

Madison, seeking information regarding British troop movements and the location of the American forces, travels first to Wren’s Tavern in Falls Church.

Wren’s Tavern is no longer standing, but during the early 1800s, it was an important stopping point for those traveling between Virginia and Washington, D.C. The tavern was constructed by Colonel James Wren (1728-1815), who served in the Revloutionary War. Wren was also the architect of several churches, including Falls Church, for which the City of Falls Church was later named. Thomas Jefferson mentioned the inn in letters to both his daughter and James Madison, calling it a “very decent house” with “respectable people” and suggesting that Madison breakfast there on his route from Washington to Monticello. The tavern functioned as an unofficial headquarters for the Virginia militia during the War of 1812; Colonel Minor, of Minor’s Hill, received his orders at the tavern and reported there with his militia before traveling to the defense of Washington. Photo courtesy of the Historic Marker Database.
After a brief stop, Madison’s entourage continues north, stopping at Minor’s Hill but finding the estate full of other refugees. Perhaps hoping to intercept his wife on her route from Georgetown to Wiley’s Tavern, Madison pushes on to Salona, the home of William and Ann Carter Maffit, friends of the Madisons.

Salona is a Federal-style brick dwelling south of Dolley Madison Boulevard in northeast McLean, Virginia. The house, with a unique T-shaped entrance hall, may have been constructed by Rev. William Moffitt when he purchased the 466-acre tract in 1812. Moffitt was a Presbyterian minister and schoolteacher in Maryland and Virginia. According to legend, Maffitt’s ghost can still be seen riding around Salona on the white horse he frequently used while making pastoral visits to the homes surrounding his farm. During the Civil War, the grounds were occupied by the Union Army as Camp Griffin, and the house served as headquarters for General William “Baldy” Smith. The house still stands today, although residential development has replaced the farmland that formerly surrounded the estate. Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger for the Fairfax County Times.
Thursday, August 25

Madison awakes at Salona without news of his wife and unaware that she has just passed the night barely more than a mile away at Rokeby. The President returns to Wren’s Tavern hoping for new information about the status of the capital and the location of British and American forces. At the tavern, he finds Captain George Graham, who provides the President with an armed guard. Madison, perhaps growing desperate for news about Dolley, once more turns toward Salona. Upon arriving back at the Maffitt estate, he discovers he has just missed his wife. William Jones, travelling with the First Lady, has left word that the group has continued to Wiley’s Tavern.

Some reports state that the Madisons had planned to meet at Salona, and not Wiley’s Tavern. This may explain why Madison travels north to Salona and does not continue on a direct route to Wiley’s from Wren’s Tavern and why he later returns to the estate to look for his wife. Although Dolley stops only a mile from Salona, the route from Rokeby may have been judged too dark and crowded to travel any farther.

Following Dolley’s route, but now several hours behind, Madison, Rush, and their armed escort are caught in a violent storm and forced to take shelter at a crossroads. Back in Washington, the same storm reportedly lifts British artillery from the ground and tears roofs from public buildings and residences; even as it extinguishes the fires, the drenching rain fractures the walls of the fledgling capital’s stone buildings.

When the storm abates, the President continues to Wiley’s Tavern, finally arriving around seven o’ clock. Drenched and tired, his reunion with Dolley is fleeting; it is believed that the British have followed Madison into Virginia, and the President leaves sometime after midnight to join the American forces at Montgomery Courthouse in Maryland. 

Friday, August 26th

Madison, now accompanied by Rush, Jones, Mason, and others, travels north to cross the Potomac River at Conn’s Ferry. Upon arriving, they discover the river is swollen from the storm, and the ferryman will not provide passage until the relative safety of morning light. Stuck in Virginia, the party finds shelter nearby and waits for first light.

In the morning, the group crosses the Potomac and continues eight miles to Montgomery Courthouse (present-day Rockville, Maryland). They arrive to discover that General Winder and the American troops have already broken camp and are en route to Baltimore. The presidential party travels eleven more miles but is unable to catch up to Winder before reaching Brookeville, Maryland, late Friday evening.

The residents of Brookeville, a small Quaker community, are opposed to the war, and the President supposedly has trouble finding a place to rest before being taken in by Caleb and Henrietta Bentley. Madison reportedly spends the night at a desk, receiving messages and writing dispatches into the early morning, getting little sleep. 

The Brookeville home of Caleb and Henrietta Bentley as it appears today. The Federal-style Madison House, as it came to be called, was probably constructed between 1798 and 1804 by Caleb Bentley. A wealthy silversmith, merchant, and landowner, Bentley was commissioned in 1793 to create one of the four cornerstones of the U.S. Capitol. He was later appointed by Thomas Jefferson as Brookeville’s first postmaster in 1802. Bentley opened a store the same year, said to be in a wing of the Madison House and to include the post office. Dolley Madison, who was born a Quaker, may have been acquainted with Henrietta Bentley, prompting Madison to seek her out when he arrived in Brookeville. The Bentleys sold the property in 1819, and it was occupied by a long succession of different owners. The house still stands in its original location along Market Street and was the winner of the Washington Post’s Historic Home Contest in October 2012.  Photo courtesy of David O. Stewart

Saturday, August 27th

During the night, Madison receives word that the British have retreated from the capital and it is safe to return to Washington. He writes to James Monroe, who arrives in Brookeville Saturday morning. That afternoon, Madison prepares to travel the 18 miles south back to Washington. Over the last three days, he has travelled approximately 70 miles through stifling heat, a violent storm, and sleepless nights. It is an impressive journey for a 5 ½ foot tall, 63 year old man frequently described as “feeble,” “pale,” or “sickly” throughout his life. With the young nation in disarray, Madison’s greatest challenge was perhaps still ahead.