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

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