Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Archaeology in Patterson Park and the Battle of Baltimore, 1814

I've just started working on a job I am very excited about, trying to relocate the earthworks built around Baltimore in 1814 when the British attacked the city -- you know, Francis Scott Key and the bombs bursting in air and the star-spangled banner yet waving and all that.

The earthworks in Patterson Park were built by militia and citizen volunteers in August and September, 1814, in response to the British invasion of the Chesapeake. The work may have begun when the first British landings were made, but it was pushed forward after the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24. On September 12, the British landed about 4,000 soldiers and marines at North Point and these men advanced along North Point Road toward the city as a force of frigates and bomb ships made their way across the shoals off Sparrow’s Point. An American force tried to block their way at the head of Bear Creek, but in the Battle of North Point the British pushed them aside and continued marching on the city. On the afternoon of September 13 they arrived in front of the earthworks and got a look at this formidable position, bristling with cannon and manned by several hundred regular soldiers, several detachments of sailors and marines, and about 10,000 militia, along with 110 cannons.

The British hoped to attack Baltimore from land and sea, but to get ships into position to support the land force they had to pass Fort McHenry and the adjacent barrier of sunken vessels and chains. When Fort McHenry held out under the intense bombardment of September 13-14, the British land force was left without naval help. The British land commander, Major General Robert Ross, was killed at North Point, and his replacement, Colonel Arthur Brooke, anguished about whether to attack the city. If I took the place, he wrote in his diary, I should have been the greatest man in England. If I lost, my military character was gone for ever. In the end, he decided not to risk it. The British turned back, and the Americans claimed the victory.

The naval part of this battle is well commemorated at Fort McHenry, the land fighting much less so. Most of the North Point battlefield has been developed, and the city’s defenses swallowed by its growth. However, one section of the earthworks, including a key bastion, was in what is now Patterson Park, and they were visible as recently as 1907 (above).

An even better clue to finding the earthworks (since the ones by the pagoda might be later reconstructions) is this map of a Civil War regimental camp made in 1862. In this image the earthworks are clearly marked as being from the War of 1812; a square behind them is labeled "Magazine of 1812."

Our plan is to use remote sensing (magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar) to map out the buried earthworks as best we can, and then dig trenches by hand to expose a few cross-sections. We also hope to pinpoint that magazine (which would have dug to a depth of six feet or so) and see what was thrown in it after the battle. We will make an attempt to find remains of the militia camps, but given how much has happened in the neighborhood since 1814 this is a long shot. Maybe some of the officers were sticklers for regulations and insisted on digging latrines. We will be working on Saturdays this April and we welcome volunteers.

Our historical research will be directed toward learning something about the 10,000 men who were behind those earthworks. They came from all over Maryland, some even from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. With so many names to work with we ought to be able to find a few dozen for whom we can write little biographies, men who left letters or diaries or lots of other records, or whose memories were later written down by family historians. So if anybody who reads this knows about an ancestor who was part of this battle, we would love to hear from you.

All of this is tied to the 200th anniversary of the battle coming up in September, and we hope to get in the news and generate a lot of public interest in the event and its remains. Our client is Baltimore Heritage, a small nonprofit devoted to historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization; funding for our work is coming from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service. You can follow the project on a blog being run by Baltimore Heritage here, and I will also be posting regular reports.

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