Is Alexandria located in the Chesapeake Bay region? The “Virginia is for Lovers” website says no.
During the War of 1812, the British certainly thought so. Their Chesapeake Campaign spanned forces from Alexandria to the Eastern Shore.
Now don’t worry, I’m not trying to inflate the port city’s role in the three-years-long conflict. No blood was spilled here, and the main casualties were wounded pride and stolen property. Nevertheless, Alexandria was over a half-century-old when the war broke out and can serve nicely as a setting to learn more about the part of the war that took place in the region.
Throughout the year, the city will host a series of lectures titled “Remembering the War of 1812.” Last night at the Lyceum, Dr. Lisa Kraus, Archaeologist with the Maryland Highway Administration's Cultural Resources Division, presented an illustrated talk titled, "Archaeology of the War of 1812."
The War of 1812 impacted the mid-Atlantic in several ways. As Ralph Eshelman (“A Travel Guide to The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake”) points out, the Chesapeake region “suffered more enemy raids, and sustained more property damage and other losses than any other theater of operations in the war.” Places like Tappahannock in Virginia felt the impacts too, but Maryland saw more military actions than any other state.
The fighting heated up in August 1814 when the British army and navy moved up the Patuxent River on its way to Washington. Seasoned with veteran soldiers and proven leadership, they torched the White House and the Capitol. Two weeks later, Admiral Cockburn's men attacked Fort McHenry outside Baltimore where a young Georgetown lawyer named Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about the bombing in the dawn’s early light.
On August 19, the Redcoats, angry that the States had burned York (Toronto), began their assault. Marching up Southern Maryland, their encampments included Benedict, Nottingham and Upper Marlboro. As one can imagine, these places are treasure troves for archaeologists. Dr. Krauss detailed their findings at Benedict, as well as Bladensburg. Suburban growth at the latter made their work challenging.
The team also conducted underwater archaeology with dives at the sunken site of Barney’s Flotilla near Upper Marlboro.
Nervous residents, who like others in the region had felt the effects of the British Blockade and their raids of terror, fled this small town on August 19. With 50 vessels and almost 4,400 troops, General Robert Ross landed in Benedict on August 19. They bivouacked there and headed north to Nottingham the next morning.
Dr. Kraus noted the challenges with this site. The British stayed just the one night, and one on their return. In 2012, Charles County and Maryland State Highway Administration archaeologists found .69 caliber musket balls, but erosion swept other items away. They did find evidence of a camp for African Americans during the Civil War and plan to return to the site.
Nottingham (August 21)
Like Colchester, Virginia, this small village had a bright future as a seaport. The merchants eventually went elsewhere, however, reducing the once proud town to a small collection of 20th century homes in a census-designated place.
The town did experience glory days, including the time during the War of 1812 when it served as the homeport of Commodore Joshua Barney’s famed Chesapeake Flotilla. Able to maneuver more easily than the British war ships, Barney’s 17 gunboats, while ultimately reduced to a retreat, served as a rare source of military pride.
The blog that Dr. Kraus edits, “The War of 1812 Archaeology,” provides information on the digs the team is conducting. A post on Nottingham notes they have found over 23,000 artifacts. Items found include a bayonet tip, British half pennies, flint pads, buttons, a buckle, horseshoes, and unfired musket balls.
With the British armada thundering onward, Barney sailed his fleet up the river to a place called Pig Point near Upper Marlboro. On orders from higher command, he scuttled his boats. Dr. Kraus showed some of the salvaged items, which included medical scissors and boat parts. They are fairly certain this boat is the U.S.S. Scorpion, the flagship of the fleet.
In addition to her lecture, Dr. Kraus provided a display of artifacts, an illustrated board and several brochures. One of them covers the Battle of Caulk’s Island, a diversionary tactic when the British were headed to Baltimore after sacking Washington. This battle was fought about a half dozen miles west of Chestertown, on the northern Eastern Shore. The battlefield is one of the best-preserved. Using patterns of dropped musket shot, the team put together a map of the battlefield.
More than a dozen British soldiers were mortally wounded by the Kent Count Militia, including their commander, Sir Peter Parker. In September 2012, members of the British Royal Marines and U.S. National Guard participated in a wreath-laying ceremony Caulk’s Field memorial site.
The Battle of Bladensburg exposed the weakness of the States’ military. Inept leadership and undersupplied troops contributed to a sorry outcome - a rout by the veteran British army. The sole source of pride was Barney. He and his men showed valor by not retreating when the others did.
All in all, a terrific presentation by Dr. Kraus. From the western shore of the Potomac River, we salute her and our Chesapeake comrades. Citizens on both sides of the bay came together during the War of 1812, and are doing so once again for the bicentennial commemorations and events.