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Hometown U.S.A.: Fairlee, Md.

A battlefield from the War of 1812 is 'frozen in time'

Nearly two centuries after the fight at Caulk's Field, the state is digging up artifacts in an effort to piece together an American victory over the British.

January 19, 2013|By Candy Thomson
  • Julie Schablitsky measures a British musket ball at a laboratory in Baltimore. The state archaeologist is developing a story line for a War of 1812 battle.
Julie Schablitsky measures a British musket ball at a laboratory in Baltimore.… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)

The DNA of a battle that helped turn the tide of a war going horribly wrong for America lay buried just 6 inches below a Maryland cornfield.

For nearly two centuries, musket balls, canister shot and other artifacts from intense fighting at Caulk's Field waited to tell the story of a sweltering August night in 1814, when militiamen sprang a trap on a British raiding party bent on destruction.

How did the citizen-soldiers best their battle-tested foes?

State archaeologist Julie Schablitsky hopes to figure that out. With the help of cadaver-sniffing dogs and history buffs armed with metal detectors, she is retracing the footsteps of Sir Peter Parker, a British marine captain who led 170 troops, and a like number of militiamen commanded by Col. Philip Reed.

"This battlefield is frozen in time," Schablitsky said. "It was a pasture 200 years ago and it's a pasture now. If Capt. Parker or Col. Reed came by today, they'd know exactly where they were."

They might even recognize some of the artifacts being cleaned and cataloged in a Baltimore laboratory.

"It's not just the artifact. It's the story attached to each one," Schablitsky said. "From mid-August to mid-September in 1814, Maryland was a war zone. People were watching in terror. Houses were set on fire and people were captured. Washington burned."

The dig was set in motion by the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, which secured a $40,000 federal grant two years ago. Schablitsky, who works for the State Highway Administration, was tapped for the job.

Schablitsky, 43, had been involved in other digs related to the War of 1812, but she was best known for her research on the Donner Party campsite in the Sierra Nevada range and on John Paul Jones' birthplace in Scotland.

The opportunity to try to fill in the blanks at Caulk's Field intrigued state officials.

"This is easily the best-preserved 1812 battlefield in the Mid-Atlantic, thanks to the excellent stewardship of the owners, the Tulip Forest Farming Corp., who understood its importance and protected it," said Bill Pencek, the commission's executive director. Caulk's Field lies just outside of Fairlee, a town on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

This much was known: Late on Aug. 30, 1814, Parker's troops came ashore from HMS Menelaus, hoping to surprise and capture Maryland militiamen to get information about Baltimore's defenses. The British already had burned Washington. They were preparing a siege of Baltimore and hoping to wipe out pockets of resistance across the Chesapeake.

But the Americans knew the British were coming and ambushed them. During the hourlong battle, 14 British soldiers and marines died, including Parker, 28, who bled to death from a gunshot wound. Three Americans were wounded.

With their commander dead and the Americans holding the high ground, the British invaders retreated to their ship. Two weeks later, they pulled out of the upper Chesapeake Bay when their siege of Baltimore and bombardment of Ft. McHenry failed.

"The questions were, 'Could we find where men stood and fought? Could we find where they made camp?'" Schablitsky said. "It's really like a crime scene. You have to let the artifacts — the evidence — tell you what was going on."

Just two sets of post-battle notes — one British and one American — exist. So last April, Schablitsky enlisted the New Jersey-based Battlefield Restoration and Archaeological Volunteer Organization to scour half of the field and mark each artifact with a flag.

During the height of battle, soldiers were "shedding metal," Schablitsky said, and the pattern of brass buttons, spent munitions and coins showed the general disposition of the troops. Knowing the characteristics of each side's musket shot (the American shot was smaller) and the range of the guns helped draw battle lines.

The unfired ammunition that dropped during the battle as soldiers on both sides hurried to reload tells part of the story: how far the British chased the Americans, who fell back to the high ground and the protection of their artillery.

"When I got out there, I wasn't that impressed," she said of the pasture. "But when I started seeing patterns, that's when my jaw dropped."

A sweep of 40 acres this fall indicated that the battle had spread wider than originally believed.

Three cadaver dogs independently zeroed in on three sites that most likely were used to bury British dead, except for Parker, whose body was returned to England for interment, with the eulogy delivered by his first cousin, Lord Byron. Those sites will not be touched, Schablitsky said.

Her next step is to put all of the pieces together and develop a story line for the battle. Her findings will be peer reviewed before release.

Pencek said the commission and Schablitsky will evaluate the dig and work with the property owners to ensure the battlefield remains an untouched resource.

The owners of Tulip Forest Farm donated the artifacts to the state.

Richard van Stolk, one of the farm's owners who manages the property, said the family "had a suspicion" that the pasture held secrets.

"We never developed it, so the potential was always there," he said. "We never let anyone out there with metal detectors because we wanted to do it properly. Now it has and we couldn't be happier."

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