As interest grows in the naval battles of the War of 1812 that raged around Southern Maryland, marine archaeologists this week pulled up more pieces of the past buried for nearly 200 years in murky St. Leonard Creek.
A crew of scuba divers and archaeologists recovered pieces of what is believed to be the second of two gunboats commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney and scuttled in 1814 in St. Leonard Creek in southern Calvert. The first gunboat was discovered near the same spot last summer.
"There hasn't been any archaeological excavation of these boats, so this is really exciting," said Jeff Enright, the crew chief for the expedition who recently finished a master's thesis on the first gunboat at East Carolina University.
The excavation of the gunboats and exploration of four other naval battle sites along St. Leonard Creek and the Patuxent River is being funded through a $17,000 federal grant for archaeological work in naval battlefields. The grant is part of a larger $75,000 award to the state from the National Park Service's American Battlefields Protection Program.
"We want to do for Maryland and the War of 1812 what Virginia did for its Civil War sites," said Susan B. Langley, a state underwater archaeologist. She says Maryland is trying to identify its important naval battle sites, conserve artifacts and offer educational opportunities for the public.
As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 nears, there is growing interest in identifying historic battle sites. Congress is considering legislation that would create a National Historic Trail through Southern Maryland to mark important events in the War of 1812.
The largest naval battle of that war, and in Maryland history, was the Battle of St. Leonard in 1814, in which Barney blasted through a British blockade in the lower Patuxent and sailed up the river toward Upper Marlboro.
As he was being chased by the British, Barney abandoned two sluggish shallow draft gunboats in the St. Leonard Creek, sinking them to render them useless to the British. The boats, called Jeffersonian gunboats, were built in Baltimore in 1808. Barney sank and burned his entire 31-vessel flotilla by the time he reached Upper Marlboro and escaped on land.
For nearly 200 years, the gunboats lay buried in the silt below the inky waters of the St. Leonard Creek.
Under Langley's direction last summer, a team of archaeology students, divers and volunteers uncovered the wreck of the first gunboat. This summer, they went after the second gunboat.
"This is an important site in American history," said Enright, who took a lunch break Tuesday from the muddy work under a blue plastic tarp strung on a grassy patch along the creek. "It's neat to be working on this site, 200 years later, to be touching things that haven't been handled in 200 years."
About 30 feet from shore and underneath two feet of loose silt and mud, the team found timbers from the second gunboat and an array of artifacts: musket balls, a button, a bronze spike used to attach a timber inside the hull, a ceramic handle from a tankard, a gun flint and a buckle, among other things.
The artifacts will be sent to the Maryland Archaeology and Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park to be treated for conservation and catalogued. The timbers will be reburied in the creek, after they are identified and logged.
"We're burying it for the future," said Jenna Matts, who is finishing her master's degree at East Carolina University and has been hired by the state to work on this project. "As soon as you move it, it starts to deteriorate. So we rebury it for the future, when conservation techniques might be better. It's always important to leave something for the future."
CAPTION: Russ Green, left, a marine archaeology student from East Carolina University, takes notes on the locations of what are believed to be pieces of the submerged gunboat in the St. Leonard Creek. Above, Kim Eslinger, also an East Carolina student, talks to another researcher.
CAPTION: One important artifact found is a bronze spike, which researchers believe was used to attach timber inside the hull. Jenna Watts, right, an East Carolina graduate student, measures and labels a piece of timber believed to be from the boat.
CAPTION: Archaeologist Michael Hughes raises timber believed to be part of a gunboat submerged in the St. Leonard Creek during the War of 1812.