Once watery grave may be wetland, expert says River shift may hide War of 1812 flotilla


Marine archaeologists have been trying without success for 20 years to find a War of 1812 flotilla that contributed to the American victory in the Battle of Baltimore. Now they think they know why they've failed: They've been looking in the wrong place.

Don Shomette, who has been leading the effort to find the boats in the Patuxent River, plans today to tell a University of Baltimore symposium on the War of 1812 that the river has changed direction dramatically in the past 175 years, putting the flotilla not under water but under land.

Shomette, author of several books on the flotilla, said he and others have been scratching their heads because, by all accounts of the war, the boats should be very close to one another. When they were sunk in 1814, the 30 boats were in a line about two miles long, near what is now Upper Marlboro. One boat was found in 1980 in the river, but that stretch of water has not yielded any others.

This summer, Shomette took a new look at maps drawn by the British in the early 1800s. The maps show that the river was once straight in that area, he said. But years of development and runoff changed the river's direction in some areas by as much as a quarter-mile.

"Our hypothesis was that the boats were deeply buried. Well, they were more than deeply buried," Shomette, 53, said in a phone interview yesterday. A retired Library of Congress graphics specialist, he has done research on the flotilla for 20 years and has been closely involved in earlier digs and efforts to obtain funding.

If Shomette is right, he may have a new complication on his hands: The area where he thinks the boats are buried is a wetland, with strict environmental protections, and new permits would be required for excavation.

Over the years, Shomette and other experts have been fighting an uphill battle to obtain funding, federal and state permits, and the equipment and expertise necessary to unearth the boats. They finally got the paperwork together this summer, and the state-run Maryland Historical Trust paid $27,000 for a dig.

A team from East Carolina University in North Carolina found two boats, but they weren't from the flotilla. The team also did underwater and aerial remote sensing to try to locate the rest of the fleet.

But it wasn't until the old maps were obtained that experts were able to answer the puzzle.

It's unclear what the new evidence will mean in terms of support for the project. Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a 5th District Democrat, are pushing for a grant of $214,000 from the U.S. Navy for future excavations.

"Nobody knows where the fleet is," said Richard Hughes, chief archaeologist with the Historical Trust, but understanding the river's change helps determine where it is not.

The trust will continue working with Shomette and others to locate and possibly excavate the fleet, he said.

That the boats may be underground and, according to Shomette, most likely under wetlands, poses new logistical questions.

"Environmental regulations are very strict about disturbing wetlands," Hughes said.

Richard Ayella, tidal wetlands director with the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state's job is to ensure that projects such as digging for boats, either in water or wetlands, involve the least possible disturbance to an area.

Wherever it is, the flotilla has been waiting to tell its secrets since 1814.

After the British began raiding Maryland farms during the War of 1812, Revolutionary War hero Joshua Barney successfully lobbied Congress for money for a fleet to protect Washington and Baltimore.

When British gunships entered the Chesapeake in 1814, Barney's flotilla fought several skirmishes. His 75-foot boats were puny by comparison with the enemy ships, but their hit-and-run style slowed the British advance.

The U.S. flotilla moved up to the Patuxent River, anchoring in a line near Pig Point, which is now Bristol Landing. When Barney saw the British ships coming on Aug. 22, he sank the flotilla to block their advance.

Barney's actions did not prevent the British from sacking Washington days later. But the maneuvers are credited with holding off the enemy long enough for the Americans to prepare for the Battle of Baltimore, the engagement that inspired the lyrics for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Today's War of 1812 symposium at the University of Baltimore will be from 9 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m. Shomette will give his presentation on the river excavations in the afternoon.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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