Remains of 'lost flotilla' believed to be found Gunboat was burned by American sailors during War of 1812

June 18, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Archaeologists searching in the mud of St. Leonard's Creek in Calvert County have stumbled on what they believe are the remains of a gunboat scuttled and burned by American sailors during the War of 1812.

If they're right, it is only the second time in 20 years that investigators have found part of the long-sought "lost flotilla" commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney.

Barney ordered his boats destroyed to keep them out of British hands as the Redcoats advanced on Washington. Most were burned in the upper Patuxent in August 1814, but Susan M. Langley, Maryland's underwater archaeologist, said two were burned earlier in St. Leonard's Creek when they proved to be too slow.

This month, a team from East Carolina University literally stumbled on the latest discovery. "One of the members of the team stepped on it, in 3 feet of water," said Langley. "It" turned out to be the rib of a boat poking out of the mud.

Further exploration revealed more shaped timbers, and the outline of a 50- or 52-foot vessel. A limited excavation then produced a .69-caliber lead bullet, leather and a brass button consistent with the period.

"History and logic put together, along with the material objects discovered in the wreck, leads to the logical conclusion that this is probably the site," said William Dudley, director of Naval History and the Naval Historical Center in Washington.

Artifacts from the site are being conserved at the state's new Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard.

Barney was born in 1759. He was a decorated naval officer during the Revolution, and an effective privateer early in the War of 1812. In April 1813, he lobbied the Maryland legislature to build a fleet of small boats to harass the British navy in the Chesapeake. Annapolis re- fused, so he got the money from Congress.

The flotilla included 13 "barges" built at Fells Point, Washington and St. Michaels. They were really giant rowboats, 50 to 75 feet long and manned by 20 oarsmen sitting two abreast.

Armed with bow and stern cannon, the "mosquito fleet" proved fast, effective and a serious annoyance to the British. In June 1814, the Royal Navy chased Barney up the Patuxent River and into St. Leonard's Creek.

On June 8, and again on June 26, the two forces exchanged heavy fire. Both sides lost several vessels in what remain the largest naval engagements fought in Maryland.

After the second battle, Barney's remaining boats escaped from St. Leonard's Creek and sailed up the Patuxent, where they were later burned to keep them out of British hands. Their remains gradually vanished under the waves and silt, and their location was forgotten.

In 1979, archaeologists supported by the Calvert Marine Museum and the Maryland Historical Trust found remains of a vessel in the upper Patuxent now believed to be Barney's scout ship Vigilant.

Munitions, bottles, pottery and a complete surgeon's kit found at the site are on display at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. But efforts to recover more of that vessel and to search for others were blocked by a lack of funding and proper conservation facilities.

Last year, the Maryland Historical Trust paid for studies with magnetometers, side-scan sonar and ground-penetrating radar. They identified several promising sites in St. Leonard's Creek.

Langley said the studies also eliminated three miles of the Patuxent from the search area. More remote sensing work is likely next winter in what are now wetlands bordering the Patuxent.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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