Calvert County's Sunken History

Exerpted from an article by Donald G. Shomette in Calvert County Life, August 1980, photos scanned from the magazine.


In the late 1970's, an expedition was organized to survey for pre-historic and historic artifacts under the Patuxent River. It was sponsored by the Calvert Marine Museum of Solomons, Maryland, and Nautical Archaeological Associates, Inc., of Upper Marlboro, and funded by grant from the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service of the Maryland Historical Trust.

For two seasons, the team transected a 50-mile reach of the river between its mouth at Drum Point and the old colonial head of navigation at Queen Anne's Town, and various creeks in between to locate potential archaeological sites.

In each of the transects examined, important underwater finds had been made, either by the remote sensing team, or by a separate but coordinating underwater exploratory team. The keel, keelson and ribs of a gunboat from the War of 1812 as well as those of a late 19th-century schooner, the Henrietta Bach, was discovered in St. Leonards; and two shipwrecks, possibly of Revolutionary War vintage, had been located further upriver. Near Lyon's Creek the frames of a small boat wreck, dating from the period 1680-1720, and over 600 lbs. of cannonballs had been recovered along with a wide variety of colonial artifacts. Near Selby's Landing, the remains of a 96-ton steam-scow, the Peter Cooper, burned in 1886, was located and given a cursory inspection.

Then, in the 1979 survey season, the last, and by far most important reach of the river was electronically scrutinized by the remote sensing team. Somewhere within the eight mile stretch below a swampy morass called Spyglass Island lay the bones of an entire gunboat flotilla and merchant fleet scuttled just prior to the British burning of Washington, D.C. in August 1814. The fleet had been ordered sunk to prevent capture by Maryland's greatest naval hero, Commodore Joshua Barney.

The "Chesapeake Flotilla" struggled for three months against overwhelmingly superior British naval forces during the summer of 1814. The 18 tiny warships, mostly barges and row galleys, had boldly set out to surprise the main enemy naval base in Tangier Sound. It met the foe in battle off Cedar Point, St. Mary's County, and been forced back into the Patuxent, where it was blockaded for weeks on end in Leonard's Creek, repelling attack after attack by superior enemy forces. Barney launched his own stunning pre-dawn attack on the blockaders at the mouth of the creek, temporarily winning the flotilla's freedom and sending the Royal Navy frigates reeling all the way back to Point Patience. The British had, in fact, been so stunned that they wisely preferred to await the arrival of reinforcements before again tackling the flotilla.

The enemy commander, Admiral Sir George Cockburn's, wrote a vivid eyewitness account of the flotilla's self destruction on the Upper Patuxent August

As we opened the reach above Pig Point I plainly discovered Commodore Barney's broad Pendant in the headmost Vessel, a large Sloop, and the remainder of the Flotilla extending in a long line astern of her. Our boats now advanced towards them as rapidly as possible, but on nearing them we observed the Sloop bearing the Broad Pendant to be on fire, and she very soon afterwards blew up. I now saw clearly that they were all abandoned and on fire with trains to their magazines, and out of the seventeen vessels which composed this formidable and so much vaunted Flotilla sixteen were in quick succession blown to atoms, and the seventeenth, in which the fire had not taken, were captured ... I found here lying above the Flotilla under its protection thirteen merchant schooners, some of which not being worth bringing away I caused to be burnt...

The Spyglass Transect began recording hits. The hits ran in a nearly linear progression up the channel in the vicinity of Wayson's Corner in the positions that Cockburn described as the ships blew up.

A small 4' x 8' plywood coffer dam (a temporary enclosing dam built in the water and pumped dry, to protect workers) was errected over the wrecksite. The coffer, reinforced by 4" x 4" pilings, would permit divers to excavate a test pit within the shelter of its walls down to the wreck without having to worry about the site being sanded in. The first identifiable artifact recovered was a crudely manufactured musket flint. A 10" x 10" beam and a series of unidentifiable planks laced with iron spikes were encountered in the test pit nearly four feet below the surface level of the sand outside the coffer. It was then decided to start a major excavation.


The deck of one of the wrecks was discovered, including intact bulkheads and beams, hold and stowage section. Above the stowage compartments was found a 1'8" high and 2" thick running washboard, with oar mounts or rests cut into its top at regular intervals. At the south end of the coffer dam lay the remains of the ship's fire-scarred cant frames, amidst what may have been a forward carronade deck. Aside from a jumble of miscellaneous timbers and ribs scattered about as if smashed by some violent force, the wreck appeared to be perfectly intact.

Though sections of the hull had apparently been perforated, perhaps 95% of it still remains. Items such as ceiling knees, dovetailed fittings, and even decorative trim were found in situ and in perfect condition. A wooden oarsman's bench, contoured to fit the human posterior, was discovered lying intact in the hold.


Preserved in the river's clay were intact artifacts: a beautifully glazed ceramic chamber pot, dishware and condiment jars, surgical instruments and medicine bottles, an assortment of shipwright and carpentry tools, and the ship's sounding lead and a fragile ship's lantern (which has been since entirely restored). Other items included the most easily dateable item, a penny with the inscription "1803" emblazoned on one side, a large military munitions storage box, a ceramic water jug nearly 18" tall, and a handcut sandstone deck stove, possibly employed to heat up cannon balls for hotshot, a 3-foot tall step ladder which had at one time led from the deck into the hold.


Items of the mundane as well as of a military nature were also taken up. Iron spiker, and nails were recovered from various sections of the hull since they could provide a ready index to the period in which the ship was constructed. A small swivel-gun shot, which had apparently penetrated some portion of the vessel, was retrieved with the wooden section it had carried with it still compressed around it. A surgeon's bullet extractor was recovered in tandem with a small bullet. Nearby was found a tin grog cup with the initials "CW" emblazoned across it, etched in, no doubt, by its owner. Only one of Barney's 500 flotillamen bore that initial, Caesar Wentworth, a cook. A lump of white claylike material was retrieved near a shattered bucket and is believed to be the hardened remains of a bucket of white paint ordered just before the flotilla sailed from Baltimore. Medicine containers were found with the medicine still inside, and condiment jars were recovered with evidence of food they contained in their bottoms.

More than 150 artifacts - were raised during the excavation, all of which were totally immersed, individually packed, and shipped off for treatment by a trained conservator specifically hired for the occasion. A preservation laboratory, specially suited to treat waterlogged artifacts had already been constructed in the museum's historic Lore Oyster House.

During the final week of the project, a specialized high-resolution low-light underwater video unit was brought in from North Carolina in an attempt to conduct on-site recording of sections of the vessel in situ and the progress of the excavation then underway. From these tapes, it is hoped, a comprehensive montage will be made that will permit the citizens of Maryland and the nation to view for the first time in 166 years a ship belonging to Commodore Joshua Barney's Chesapeake Flotilla.

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