British History in America Series
The Flagship of the Chesapeake Flotilla, the USS Scorpion – or the “Turtle Shell Wreck”
As part of our focus on British History in America, we visited Calvert County, Maryland in 2006, and during this time met the American marine archaeologist, historian, and author Donald G Shomette. With him, we discussed extensively the War of 1812 in which British forces marched on Washington after the famous Chesapeake Flotilla gun boat squadron was scuttled to prevent capture at the headwaters of the Patuxent river by its commander Commodore Joshua Barney.
Though outgunned seven to one, at Bladensburg Commodore Joshua Barney and his flotillamen gave the advancing British forces a sterling fight, they distinguished themselves by stalling the advance of Wellington's Invincibles on their march to Washington until they were overwhelmed. Previously, on the water they acquitted themselves well during the battle of St Leonard's Creek the only major fleet engagement in the Chesapeake Tidewater. Throughout the campaign, Rear Admiral George Cockburn R.N. longed to destroy Barney and his fleet but never got anywhere near to do this. This story, and that of the archaeological excavation of the nearly intact flagship Scorpion has been featured elsewhere on this site with a review of Don’s book Tidewater Time Capsule, and Flotilla which give further details.
We now turn briefly to that discovery and excavation for the American people by Shomette, Professor Fred Hopkins of the University of Baltimore, Dr. Ralph Eshelman, and others in 1980 by their research organisation Nautical Archaeological Associates (NAA) during Patuxent river project. The reproduction of the whole story is beyond the scope of this site, however the team completed work of significant importance in two stages with the limited resources available to them at the time. They recovered artefacts from beneath the turbid, polluted waters, through centuries of silt, debris and detritus to extract and study the past. The team were the first in America to use a cofferdam protective wall in which work could be completed in nearly dry conditions.
Battling with many adversities, they completed the first underwater archaeological survey of an entire riverine system in America. In 1997 they returned to discover two more ships of the fleet employing, aerial and sub sea magnetometery, sub-sediment imaging, ground penetrating radar and hydro probing of half a million linear feet of river bed to sub sediment depth of twenty feet. This comprises the first comprehensive survey of a historic shipwreck fleet and river system in America.
The work on the Patuxent by NAA would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Maryland Maritime Archaeological Programme and helped create support from the State of Maryland through the auspices of Governor William Donald Shaffer for the creation of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Laboratory. The land overlooking St Leonard’s Creek, site of the epic flotilla engagements and the scenic Patuxent River was selected for the MAC Laboratory and the subsequent War of 1812 Memorial. The land was donated by the late Mrs Jefferson Patterson.
The Filey Bay Initiative recognises this work as a magnificent contribution to our joint heritage, And although the War of 1812 is a little known historical event, the battle represents the tenacity and resolve shown by the American people when faced with an external aggressor during the first ever attack on American soil.
The War of 1812 is so important that a world class memorial on the banks of the Patuxent is being planned for the bicentennial of that significant conflict. Although the plans for the memorial are still in the developmental stage, it is expected to be a historically and architecturally unique structure.
Donald G. Shomette has given his kind permission to reproduce some pictures and diagrams relating to the ground breaking work completed during the Patuxent River Project, the drawn plans are his own.
Note one relating to the photograph of Mrs Jefferson Patterson: The photograph depicts J. Rodney Little, Director of the Maryland Historical Trust assisting the late Mrs Jefferson Patterson in signing the transfer of 512 acres of land overlooking St. Leonard's Creek and the Patuxent River to the State of Maryland, as Governor Harold Hughes (centre standing) and other prominent Maryland officials look on. The land transfer, the largest private donation in state history, was undertaken to create the first archaeological park of its kind in Maryland, Courtesy of the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.