Historians fret fate of War of 1812 sites

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On a grassy hill a mile west of the Patuxent River, historian Ralph Eshelman can see the same bucolic view of fields and placid water anxious British soldiers likely saw when they landed in the summer of 1814 — the first stop in their campaign to burn Washington to the ground.

Despite an earlier raid that was repulsed by American militia, the more than 4,000-man British force faced no resistance on Aug. 19 as it swarmed ashore in Southern Maryland. Four days later, after defeating disorganized American defenses at Bladensburg, the soldiers marched into Washington unopposed, setting fire to the Capitol and White House and demoralizing the nation.

"It's the only time the nation's capital was ever occupied by a foreign power and this is where it started," said Eshelman, who has co-written a new book about the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Bay region to be published next month. "There was no actual conflict, but this is a very, very important site."

And like many historic sites from the nation's second war with the British, it is once again in danger of being overrun.

Because much of the land where the soldiers encamped is privately held, the fields west of Benedict make up one of seven historic War of 1812 sites in Maryland the U.S. Department of Interior considers threatened by development in the next decade, according to a 2008 report.

Nationwide, 164 battlefields and historic sites from the War of 1812 and the American Revolution face "medium" or "high" risk of destruction by 2018.

More than 100 historic locations along the East Coast are already gone.

Since 1996, federal authorities have focused preservation efforts on Civil War sites such as the Antietam National Battlefield in Western Maryland, where Gen. Robert E. Lee's confederate soldiers clashed with the Union Army in a battle that left 3,650 dead.

Far fewer federal resources have been directed to preserve similar sites from the War of 1812, which will be remembered in a series of bicentennial events this year.

A bipartisan bill advancing in Congress could change that. The proposal, approved unanimously by the House Committee on Natural Resources last month, would expand the American Battlefield Protection Program beyond Civil War sites to include properties that played a role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

The measure authorizes $10 million in grants that local governments would match to buy historic properties for preservation.

As lawmakers work to reduce federal budget deficits, any new spending faces shaky prospects in Congress. But the bill, crafted by Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, has two Republican co-sponsors and could receive a vote by the full House in coming weeks.

"History is best experienced by those who can touch it and feel it," Holt said during a hearing earlier this year. "There is really a desperate need to act and to act quickly."

The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Historians say changes to the way the federal government approaches the sites are long overdue.

"It is surprising how little attention is given to the sites from the Revolution and the War of 1812," said Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., a lobbyist with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "There are very few protected sites associated with that enormously significant period."

Other sites at risk in Maryland include several fields in Queen Anne's County where a small American militia held off a British force of 300 in the 1813 Battle of Slippery Hill. The Department of the Interior list also includes Caulk's Field, a Kent County battlefield that experts believe is the best-preserved War of 1812 site in the state.

The British engaged with Benedict in an unopposed raid and a later skirmish before landing there in 1814 to launch their attack, Eshelman said. The skirmish involved Francis Scott Key, who would later write the lyrics that became the Star-Spangled Banner. Key was on a scouting mission in the region when the British ships approached Benedict.

In August 1814, a British force led by Gen. Robert Ross sailed up the Patuxent to Benedict. The water's depth allowed the ships to move upriver easily and the area's well-maintained roads provided good access to Washington.

With separate, diversionary forces moving up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, the soldiers who landed at Benedict faced no resistance as they came ashore. Some sympathetic locals even provided intelligence to Ross on the movement of American forces.

The British contingent was larger than the white male population of Charles County at the time.

As part of the war's bicentennial, a team of archaeologists from the Maryland State Highway Administration has been looking for evidence — such as uniform buttons and musket shot — of soldier encampments. It's part of a broader effort by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration to stir up interest in events planned for June.

Five archaeologists were working on a patch of grass along Route 231 earlier this month, swinging metal detectors back and forth and marking potential artifacts with bright flags. The group had found a musket ball from the Civil War — probably a remnant of Camp Stanton, a nearby training facility for African-American soldiers — but was still searching for signs of the British.

Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the agency, said that finding those artifacts can be challenging, even though development in the area has been relatively limited. Nails from previous buildings and soda cans tossed from cars throw off metal detectors. Road realignments can ruin the integrity of historic sites.

That's part of the reason she is so concerned about potential development.

"Whenever you have property that is not in some sort of public hands, it really is keeping the door open to any sort of development," Schablitsky said. "You always have to be 100 years ahead of development."

The pressure to build around Benedict and other sites is not abstract. Preservationists here recently fought plans to build a 125-foot cell phone tower on the hill where Schablitsky's team was working. Some of the property is owned by the state, and other lots have easements that offer protection, but those restraints are not fail-safe.

Not all historians see a need for the government to buy property around all of the sites. Mary Margaret Revell Goodwin, executive director of the Eastern Shore 1812 Consortium and chair of the Queen Anne's County War of 1812 Commemoration Committee, thinks that approach would be overkill for Slippery Hill.

The soliders who fought here briefly 200 years ago would no longer recognize the place, she said. Fields have become wooded and Route 18 now cuts through the area.

"What you see today doesn't have a bearing on what it was like," said Goodwin, who is instead working to raise $28,000 for a memorial park nearby. "It's hard for me to say its an endangered battlefield, but then it's not the first time I've disagreed with the Interior Department."

But Franklin Robinson, co-owner of a 275-acre farm west of Benedict, does believe there is value in expanding the government's role in protecting the sites.

Robinson, whose family has owned Serenity Farm since 1965, offered to sell part of his property years ago to allow construction of a visitors center, but there were no takers. No group or government agency had the money to buy it.

Robinson, who chairs the Charles County Historic Preservation Commission and works as an archives specialist for the Smithsonian Institution, has no plans to sell his property to developers. On the contrary, he fought efforts to build the cell phone towers and has won awards for his preservation efforts.

Still, Robinson is concerned about the development creeping down from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. Eventually, he worries, that development will arrive at the doorstep of Benedict, — whether the history in the region has been protected or not.

"Once those sites are gone they are gone forever," Robinson said. "Some accommodation needs to be made for history."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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