Battlefield dig

Julie Schablitsky holds one of the artifacts recovered from the Kent County battlefield at the State Highway Administration lab. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / November 19, 2012)

The DNA of a battle that helped turn the tide of a war going horribly wrong for America lay buried just six inches below the surface in a Kent County cornfield.

For nearly two centuries, the musket balls, canister shot and other artifacts from intense fighting at Caulk's Field waited to tell the story of a sweltering August night in 1814, when militiamen sprang a trap on a British raiding party bent on destruction.

How did the citizen-soldiers best their battle-tested foes at Caulk's Field?

State archaeologist Julie Schablitsky hopes to figure that out. With the help of history buffs armed with metal detectors and some cadaver-sniffing dogs, she is retracing the footsteps of Sir Peter Parker, a British marine captain leading 170 troops, and a like number of militiamen commanded by Col. Philip Reed.

"This battlefield is frozen in time," Schablitsky said. "It was a pasture 200 years ago and it's a pasture now. If Captain Parker or Colonel Reed came by today, they'd know exactly where they were."

They might even recognize some of the artifacts being cleaned and cataloged in a Baltimore laboratory.

"It's not just the artifact. It's the story attached to each one," Schablitsky said. "From mid-August to mid-September in 1814, Maryland was a war zone. People were watching in terror. Houses were set on fire and people were captured. Washington burned."

The dig was set in motion by the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, which secured a $40,000 federal grant two years ago. Schablitsky, who works for the State Highway Administration, was tapped for the job.

Shablitsky, 43, an Annapolis resident, had been involved in other 1812 digs, but she was best known for her research on the Donner Party campsite in the Sierra Nevada range and John Paul Jones' birthplace in Scotland.

The opportunity to try to fill in the blanks at Caulk's Field intrigued state officials.

"This is easily the best-preserved 1812 battlefield in the Mid-Atlantic, thanks to the excellent stewardship of the owners, the Tulip Forest Farming Corp., who understood its importance and protected it," said Bill Pencek, the commission's executive director.

This much was known: On Aug. 30, 1814, Parker's troops came ashore from HMS Menelaus, hoping to surprise and capture Maryland militiamen to get information about Baltimore's defenses. The British already had burned Washington. They were preparing a siege of Baltimore and hoping to wipe out pockets of resistance across the Chesapeake Bay.

But the Americans knew they were coming and ambushed them just east of Georgetown Road on an 80-acre farm. During the hour-long battle, 14 British soldiers and marines died, including Parker, 28, who was shot and bled to death. The Americans suffered just three wounded.

With their commander dead and the Americans holding the high ground, the invaders retreated to their ship. Two weeks later, the British withdrew from the upper Chesapeake Bay when their siege of Baltimore and bombardment of Fort McHenry failed.

"The questions were, 'Could we find where men stood and fought? Could we find where they made camp?'" Schablitsky said. "It's really like a crime scene. You have to let the artifacts — the evidence — tell you what was going on."

Just two sets of post-battle notes — one British and one American — exist. So last April, Schablitsky enlisted the New Jersey-based Battlefield Restoration and Archaeological Volunteer Organization to scour half the field and mark each artifact with a flag.

During the height of the battle, soldiers were "shedding metal," said Schablitsky, and the pattern of brass buttons, spent munitions and coins showed the general disposition of troops. Knowing the characteristics of each side's musket shot (the American shot was smaller) and the range of the guns helped draw battle lines.

Unfired ammunition dropped in the heat of battle as soldiers on both sides hurried to reload indicates how far the British soldiers chased the Americans as they fell back to the high ground and the protection of their artillery.

"When I got out there, I wasn't that impressed," she said of the pasture. "But when I started seeing patterns, that's when my jaw dropped."

A sweep of a second 40 acres this fall indicated that the battle spread wider than originally believed.