Just hours into the project Friday, while dodging rain showers and swarms of June bugs, the diggers had already turned up fragments of mid-19th-century tableware and decorative wrought iron, nails, birdshot and even a piece of an old pocket watch.
The military barracks and hospital were a rendezvous point for a succession of military units from Maryland, New York and Delaware that passed through between 1862 and 1865.
Newspaper accounts show it was also a refuge for runaway slaves and a source of neighborhood trouble as soldiers housed there drank and caroused and, in at least one case, tried to desert, with bloody results.
The three-day dig is designed to see what traces of Camp Hoffman might remain — such things as buttons, trash pits and privies, or the outlines of camp buildings. But it's also meant to draw attention to the tree-shaded park as a hidden jewel, set in a once-affluent neighborhood now beset by poverty and riddled with abandoned homes.
"We think it is drawing greater attention to the significance of Lafayette Square as an historic park, as open green space, as an asset for marketing the neighborhood and an important amenity to existing residents," said Eli Pousson, a field officer for Baltimore Heritage. The nonprofit historical preservation organization is co-sponsoring the work with the Archaeological Society of Maryland, which provided a $2,000 grant.
The public is invited to visit the square from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday to talk with the archaeologists, join walking tours of the neighborhood, and to enjoy historical exhibits and refreshments.
The work began Friday morning with a metal detector survey led by archaeologists Brandon Beis and David Gadsby, and staffed by a half-dozen volunteers. The survey will continue with a bigger crew on Saturday as archaeologists search for the most productive places for further study. A small excavation is planned for Sunday.
The work drew a dozen curious kids and counselors from a Summer Learning Camp at the nearby Macedonian Baptist Church. They got a quick history lesson from the crew, a look at some artifacts and a taste of metal detecting.
"The community is very excited about it," said Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Association, whose family has owned homes and lived in the area for four generations. "I knew this was a Civil War barracks, but I had no idea there would still be parts of it still here."
Recovering that history "enhances Lafayette Square, and it makes it a positive place to be; it has a history," she said. "Maybe it will encourage people come back and buy these houses."
Archaeology used to be more common in Baltimore until budget cuts a decade ago led to the disbanding of the city's Center for Urban Archaeology and closure of the City Life Museums.
Most of the homes surrounding the square were built in the decades after the Civil War, as the Lafayette Square area became a desirable new "country" address for the city's wealthy and upper-middle classes.
It includes the St. James Episcopal Church on the northeast corner of the square and the vacant Matthew Bacon Sellers mansion on the southeast corner, built by a wealthy Kentucky transplant who moved here to invest in shipping and railroads.
"One of the appeals of being on Lafayette Square was that it stood on a hill, and he could go to his third- floor windows and see to the Inner Harbor, where he could tell if his ships were running on time," Pousson said.
The land where Lafayette Square is today was once part of an estate owned by Dr. Thomas Edmondson. After his death in 1856, the city bought it and laid out the square — then covered by large trees — as a public park and the center of a planned new neighborhood.
But before the surrounding streets could be developed, war broke out. In September 1861, the city allowed the Union army to erect a tent camp there. The tents were soon replaced by wooden barracks on three sides of the park, and a hospital, officers' quarters and sutler's, or supply, store on the south side.
A contemporary lithograph shows the barracks stood inside an iron fence facing a central parade ground. The city and harbor are visible in the distance.
The fence clearly didn't keep soldiers in or others out. Clips from The Baltimore Sun retrieved by Baltimore Heritage provide a glimpse of life around Camp Hoffman.
In 1864, according to a camp history compiled by the group, "a soldier was killed by a stray bullet while attending a picnic at a nearby beer garden." The shot was fired by a drunken civilian. On another occasion, two deserters from the barracks at Lafayette Square were chased down by cavalry near a fortification nearby and shot dead.
Escaped slaves saw the camp as a refuge. In 1862, a Confederate officer named Gunther was released from prison at Fort McHenry, and he asked to visit Camp Hoffman to search for a slave who had run away from his niece's place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
The officer in charge said later, "I declined … on the ground that I had no authority to surrender fugitives from labor or service." Gunther later got a warrant from a local magistrate and entered the camp anyway. But the fugitive was not found.
The camp was closed in October 1865 after the war ended. The square once again became a public park and the focus of residential development in the area. A new cast-iron fence was erected to replace one lost during the military's residence there.
In 1909, the city sued the federal government to recover the $3,000 it spent to restore the park, plus $750 a year in rent for the time the Army was in residence. A court later set the damages at $2,996.94 and ordered the government to pay.