Scientists explore wreck thought to be part of 1812 fleet

USS Scorpion

By Lara Lutz - Bay Journal

Archaeologist Julie Schablitsky normally works on land. For this job, she learned to dive.

Then, in the murky waters of Maryland's Patuxent River, she touched a piece of the nation's past.

Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland State Highway Administration, is helping to excavate an early U.S. vessel that fought British forces on the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.

"It's a piece of Maryland history and heritage, a symbol of strength from 200 years ago," Schablitsky said.

Most of the sunken shipwreck is covered by 60 feet of silt that a team of archaeologists from the Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Historical Trust and U.S. Navy began to remove this summer. 

Sediment - a pollutant that fouls Bay water quality - hangs heavy in the water, too, and makes work difficult. On a good day, divers can see about 12 inches in front of them. After rain, almost nothing.

The cloudy water hampered Schablitsky's first dive at the site but made it memorable, too.

"I'm used to picking up an artifact and letting my eyes see it," Schablitsky said. "But reaching through that water and having my hand 'see' it first just took me instantly back to the War of 1812. It gave me goose bumps."

The vessel was once part of "Barney's Flotilla," a small but scrappy collection of gunboats launched in 1814 to confront the British navy on the Chesapeake Bay. The superior British naval forces had run rampant through the Bay since the war began, raiding port towns and farmland at will.

Led by Commodore Joshua Barney, the flotilla moved easily through the Bay's shallow waters and bedeviled the British as they made their way toward Washington, D.C. British ships eventually chased the flotilla to the upper reaches of the Patuxent River.

On a stifling day in August 1814, the Americans faced defeat. Rather than leave the vessels in British hands, they destroyed the flotilla and continued on foot to help defend the nation's capital.

Fifteen gunboats and Barney's flagship, the USS Scorpion, sank to the bottom of the river.

Investigators have located a handful of sites that may hold remains from Barney's Flotilla. But the current site is the only one to be explored and dated to the War of 1812.

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