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Testing the Waters of Time, Naval History Fleet May Again Make A Splash

The Washington Post
April 17 1997

Thousands of daily commuters cross over the Patuxent River at Hill's Bridge between Wayson's Corner and Upper Marlboro. On nice days, cars and pickups park off to one side where the sign marks Patuxent Wetlands Park, a favorite fishing spot for hook-and-liners.

It is both a busy and a placid place, but once it was a fiery scene of naval disengagement where 16 warships and one supply ship were blown up to keep them from enemy hands. It was Aug. 22, 1814, and the scuttling of the American fleet under U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney during the War of 1812.

Now, a consortium of museums, government agencies, educational institutions, maritime historians and underwater archaeologists is undertaking an ambitious project to locate, identify and even excavate those vessels to learn more about the life and times of the infant U.S. Navy.

Buried beneath the silt for nearly 200 years, the Chesapeake flotilla resurfaced in 1979, at least in sonar images and test excavations by Donald G. Shomette, a Chesapeake Bay maritime historian and archaeologist. For several years, the project languished for lack of funding, but it has now taken on a new life.

The Maryland Historic Trust of the state's Department of Housing and Economic Development has chipped in $27,000. The Navy conducted aerial magnetometer surveys of the sites last year, and some excavation work is scheduled for this summer at St. Leonard's Creek, a Patuxent tributary where two of Barney's gunboats were scuttled to prevent capture.

"There is an almost unprecedented, extraordinary degree of preservation of shipwrecks and materials they contain," said J. Rodney Little, director of the trust. "We believe in the end we'll find all vessels" in the flotilla, most of them oar-powered gunboats such as the barge replica built last year for the Prince George's County Tricentennial.

With the vessels, it is hoped, is a treasure of artifacts that would be studied and preserved at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab at Patterson Park in Calvert County.

"It's a very significant cultural resource probably not many thought of, or were aware of, so close to Washington," said Robert Neyland, underwater archaeologist for the Navy, which still owns most of the sunken vessels.

The project has received endorsements from Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and from Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who are seeking a congressional appropriation of $214,000 to identify the vessels and do test excavations.

The entire project is expected to cost millions and take several years to complete.

Eventually, these maritime sites are to be included in a historic tour of War of 1812 locales in Maryland. Officials hope the tour will boost tourist spending by $6.75 million annually by 2000. Meanwhile, as part of the county's tricentennial celebration, students from Prince George's schools helped to build and launch a seven-ton replica of one of the gunboats Barney commanded.

In 1813, Barney, a Revolutionary War hero, proposed to the Secretary of the Navy that there should be a defensive fleet for the unprotected Chesapeake region. Almost all but the flagship, a sloop, were oar-powered gunboats, "a flying squadron," Barney called them, to "be continually watching and annoying the enemy in our waters."

Encountering superior British forces, Barney's flotilla retreated into the Patuxent in June 1814, then into St. Leonard's Creek, where Barney fended off British naval assaults.

After scuttling two ships in the creek, Barney made his way up the river to protect its towns. Pursued by the British, he scuttled the fleet at Pigs Point, near present-day Wayson's. Barney and the sailors of his flotilla, many of them fugitive or freed slaves, hiked over to Bladensburg, where they distinguished themselves in what otherwise was an American defeat and where Barney was captured by the British.

The sunken fleet was a sometime tourist attraction at low tide in the late 1800s when its remains emerged from the river's silt. By this century, however, it was all but lost to history. That is, until now.

If all goes as planned, a state summary says, the project will "establish Maryland as an international leader for maritime research, conservation and education programs in partnership with the federal government."

There will be "full documentation" of the Barney flotilla, 20,000 historic documents and pictures digitized and transcribed for electronic distribution to schools and scholars, and "stabilization, mending and conservation" of 250,000 artifacts from the War of 1812, including the recovery of one of the excavated shipwrecks.

All of this would be done in time for the bicentennial of what has also been called the Second War for American Independence, a commemoration to be held from 2012 to 2014. "It sounds a long way off, but it isn't," Shomette said. "By the time all these nuts and bolts get screwed onto the ship, we may be there."

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