Archaeologists Hope Dig Will Unearth Baltimore's Forgotten History (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Archaeologists Hope Dig Will Unearth Baltimore's Forgotten History

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll head 40 miles north now, and 200 years back to the War of 1812. By August 1814, British forces would sack Washington, and then attack Baltimore. Some 10,000 troops defended the city's downtown area, but that piece of the story has largely been forgotten and most of the old battlements have been paved over. But not all of them. Jacob Fenston journeyed to one grassy hill in the heart of the city, where efforts are underway to uncover some of this lost history.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:32
It was originally known as Laudenslager's Hill, named after Jacob Laudenslager, a German butcher who had set up shop on what was then the edge of the city.

MR. JOHNS HOPKINS

00:00:42
If you look over to our south a little bit you can see today what's the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

FENSTON

00:00:48
Johns Hopkins is director of the non-profit Baltimore Heritage. And we're standing near where Laudenslager's butcher shop used to be. Of course, back then there was no Francis Scott Key Bridge, but there was a panoramic view over the harbor and over the roads approaching the city from the East. So it was here on this strategic spot that Baltimoreans built the fortifications they hoped would protect their homes.

HOPKINS

00:01:11
It was virtually everybody in Baltimore City, whether you were a recent immigrant, whether you were an aristocrat, whether you were a man, whether you were a woman, whether you were a child, everybody pitched in for the defense of the city.

FENSTON

00:01:24
Thousands of residents came out to dig trenches and build berms, stretching for more than a mile along this high ground. In a few weeks, the digging will start up again, in the middle of what's now Patterson Park. Baltimore Heritage is behind the project. John Bedell, the lead archeologist for the dig, says, they've already done some preliminary work.

MR. JOHN BEDELL

00:01:42
We began with a geophysical survey.

FENSTON

00:01:45
Using radar to map out what's under the grass.

BEDELL

00:01:48
The radar goes into the soil and bounces back whenever there's a change in the consistency of the soil.

FENSTON

00:01:55
They were able to trace the path of the earthworks across the length of the park.

BEDELL

00:01:58
And it comes to around somewhere over here on this side-- I'm not sure exactly -- and then angles off sort of down toward the corner of the park. So that's what it looks like it's doing.

HOPKINS

00:02:08
John, how far down do we think they are? So we could go down several feet?

BEDELL

00:02:14
Four feet easily, anyway.

FENSTON

00:02:16
It was September 13, 1814, when the Royal Navy began bombarding Baltimore's Fort McHenry. Just weeks earlier, the British had attacked the nation's capital, sending the president fleeing to Virginia, and setting fire to the White House, the Treasury and the Capitol building. The Americans were demoralized, and the British were hoping to deal one final, decisive blow, with an attack on Baltimore.

BEDELL

00:02:40
To the extent that the war of 1812 was about anything, it was about whether the United States would really be an independent country.

FENSTON

00:02:47
In the Battle of Baltimore, Americans finally stood up and asserted their independence. And it turned out the city's defenses were so good, there wasn't even really a battle. Out in the harbor, the Royal Navy ran out of cannonballs before doing too much damage. On land, British troops were scared off the attack.

HOPKINS

00:03:04
They see massive fortifications which they hadn't really expected.

FENSTON

00:03:07
They were outnumbered two to one. After the Battle of Baltimore, Hopkins says this hill was preserved as hallowed ground. In 1914, there was a big centennial celebration here. But since then, the history has kind of been forgotten.

HOPKINS

00:03:21
For example, my son, who's ten years old, knows this as one of Baltimore's greatest sledding hills -- that's its claim to fame. Little does he know, until now, that he's sledding on a key part of America's defense in the war against the British.

FENSTON

00:03:34
The dig, which starts April 15th, is funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service. Kristen McMasters is an archeologist with the Park Service, specializing in American battlefields.

MS. KRISTEN MCMASTERS

00:03:44
There's a couple of great mysteries here, in that, you know, there was the Battle of Baltimore, and there were defense works here, but our best info is actually from six weeks after the Battle of Baltimore, where it shows lots of defenses.

FENSTON

00:03:57
As Baltimoreans built up fortifications for a possible second attack. So what was from the actual Battle of Baltimore and what came later?

MCMASTERS

00:04:05
That, archaeologically is going to be tough, tough, tough to figure out.

FENSTON

00:04:09
John Bedell says regardless of what they find or don't find, the dig will help connect local residents to the area's history.

BEDELL

00:04:16
Sometimes archeology's about knowledge, it's about learning about the past, but also, sometimes it's about connecting people to the past. Sometimes people who can't get into reading about the past can feel connected through touching it physically, through standing on it, through being on that spot, and seeing it and feeling it in their hands. So we hope to use these excavations both to learn about the fortifications and to connect people, the people of Baltimore, to this part of their history.

FENSTON

00:04:43
Volunteers will be able to do just that, helping Bedell and a small team of archeologists working on dig. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:04:52
You can learn more about the upcoming archeological dig in Patterson Park on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:05:05
After the break, what's in a name? In the case of a certain football team, quite a lot.

MR. MIKE RICHMAN

00:05:12
And my sense is when he saw the opportunity to capitalize on that Native American connection, he went for it.

SHEIR

00:05:18
That's just ahead on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

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00:05:23
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