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Archaeologists Hope Dig Will Unearth Baltimore's Forgotten History

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A cannon from the 1914 centennial of the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, on the top of the hill in Patterson Park.
Jacob Fenston/WAMU
A cannon from the 1914 centennial of the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, on the top of the hill in Patterson Park.

In the War of 1812, after sacking Washington, British forces headed north to Baltimore, attacking the city by land and sea. The naval battle at Fort McHenry famously inspired Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” which later became the national anthem. But on land, the 10,000 troops who defended downtown have largely been forgotten.

Two centuries of development has paved over the old battlements, except at one grassy hill where remnants are still visible. Now, there’s an effort under way to uncover some of this lost history, with an archeological dig in the heart of Baltimore.

History under a hill

The hill, about a mile east of downtown Baltimore, was once known as Laudenslager’s Hill, says Johns Hopkins, director of the non-profit Baltimore Heritage.

“Laudenslager had a butcher shop, and a tavern right about where we're standing,” says Hopkins, standing at the top of what is now Patterson Park. “This was the edge of Baltimore City.”

From his butcher shop, Laudenslager had a great view over the harbor. He could also see the roads approaching the city from the East. So it was on this strategic spot on the edge of the city that Baltimoreans built the fortifications they hoped would protect their homes.

“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.”

Thousands of residents came out to dig trenches and build berms, stretching more than a mile along the high ground, preparing for the onslaught of British troops.

In a few weeks, the digging will start up again, in the middle of what’s now one of the city’s most popular parks. Baltimore Heritage is behind the project, and they've already done some preliminary work.

John Bedell, with the Louis Berger Group, is the lead archaeologist for the dig. He and his team have already completed a preliminary geophysical survey, using radar to see what is under the grass.

“The radar goes into the soil and bounces back whenever there’s a change in the consistency of the soil,” explains Bedell. Using this technology, the team was able to trace the path of the earthworks across the length of the park.

This site was first used as a military installation in September 1814, during the pivotal Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812.

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 the attack on Baltimore.

“To the extent the war of 1812 was about anything, it was about whether the United States would really be an independent country,” says Bedell.

In the Battle of Baltimore, he says, Americans finally stood up and asserted their independence.

Baltimore’s defenses were so good, the Battle of Baltimore wasn't even really a battle: out in the harbor, the Royal Navy bombarded Fort McHenry for more than 24 hours, but ran out of cannonballs before doing much damage. On land, British troops were scared off the attack.

“They see massive fortifications which they hadn’t really expected,” says Hopkins.

The British were outnumbered two to one.

Connecting people to the past

Hopkins says after the Battle of Baltimore, this hill was preserved as hallowed ground. In 1914, there was a big centennial celebration here. But since then, the history has largely been forgotten.

“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.”

The dig 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.

“There’s a couple of great mysteries here, in that there was the Battle of Baltimore, but our best info is from six weeks after, when there were lots of defenses.”

Baltimoreans continued to build to up fortifications after the battle, in preparation for a possible second attack. This means archeologists will have to determine what is from the actual Battle of Baltimore, and what came in the weeks and months and years after.

“That, archaeologically is going to be tough, tough, tough to figure out.”

Regardless of what they find or don't find, Bedell says it will be a good way to connect local residents to the area’s history.

“Sometimes archeology’s about knowledge, it’s about learning about the past, but it’s also about connecting people to the past. Sometimes people who can't get into reading about the past can feel connected by touching it physically, through standing on it, through being on that spot, and seeing it and feeling it in their hands.”

Dozens of volunteers, included two eighth grade classes, will be assisting Bedell and the small team of archeologists working on dig, which starts April 15.

Music: "Machineries of Joy" by British Sea Power from Machineries of Joy

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