War of 1812 Flagship Reveals Its Secrets

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2011 — A U.S. Navy ship that’s rest­ed on the bot­tom of the Patux­ent Riv­er for near­ly 200 years is slow­ly reveal­ing its secrets to archae­ol­o­gists, a senior Navy admin­is­tra­tor said yes­ter­day.

Dur­ing a “DOD Live” blog­gers round­table, Bob Ney­land, head of the Navy’s under­wa­ter archae­ol­o­gy branch, dis­cussed the exca­va­tion of the USS Scor­pi­on, which was scut­tled dur­ing the War of 1812.

The Scor­pi­on, the flag­ship of Com­modore Joshua Barney’s Chesa­peake Bay Flotil­la, is locat­ed about 30 min­utes out­side Wash­ing­ton.

Dur­ing the War of 1812, Bar­ney was charged to pro­tect Wash­ing­ton from invad­ing British forces. Barney’s plan called for the con­struc­tion of a flotil­la con­tain­ing small­er barges and gun­boats that would be able to out­ma­neu­ver the larg­er British ships in the shal­low Chesa­peake waters.

The flotil­la fought in sev­er­al bat­tles and played a key role in drain­ing British resources and slow­ing the inva­sion. How­ev­er, Barney’s Chesa­peake Bay Flotil­la met its end Aug. 22, 1814.

After the Bat­tle of St. Leonard’s Creek, Bar­ney was forced to flee up the Patux­ent Riv­er to what is now High­way 4, near Pig Point, Md. He was out­flanked, seri­ous­ly wound­ed, and had used up most of his ammu­ni­tion. Ney­land said it was there that Bar­ney scut­tled his flotil­la, includ­ing the USS Scor­pi­on, to pre­vent the approach­ing British navy from com­man­deer­ing his ves­sels.

As the flotil­la sank, Bar­ney and his remain­ing crew left Pig Point and made their way to join Amer­i­can troops and cit­i­zen-sol­diers fight­ing at the Bat­tle of Bladens­burg, Md. As the British forces over­came the Amer­i­cans, many of the cit­i­zen-sol­diers retreat­ed, but Bar­ney and his crew stayed to fight. In the end, they were among the last on the bat­tle­field. Bar­ney died in Pitts­burgh in 1818 while trav­el­ing to Ken­tucky, where he planned to retire.

Until now, lit­tle was known about the con­struc­tion of Barney’s fleet and, in par­tic­u­lar, the Scor­pi­on. His­to­ri­ans knew the Scor­pi­on was a con­vert­ed gun­boat, built in 1806. “We real­ly don’t know a whole lot about the con­struc­tion of it,” Ney­land said, “oth­er than it was one of the larg­er sloop brig ves­sels.”

In the late 1970s, ama­teur archae­ol­o­gists found 13 ves­sels on the same spot where Bar­ney scut­tled his flotil­la. Pre­lim­i­nary evi­dence sug­gest­ed the ves­sels dat­ed to the War of 1812.

“They ver­i­fied that it was a War of 1812 ves­sel from recov­ered parts of a surgeon’s kit, [and from] mate­ri­als that were appro­pri­ate to the War of 1812,” Ney­land said.

The ships’ loca­tion sug­gest­ed they were part of Barney’s flotil­la. But addi­tion­al and deep­er explo­ration yield­ed evi­dence that removed all doubt that the flotil­la and the USS Scor­pi­on had, indeed, been found.

Archae­ol­o­gists have found some very telling per­son­al items aboard one of the ves­sels, Ney­land said.

“They found a grog cup … and the ini­tials C.W. were on that cup,” Ney­land said. “The only C.W. list­ed with Bar­ney was an African-Amer­i­can sailor named Cae­sar Went­worth. He was assigned to �… Barney’s flag­ship, called the Scor­pi­on. So, hence, that’s part of the evi­dence that sug­gests the wreck we are look­ing at today is that of the Scor­pi­on.”

With the exca­va­tion under way, the plan is in place to make the USS Scor­pi­on part of the War of 1812 bicen­ten­ni­al com­mem­o­ra­tion. The com­mem­o­ra­tion will start in 2012 and con­tin­ue through 2014. The Scor­pi­on will join the com­mem­o­ra­tion in 2013. At that point, Ney­land said, he and his team will put a steel struc­ture � called a cof­fer­dam — around the 75-foot ship­wreck. The water will then be pumped out, thus ful­ly exca­vat­ing the USS Scor­pi­on.

This method allows a more detailed record­ing of arti­facts and the hull, Ney­land said, and will allow for pub­lic view­ing both on the site and by web­cam.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)