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Two centuries later, Battle of Caulk's Field is brought to light

BALTIMORE (MCT) — The Battle of Caulk's Field, the engagement at which the local soldiers of the Kent County militia stood up to the highly trained British Royal Navy and Marines, unfolded in the darkness of the early morning of Aug. 31, 1814. The only light came from the moon and the flashes of the troops' muskets.

On Sunday, the 200th anniversary of the pivotal skirmish, historical interpreters brought the battle out into the daylight, allowing spectators to see the action that foreshadowed the defense of Fort McHenry and the eventual American victory in the War of 1812.

"This is history that isn't talked about so much," said Leslie Rothstein, a junior at nearby Washington College. "I know a little bit more now."

With bicentennial events to commemorate the much larger Battle of Baltimore looming, thousands came Sunday to the private farm nine miles west of Chestertown where the Americans killed 14 British troops and began to turn the war around.

"It was a morale boost," said John Wyman, the former Kent County High School history teacher who served as the commanding field officer for the Americans on Sunday. "It was a very dark time in the Chesapeake. This was the first time these soldiers stood their ground, and you could make the argument they won the battle."

Earlier in the day, Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, and Col. Alan Litster, the Royal Marine attache at the British Embassy in Washington, laid a wreath at a monument commemorating the battle.

Spectators mingled with soldiers and 19th-century civilians in a military encampment and a suttler's village.

The re-enactment was based on soldiers' accounts of the battle and more recent study. Archaeologists from the State Highway Administration and the University of Maryland have found and mapped more than 700 artifacts on the battlefield — musket shot, artillery shells and uniform buttons that have helped them trace the progress of the engagement.

The battlefield remains much as it was in 1814: A rural farm about half a mile from the Chesapeake Bay, where Isaac Caulk might have raised corn, the crop that grows there now. A light breeze 200 years ago, as on Sunday, did little to alleviate the August heat.

Narrators on Sunday provided the background for the spectators, who watched from behind a period-correct split-rail fence.

Britain, having defeated Napoleon in Europe, could now turn its full attention to its war with its former colonists. In the weeks before Caulk's Field, British troops had defeated the Americans at Bladensburg in Prince George's County and burned Washington, chasing President James Madison and the rest of the federal government from the capital.

Now they were aiming for a more valuable prize: Baltimore, the gateway to the industrial centers of the young United States.

The Battle of Caulk's Field, as re-enacted, started slowly. About 150 British Marines and sailors from HMS Menelaus under Capt. Sir Peter Parker emerged from woods to the west and advanced on the 174 local militiamen under the command of Lt. Col. Philip Reed.

The Americans held the higher ground. Reed ordered his riflemen to fire when the British were within 70 paces. The British answered with musket balls, and the sides continued a back-and-forth exchange, punctuated by occasional blasts from an American cannon.

Parker was mortally wounded, but the Americans were running low on ammunition. The British continued their advance, and briefly captured an American artillery piece. But they had suffered heavy casualties — 27 wounded and 14 dead, including their leader. They eventually withdrew.

The spectators on Sunday let out a cheer. The narrators noted that 12 of the British dead were likely buried where they fell, and read their names.

Randall and Sylvia Yancey, from Germantown, have attended Civil War re-enactments. This was their first War of 1812 commemoration. Randall Yancey said he had read up on the battle in anticipation of the event.

The re-enactment drew interpreters from throughout North America; at least some of the British troops were portrayed by Canadians.

Caulk's Field is one of the few War of 1812 battlefields that remains as it was 200 years ago. Wyman, who grew up in Kent County and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in history at Washington College, called participating in the re-enactment a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The event was two years in the planning.

"This is huge for Kent County," said Bernadette Bowman, the county's director of tourism. "It's an opportunity for us to talk about America's heritage, and our piece of it.

"We hope that everyone who came and saw how beautiful it is here, and experienced our hospitality, will come back and visit."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

©2014 The Baltimore Sun. Visit The Baltimore Sun at www.baltimoresun.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
 

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