Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in Calvert County, MD, has expansive open fields along its waterfront that are very hard to resist.
Visitors arrive on a wooded drive that ends on a graceful tree-lined road. Just beyond, paths travel along slightly rolling fields to the river. Like a layered scene taking you steadily farther away from whatever daily bustle you would like to escape, the Patuxent River shoreline beckons.
But when historian Ralph Eshelman leads tours at the park, this isn’t where he goes.
Eshelman is an expert on the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, and the land and water at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum were once the scene of a dramatic episode in the war.
To see the landscape as Eshelman does, head south on that tree-lined drive — by car, foot or bike. It becomes Point Trail, and an elegant brick home (now part of the park) sits on a rise above the river.
On a late winter day, Eshelman took long strides up the slope toward the house. He stopped in the front yard, avoiding the crocus blooms that were forcing their way through new-fallen snow.
“This is where I like to bring people,” Eshelman said.
The house faces the Patuxent River as it drifts on toward Solomons. The bluff drops away to a spindly piece of low-lying land, the “point” that gives Point Trail its name. St. Leonard’s Creek curls around to the left.
“This is the confluence of the river with St. Leonard’s Creek,” Eshelman said. “In 1814, we’d be looking out on a British frigate and other vessels blockading that creek.”
The anniversary of the War of 1812 culminates this year, with events to mark the burning of Washington, DC, and the attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
In the months leading up to those attacks, the British were especially active in Southern Maryland, including the pursuit of a small but daring flotilla that staged the only organized resistance to the British navy on the Chesapeake Bay.
Their skirmishes led to the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek on June 8–10 and again on June 26, 1814.
The British had begun raiding and burning shoreline properties about a year earlier, in the spring of 1813. Because the United States was a young and relatively decentralized country with limited military resources, citizens were often left to defend themselves as the British trampled homes, wharves, boats and plantations.
In July of 1813, Joshua Barney, a veteran of the American Revolution, stepped up with a plan.
“Barney went to the secretary of the Navy with a proposal to protect the people of the Chesapeake because there was really no naval presence here,” Eshelman said.
Barney, born in Baltimore, knew the Chesapeake well. He proposed a small fleet of gun boats equipped with both sail and oars that could move nimbly through the shallow waters of Chesapeake creeks.
The flotilla — sometimes called the “mosquito fleet” — could attack, annoy and delay the movement of British ships, then take shelter in waters where large vessels couldn’t travel.
“The navy agreed because, frankly, they didn’t really have another plan,” Eshelman said.
A few existing barges were commissioned. Others were built in Baltimore and St. Michaels or procured at the Washington Navy Yard. Barney expected the process to take three weeks — instead, it took nine months.
Barney then had trouble recruiting men. Eventually he assembled a ragtag group, both with and without experience. The roster included free and enslaved African Americans.
By May 1814, Barney led the flotilla toward Tangier Island, where the British had established a base. “He never made it,” Eshelman said. Barney drew back as the British pursued, but difficult winds prevented a retreat to the Potomac.
“Where was the next best place to get out of the Bay? The Patuxent River,” Eshelman said.
Barney was able to gather his fleet into the Patuxent, including two slower vessels that were nearly captured by the pursuing British. They eventually took refuge in St. Leonard’s Creek, and the British immediately blocked them in.
Between June 8 and June 10, the two sides exchanged fire in a series of naval skirmishes that ended in a stalemate. To draw Barney out of the creek, British forces began attacking towns and plantation on the Patuxent shoreline.
In the meantime, American soldiers, marines and local militia marched in by land.
“They established a battery here during the night, very quietly,” Eshelman said. The exact spot was on the back slope of the hill where the brick home now stands. At the time, it was steeper and provided good cover. At daybreak on June 26, the battery opened fire.
“Barney hears it, and the battle is on,” Eshelman said.
The British were under fire from two directions: the mouth of the creek and the crest of the hill.
“They were initially confused, which was a good thing,” Eshelman said.
Americans fired “hot shot,” warmed in a mobile furnace, at British ships, while Barney’s son made a daring rescue of a damaged gunboat. One British vessel was badly hit, and the British withdrew to control the damage. The disruption gave Barney’s flotilla enough time and distance to escape the creek, but they were still trapped in the mainstem of the Patuxent.
The summer months grew hotter as American leaders fretted over British intentions in the Chesapeake. Some believed they would move on to Baltimore. Others feared for Washington.
By late August, the British had moved up the Patuxent River and pushed Barney along with them. Approximately 4,000 British troops disembarked at Benedict and began marching toward Washington. As Americans scrambled back to defend the capital, Barney was trapped.
On Aug. 22, Barney and his crew followed orders: Destroy the flotilla before it falls into enemy hands. They joined the land troops, set charges in their vessels and left them to explode, one by one, in the Patuxent River.
Barney’s sailors matched their bravery on the water with equal bravery on land. The men gave fierce resistance at the Battle of Bladensburg, where Barney was gravely wounded, just two days later and again in September at Fort McHenry. “If you want to tell the story of heroism, it’s not just the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek. It was their effort at Bladensburg and Baltimore, too,” Eshelman said.
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is a site on the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail with annual events to mark its War of 1812 heritage.
This year, for the battle’s 200th anniversary, the park will host two days of re-enactments, encampments, music and food on the weekend of June 21–22.
The re-enactments are part of the Chesapeake Campaign events taking place across Maryland, including scenarios from the British landing at Benedict, the Battles of Bladensburg and North Point, and of course the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek — with small boats to simulate the flotilla, land-based artillery and tall ships in the river.
Commodore Joshua Barney will make an appearance, played by Myron Peterson. Peterson, a longtime re-enactor from Anne Arundel County, said that Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is a great setting for living history events — especially for learning about the War of 1812.
“Re-enactors like coming here because we have room to do an event that isn’t cluttered up with soccer fields and cell towers and fast food restaurants,” Peterson said. “Sites like this are rare.”
Peterson urges people to walk the land where historic events took place. He began doing re-enactments because as a child he visited many historic sites where the stories and artifacts were kept behind glass.
“I always wondered how it fit together, how it all worked,” he said. “You can look at the pictures and the map, but it’s not the same as standing out there and seeing it yourself.”
In June, the action at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum will, of course, be located in the best space available — those beautiful waterfront fields.
Take in the show, enjoy the music and the food, but be sure to wander down Point Trail and take in the actual scene where Barney and his crew clashed with the British.
“I like to think we are doing something that will help the public remember the war and the men who took part in it,” Peterson said, “and maybe even have a better understanding as to who we are as Americans.”
Explore the War of 1812 in Southern Maryland
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is near the town of St. Leonard. Admission is free. Grounds and trails are open year-round, weather permitting, from 7:30 until dusk except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The visitor center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but closes for the winter Nov. 30; it reopen on March 1.
The Exhibit Barn features Farmers, Patriots & Traitors: Southern Maryland and the War of 1812. It’s open 12–4 p.m. Tuesdays and Friday through Sunday around mid-April through a date yet to be determined in October, depending on the weather. (It may be closed during periods of extreme temperatures — call ahead.)
The 1812 Fair & Re-enactment takes place at the park 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. June 21 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 22. Step back in time to experience what life was like during the War of 1812. Enjoy battle re-enactments, living history, music, dance, vendors and food. Admission is free, with food and drink available for purchase (cash only).
For information, call 410-586-8501 or visit www.jefpat.org
- The Tall Ship Invasion takes place Wednesday through Sunday, June 18-22, at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons to commemorate the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek. The museum is a 15-mile drive from Jefferson Patterson Park. The invasion will offer free dockside tours of the Pride of Baltimore II, Sultana, The Dove and Kalmar Nyckel. Call 410-326-2042 or visit www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.
The Raiders & Invaders “Take No Prisoners” Weekend takes place on Friday through Sunday, June 6–8 in Leonardtown on the Potomac River and throughout St. Mary’s County.
The event includes music, street theater, food, brews and waterfront activities. For details, visit www.raidersandinvaders.com or call St. Mary’s County Tourism at 301-475-4414. As part of the Raiders and Invaders Weekend, nearby Sotterley Plantation offers “The Choice.” This popular tour and interactive play depicts the dilemma faced by enslaved African Americans when British invaders offered them freedom. Tickets go on sale in April. For information or on-line sales, visit www.sotterleyplantation.com or call 301-373-2280.
- Explore the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek through a great new collection of interactive battlefield maps at www.1812battles.com. You’ll also find guides to the Battle of Bladensburg, Battle of North Point and Battle of Baltimore.