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Forgotten Battle of Caulk's Field

August 2020

In a skirmish on Maryland's Eastern Shore, local militia stood up to the British army and delayed the attack on Baltimore. 

The oft forgotten Battle of Caulk’s Field took place in the night of August 30, 1814, lasting into the early morning hours of Aug. 31, sandwiched in the week between the burning of Washington and the attack on Fort McHenry.

During that time the British navy had the task of blockading American shipping on the Chesapeake Bay, transporting Royal Marines and sailors to points of attack, and using a fleet of battle-rigged ships of the line to harass and disrupt American military and commerce as well as regular citizens.

As part of the British Chesapeake Campaign (1813-1814), Capt. Sir Peter Parker, commander of the frigate HMS Menelaus, was ordered to distract American militia regiments on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, troops that otherwise might be deployed to aid in the defense of targets on the other side of the bay.

“Our duty consisted in an eternal annoyance of the enemy, and therefore night and day we were employed in offensive operations,” British Midshipman Frederick Chamier, a member of the Menelaus crew, said in an account published years later.

Chamier was only about 18 years old at the time of the Chesapeake warfare, one of the older midshipmen.

Parker, too, was young for the position he held. Born in 1785, the son and grandson of naval officers, he started serving aboard warships as a teen and was promoted to lieutenant in 1801. He once served under the command of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson before the British naval hero's death in 1805.

In addition, Parker had the royal title of baronet. In 1810 he was given the command of the 38-gun-rated Menelaus, a ship he initially commanded in the war against France. Early in 1814, as the European conflict came to a close, he was ordered to support the war against the United States.

On Aug. 30, Parker’s men attacked the bayshore plantation of Richard Frisby, returning to the ship with booty—including four slaves—from the raid. From one of them, the glory-hungry Parker heard that a company of Maryland militiamen was encamped in the vicinity of Bel Air, now called Fairlee. He determined to launch as large a force as possible-comprised of sailors and Royal Marines-to attack them.

There could be no delay; in fact, he was unwilling to await the morning sun. After dinner was taken, Parker ordered the boats readied. Between 9:30 and 10 p.m. Aug. 30, the boats from Menelaus delivered about 140 marines and sailors to the vicinity of Mendinhall Lake north of Tolchester.

Parker and his men were guided by one of the captured slaves. About 10 minutes after they began to move inland, they surprised a picket of four or five militia cavalry. Some of the sailors fired at the cavalry.

Chamier noted in his account: The Americans, startled into activity by the unwelcome salute, returned the fire with equal precipitation and bad aim; after which they galloped off into a wood in the vicinity. Here they fired a single pistol; it was answered by one at some distance; and that again was answered at the camp by a field-piece.”

The alarm was received by the waiting 21st Regiment of the Maryland Militia and its commander, Lt. Col. Philip Reed. Born about 1760, Reed was a Revolutionary War veteran field officer of the Maryland Continental Line, one-time county sheriff and former U.S. senator and state delegate. His home was at nearby Huntingfield, near Rock Hall, so he knew the turf well. He commanded a force of 174 men divided into seven companies. His men were armed with muskets, most likely 69-caliber 1795 Harpers Ferry pattern flintlocks, along with five six-pounder field artillery pieces and limited ammunition.

Reed noted in a letter to his commander, Gen. Benjamin Chambers, written after the battle, that he initially thought the British were moving to attack a local plantation, as they had done earlier in the day at the Frisby farm.

“I received information that the barges of the enemy, then lying off Waltham’s farm, were moving ashore. I concluded their object was to land and burn the houses, &c. at Waltham’s and made the necessary arrangement to prevent them and to be prepared for an opportunity which I had sought for several days to strike the enemy. During our march to the point threatened, it was discovered that the blow was aimed at our camp,” Reed wrote. He then moved camp and prepared his men for the oncoming British attack.

Under a bright full moon that cast dim shadows on the uncertain ground, Parker led his seasoned British marauders along what is now called Bay Shore Road, turning south on Georgetown Road. He started out on foot like the rest of his men, but early on they captured a militia horseman who inadvertently rode up on the British column. Parker commandeered the horse and so for a while was mounted. He later dismounted, quite possibly to prevent becoming such an obvious target.

About 1 a.m. the militia rifle corps, led by Reed and Capt. Simon Wickes, waited quietly in the trees facing the path of their opponents. They opened fire when Parker and his men came within rifle shot.

Reed wrote: “The head of the enemy’s column soon presented itself and received the fire of our advance party, at seventy paces distance.”

At this point, the British began taking casualties. The riflemen then executed a strategic withdrawal to the American right, and the British charged.

“The order to charge reverberated through the wood, and was heard above the firing. We suddenly emerged into an open field, divided by a road, and perfectly surrounded by a thick wood. The road led up a gentle ascent, on the summit of which the enemy had planted five field-pieces directed down the road, and through the defile we had passed,” Chamier later wrote.

Parker, withstanding withering cannon fire, led his men onto the battlefield and engaged Reed’s carefully positioned main force. It was at this point the British took many of their casualties, according to archaeologist Julie M. Schablitsky, Ph.D., who led two site surveys in 2012 and 2013.

“The British charge forced the American skirmishers to retreat, traversing behind the artillery line to rejoin their company on the American right flank. Heavy musket and artillery fire broke out as reported by both sides. In fact, many British casualties probably occurred here, as evidenced by the high number and variety of battlefield artifacts,” her report noted.

“They opened their fire which was very destructive,” British Royal Marine Lt. Benjamin Beynon wrote in a diary entry the day after the battle. “The moment I got to the field and formed, my party fired a volley ...” At about that point Phil"? Rad

in the battle, Beynon was wounded by a musket ball to his thigh.

The British soldiers bravely forced their way toward Reed’s main line positioned on a rise, through a hail of American artillery and musket fire. In fact, Parker’s second in command, Lt. Henry Crease, made it into Reed’s camp and briefly captured one of the cannons.

However, the fiercest fighting was on the American left flank (British right flank), anchored on the main road, as the British attempted a flanking movement there.

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