Monday, June 23, 2008

War of 1812 muster roll

Among the documents that we've just discovered at Poplar Grove is this military roster, on a large sheet of paper in perfect condition. It is headed "A Roster of the Attendance of Capt. Jas. Roe's Company Stationed at Bell Aire - August 31st 1814 the Campaign Commenced." There follows a list of names of soldiers, with check marks to indicate days on which they were present. (Click the images in this post to enlarge.)

Who were these soldiers, and what was the campaign? As it turns out, this document is a rare relic of an almost-forgotten battle in the War of 1812 ... a battle that was, however, one of the precious few American victories in the Chesapeake region ... where, just a week before this document was penned, British redcoats had torched Washington, DC!

With the White House and U.S. Capitol reduced to smoldering ruins, the British military machine turned its attention to the great port city of the Chesapeake - and the most booming metropolis of the young United States - Baltimore. They began moving their land and naval forces into position, determined to inflict a similar fate on the port city, known as a nest of privateers.

As a diversion to the Americans, and to interrupt communications with Philadelphia and New York, a small force of Royal Marines under Captain Sir Peter Parker was sent up the Bay in the 38-gun frigate HMS Menelaus. (The 26-year-old Sir Peter, first cousin of the poet Lord Byron, was described, incidentally, as "the handsomest man in the navy" ... it is unclear if the British commanders expected this to have any impact on the outcome of his mission, however.)

Attempting to pin down the local militia and keep them from reinforcing Baltimore's defenses, the Marines landed in Kent County and marched toward Chestertown. (Sir Peter is said – probably apocryphally – to have vowed: “I will have breakfast in Chestertown, or in hell.”) Shortly after midnight on August 31, the redcoats were intercepted by three companies of the Eastern Shore militia at a place known as Bel Air (not to be confused with the better-known Bel Air north of Baltimore across the Bay). The British charged but were met with deadly volleys from the Marylanders, losing 13 killed and 27 wounded. Among those left lifeless on the field was Sir Peter himself. Lord Byron later composed a poem on his cousin's untimely death and the undying glory that would be his reward.

Research by the Poplar Grove team and by Scott Sheads, National Park Service historian at Fort McHenry National Monument, has shown that Capt. James Roe's company was a cavalry unit of the 35th Maryland Militia, from Queen Anne's County. These troops apparently did not reach the scene in time to participate in the Battle of Caulk's Field, as it would be known, but arrived to reinforce the militiamen from Kent County who had driven off the invading British. Two weeks later, of course, the British would launch a full-scale land and sea attack on Baltimore - and be similarly repulsed by Maryland's militia volunteers at North Point and Fort McHenry.

Among the names on the roster is that of a Private "Will. Emory" - which may explain its presence among the Emory papers at Poplar Grove.

Contemporary newspaper stories also reveal that Capt. James Roe lived near Poplar Grove, in the Church Hill District of Queen Anne's County. He and General Thomas Emory, the owner of Poplar Grove, were political allies as leaders of the local Democratic-Republican party in the 1810s, and in the 1820s joined in support of the administration of John Quincy Adams. James Roe eventually became a militia colonel and judge of the Orphans Court, and lived until 1856.

Distrusting standing armies, America's 18th-century founders had placed their faith in militia companies like this one to defend the nation from foreign invasion. (None envisioned, of course, a scenario in which American troops would ever be called on to invade another country!) However, few militiamen proved as effective in wartime as those who fought at Caulk's Field. Militia companies in 19th-century America were notoriously unreliable, and even unruly, units. Many members lacked proper uniforms and weapons, and occasional regimental drills were often simply excuses for the "citizen-soldiers" to get away from their families for a day or two and do some heavy drinking with the boys. Other local militia documents that we found at Poplar Grove - court-martial records levying fines for absences - attest that commanders often had problems even getting their troops to show up for drill.

By the mid-19th century, according to the historian Daniel Walker Howe (winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in history), the militia had "gradually ceased to function because most male citizens resented it as an imposition, and hated serving in it so much that they either refused to show up for the periodic musters and drills, or if they came made a mockery of the occasion."

The militia does, however, still survive in the form of the modern-day National Guard, which was formed in the early 20th century out of the various state militias. Coincidentally, one of the Washington College students working on the Poplar Grove Project, Jeremy Rothwell '09, recently returned from National Guard Service in Iraq. Jeremy's unit is a direct descendant of a Maryland militia regiment that served in the campaign of 1814 against the British.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

one of my direct ancesters, a pvt bemjamin ellars from queen annes co MD was in the 35th regiment in 1813,he then moved to Ohio the same year,the ellars farm was near church hill,the original spelling of the name was ellers and meny desindants still live in delmarva,mostly around harrington DE