Issue: December 2011
BYPOINTS: Imagining Things

Last time I cruised to Solomons, Md., I arrived early enough in the afternoon to allow for a quick side trip up the Patuxent. I didn't go far--didn't need to--just a few miles upstream of the Route 4 Bridge to the mouth of St. Leonard Creek. And I didn't stay long either--didn't need to. Having recently read an account of the two battles of St. Leonard Creek, when Commodore Joshua Barney's cheeky Chesapeake Flotilla tangled with the Royal Navy in the summer of 1814, I just wanted to see the place with my own eyes. I wanted to at least see the mouth of the creek, where the British warships anchored to trap Barney's gun barges, see Petersons Point, site of the American shore batteries, see the stretch of river where the battered Brits fell back on June 26--and were becalmed, allowing Barney's flotilla to escape up the Patuxent.

I saw all those places, but, as always, my imagination failed me. I saw only the wide and tranquil Patuxent; the quiet mouth of the creek, bending out of sight behind Rodney Point; the woods and fields of Jefferson Patterson Historical Park on the other. But I couldn't picture a battle there. I couldn't imagine the terrifying but wildly inaccurate British rockets whistling into the trees, couldn't hear the deafening broadsides from the Loire, a 38-gun Royal Navy frigate.

This is the story of my history-loving life, this failure of imagination. I remember visiting the Gettysburg battlefield as a lad and coming away mostly disappointed--frustrated that seeing the place with my own eyes did not really help me understand the event. It was just so much hilly, rocky Pennsylvania countryside. Looking at it, I couldn't begin to imagine the deadly ebb and flow of the pivotal battle that happened there in 1863.

Same goes for other Civil War sites I've been to--Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam, New Market, etc. And, now that my interest has broadened to the War of 1812 (the advent of which is approaching its 200th anniversary), I've had similar experiences at St. Leonard Creek, St. Michaels and Fort McHenry. Maybe everyone has this problem. Or maybe it's just me. Whatever the case, I'm not taking it sitting down. This spring I intend to try again, to journey up the Patuxent, to follow the path of the British invasion that came on the heels of the battles of St. Leonard Creek--see it, not just read about it, and try to understand the remarkable events that happened in our own backyard, our own waters, two centuries ago.

The inspiration for this new resolve is Eric Mills's excellent article in this issue on the schooner Surprise [see page 30]--built at the Thomas Kemp yard in St. Michaels. Fast and well-armed, she was the the most successful of all the Chesapeake privateers, with 43 enemy "prizes" to her credit. Eric knows his War of 1812 history; indeed he's teaching a course on the war this winter at a nearby community college. And I've enrolled in the class, to prepare me for my Patuxent odyssey.

Save a seat in the front row for me, Professor Mills; maybe you can help me with this failure-of-imagination thing.

Tim Sayles, Editor