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A Gallant Display: The Little Known Battle of Caulk’s Field in 1814 Inspired a Young Nation to Hold Ground

Aug 07, 2015 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Photo by Scot Henderson

By Anne McNulty

All seemed quiet on the night of Tuesday August 30th, in the Year of our Lord, 1814. A full moon shone over the fertile fields of Kent County and glimmered over the ripples of the Chesapeake Bay. Its light fell on the HMS Menelaus, a 38-gun British war frigate anchored north of Tolchester Beach, and it fell on approximately 50 Royal Marines and 100 British sailors who had just disembarked from the Menelaus’ small boats.

Their captain, 28-year-old Sir Peter Parker, was spoiling for battle and he was about to find one. He had been ordered to sail up the Bay to terrorize and plunder the plantations along the Eastern Shore of the upper Chesapeake. The aim was to divert Eastern Shore militiamen from coming to help defend Britain’s planned attack on the prized city of Baltimore. British troops had burned Washington a week ago and Baltimore would be next. Parker and his men had already begun carrying out their mission a few days ago by torching the wheat fields, granary, and home of plantation owner, John Waltham, and then stealing his possessions.

Earlier, on the morning of August 30th, they had burned and plundered the home of Richard Frisby and carried away four of his enslaved Africans. When they returned to the ship, one of the slaves sparked Parker’s interest when he told him that a regiment of Maryland militiamen was encamped near Fairlee—about five miles away. Parker immediately saw his chance. After conferring with his officers, he decided to attack the Maryland militia later that night.
Photo by Jessica Walter
Before he set out, however, he scribbled a letter to his beloved wife, Marianne, who was waiting for him in England with their three small boys:

My dearest, Marianne,

I am just going on desperate service and entirely depend upon valor and example and its successful issue. If anything befall me, I have made a sort of will. My country will be good to you and our adored three children. God Almighty bless you and protect you all. Adieu, most beloved Marianne, Adieu.

The Battle

Later that evening the highly-trained British troops set off, walking along Bay Shore Road, then down Georgetown Road to the soon-to-be-battlefield. Waiting for them at the farm of Isaac Caulk was the 21st Regiment of the Maryland Militia, divided into seven companies, and led by 54-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Philip Reed.

Reed had already been warned that Parker and his troops were in the vicinity. Furious about their vicious attacks on Kent County citizens, Reed, who had distinguished himself as a Revolutionary War soldier and a U.S. senator, was as equally anxious to fight as Parker. Leading his 174 militiamen, most of whom were raw recruits, from their temporary encampment to the field behind the Caulk house, he and his men rushed to set up battle. Armed with muskets, five six-pound-field artillery pieces, canister shot, and 20 rounds of ammunition for each man, they positioned their main line along a small rise. The infantry would be stationed on the right and left flanks behind the artillery line.
Photo by Jessica Walter
About midnight Reed heard warning shots reverberate through the muggy night. His lookouts had spotted the British soldiers. Reed prepared for action. He, Captain Simon Wickes, and the company of riflemen hid behind the trees waiting. “When they come within 70 paces, shoot,” Reed ordered. At about 1 a.m, the men spotted Parker and his troops marching onto the field.

“Fire,” ordered Reed. Several British soldiers fell to the ground.

“Charge!” yelled Parker, as British muskets flashed back at the riflemen who quickly retreated—ducking through the woods to get behind their artillery line and join their troops on the American right flank.

The British regiment forced its way toward Reed’s main line. They kept charging as musket balls whizzed towards them, cannons roared, and canister fire flashed through the field. Several more British soldiers armed with swords, muskets, and pistols, dropped to the ground as the missiles tore into them; but they kept charging toward the militia’s left flank.

Wiping the sweat off their faces and panting in the humid heat, Reed’s men soon looked at each other and shook their heads. Their ammunition was almost gone. “Retreat!” Reed ordered his men, as the British chased after them.

But then the British gunfire stopped. Now only silence. Under the moon’s shadows lay Parker’s bleeding body. “Oh my God, my commander fell!” cried one of his officers. Soon, anguished shouts pierced the humid air. Their beloved commander was dying—his femoral artery severed by buckshot.

Photo by Scot Henderson

“I fear they have done for me,” he managed to say. Less than 10 minutes later he was dead. Picking up his bloody body, his men, leaving one of his shoes behind, carried him off the field, where they left 13 dead and 27 wounded comrades behind—some of whom died later. The battle of Caulk’s Field was over. It had lasted less than an hour.

With only three of his men sustaining minor wounds, Col. Reed declared a victory. Parker’s body was returned to England, where he was hailed as a hero and interred at St. Margaret’s Chapel in Westminster.

A few days later, Colonel Reed wrote a letter to Brigadier-General Benjamin Chambers:

“When it is recollected that very few of our officers or men had ever heard the whistling of a ball; that the force of our enemy...was double ours; that it was commanded by Sir Peter Parker, one of the most distinguished officers of the British Navy...I feel that the gallantry of our officers and men… could not be excelled by any troops.”

The Aftermath

Commenting on the importance of this battle, Kevin Hemstock, former editor of the Kent County News says, “The victory at Caulk’s Field may have inspired Baltimore to stand its ground.”
During that battle, Francis Scott Key stood detained on a British ship in Baltimore Harbor and watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. During the long night, he wrote of the “Rockets’ Red Glare and Bombs Bursting in Air” and called his poem “The Star Spangled Banner.” This battle came to be one of the war’s finest hours.

Caulk’s Field Today

Photo by Jessica Walter
For 200 years, Caulk’s Field has lain silent and undisturbed. “It’s the most pristine battlefield in the state,” says Steve Frohock, Vice President of the Kent County Historical Society. Privately owned, only archeologists such as Dr. Julie Schablitsky, Chief Archeologist of the Maryland State Highway Administration and her team, have been allowed to visit. They’ve found more than 700 artifacts on the 80-acre field, such as buttons, swords, fired canister shot, and musket shot—some of which are on display at the Bordley Center in Chestertown. “Before we found all those artifacts, the battle was mainly local lore. No one knew where the men were positioned and where the boundaries were. “We looked for patterns so we could recreate where the soldiers stood and fought,” Schablitsky says.

Re-enactment—August 30th–31st, 2014

Photo by Jessica Walter

Two-hundred years later, on a beautiful August weekend, 5,000 people came to Caulk’s Field to witness the re-enactment of this small battle. During the perfectly organized two-day celebration, which took place in Chestertown and Caulk’s Field, the British and Americans came together again—no longer as mortal foes, but as fast friends.

On Saturday, while the tall ships—The Pride of Baltimore and the Sultana rested in Chestertown Harbor, the Fort McHenry Fife and Drum Corps played the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the raising of the 15-star American flag. Both British and American representatives then placed a wreath at the War of 1812 Monument in Chestertown’s Monument Park.

After Sunday’s re-enactment battle, they also dedicated two new plaques at Caulk’s Field and a 15-star hand-stitched American flag was unfurled—a fitting monument to both the British and American soldiers who once so bravely fought here.

Source: Usilton, Fred G. History of Kent County Maryland, 1630-1916.