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200 Years Later, An American Warship Resurfaces

Jun 15, 2012
Originally published on June 15, 2012 5:25 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, the story of some American heroes and a long lost Navy ship. Archeologists are getting ready to excavate what are believed to be the remains of the U.S.S. Scorpion. The Scorpion was the flagship of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla during the War of 1812. It was designed for hit-and-run attacks on British ships that were blockading the port of Baltimore and threatening the young nation's capital. But the flotilla was outmatched by what was then the most powerful Navy in the world.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The men of the Scorpion deliberately sank their own ship up the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. Donald Shomette wrote a book about the flotilla led by the U.S.S. Scorpion. He also led an earlier excavation of the wreck.

Donald Shomette, welcome to the program.

DONALD SHOMETTE: Nice to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And when we say the Chesapeake Bay flotilla was outgunned by the British fleet, how badly?

SHOMETTE: Pretty badly. Sometimes seven to one, sometimes 11 to one, sometimes 15 to one. We were outgunned, outmanned, but definitely not outfought.

BLOCK: And, ultimately, in 1814, the flotilla was scuttled. The Navy sank all the ships to keep them from falling...

SHOMETTE: Yes. That's...

BLOCK: ...into British hands.

SHOMETTE: That's true. The flotilla fought a number of engagements, one of them quite successfully, and was able to retreat upriver after escaping from an entrapment on St. Leonard Creek. And when the British military came to invade the United States, the first attack on American soil, they invaded via the Patuxent River and we scuttled our fleet to prevent it being captured.

The flotilla men joined the Army in the defense of Washington and later in the defense of Baltimore.

BLOCK: When you've gone down to - underwater to look at the wreckage of what's believed to be the U.S.S. Scorpion, what does it look like? How far underwater is it?

SHOMETTE: It's not very far underwater. It's only under eight or nine feet, but under about six feet of sediment, although this vessel was actually visible in 1938 from the air, but you couldn't see the vessel because the river is so murky, so dark, so sediment-laden. We call it archeology by Braille, actually, but the vessel is intact, about 95 percent. One piece has been blown up, but the rest of it is there, including everything that was left with it that wasn't later salvaged and that's animal, vegetable and mineral. There's meat on the bone. There's medicine in the jars.

BLOCK: And, just to be clear, when you say there's meat on the bone, we're not talking about the sailors themselves. They were safely off the vessel when it was sunk.

SHOMETTE: No. The sailors got off. The meat on the bone is literally the meat on the bone...

BLOCK: Food that they had on the ship?

SHOMETTE: ...for the food because they have been preserved in an anaerobic environment, no oxygen beneath the sediment. And we found medicine in the jars. One jar had the equivalent of Preparation H. These men had to row their vessels, as well as sail them. It was hard duty doing that and sitting on those wooden seats.

BLOCK: Yikes. So, if you were to sum up, apart from the artifacts, sort of what story this ship can tell, what would that be?

SHOMETTE: This is a David and Goliath story and it was a learning process and it proved that we could not use small gunboats to defend our country. We had to have a blue water Navy. It also gave us a great deal of pride in what we finally did elicit. We entered this war as, basically, states united. We were Marylanders or Virginians or Georgians first and Americans second. And, at the end of the war, although we gained no territory, neither side was victorious, we came out as United States.

BLOCK: Donald Shomette, thanks so much for talking to us.

SHOMETTE: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Donald Shomette is the author of "Flotilla" about the Chesapeake Bay flotilla in the War of 1812. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.