“I feel justified in the assertion, that the gallantry of the officers and men on this occasion could not be excelled by any troops.” – American Lt. Colonel Philip Reed, commander of the militia at Caulk’s Field, to Brigadier General Benjamin Chambers, August 1814
In the summer of 1814, the British military strategy in the Chesapeake called for feints on the Bay and the Potomac River, keeping the Americans confused about enemy objectives while the main force attacked Washington. Captain Peter Parker was assigned the northern Chesapeake, a region that had felt the sting of enemy raids in 1813.
Captain Parker sailed up the Chesapeake in August aboard his flagship, the 38-gun H.M. frigate Menelaus. He was accompanied by two schooners, Mary and Jane, as well as a sizeable contingent of Royal Marines. Beginning on August 18, the squadron of raiders began to attack tidewater targets.
While raiding and burning plantations with “a great many [American] horsemen . . . close to us in the woods,” the British quizzed some enslaved individuals about a nearby militia camp. Captain Parker decided on what he called a midsummer’s night “frolic with the Yankees.” Along with his bellicose confidence, Parker appears to have had some premonition that things would not go well. He sealed up a will and a farewell letter to his young wife before setting out.
That night, August 30, under the light of the moon, Captain Parker led 150 (some said as many as 260) sailors and marines and marched five miles to a place remembered as Caulks Field. At 1 a.m., the British raiders, several armed with pikes, ran into about 200 Yankee militiamen. Unfortunately for the intruders, the well-organized militia was led by a hard-bitten Revolutionary War veteran named Philip Reed.
From the start, the fight didn’t go according to Parker’s plan. The American encampment was not where Parker had first been told, but further inland from his boats. The Brits were stunned when at close range they were fired upon soon after turning at a junction in the road, with woods on both sides where trees had been felled to slow their progress. Parker advanced his men, who stood and traded flashing volleys with the militiamen in the night. These advanced American withdrew and reformed with the rest of the militiamen in a line supported by five cannon. As the British moved forward, they sustained many casualties. A flanking attack on the American right seemed to have gained the upper hand when a sudden bugle call announced an enemy retreat. Yet, according to later reports from Lieutenant Colonel Reed, the obstinate and hard-fighting militia had run out of ammunition. So why the British retreat?
In pressing the Americans, a cocky British force had sustained significant casualties; fourteen killed and twenty-seven wounded compared to three wounded militiamen. The real story, however, was the loss of Captain Parker. A musket ball had cut an artery in his thigh, and the young officer soon bled to death in the arms of his subordinates. His death stemmed the British attack. Carried off the field with his retreating force, Parker left behind an unusual calling card, a bloody shoe marked with his name. Parker’s premonition had come true.
The frolic had turned into a disaster for the British. Withdrawing their squadron to the western shore, they mourned the loss of a rising young star in a trivial skirmish. For the Americans, however, the Battle of Caulks Field was no trifling matter. The local militia had shown some real spunk. Their small victory was much celebrated around the Chesapeake during that difficult summer of 1814, less than two weeks before the next big battle, this time at Baltimore.
excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow