STONINGTON — Bob Rieger disembarked from the Shanna Rose Tuesday morning after a morning of searching for cannonballs and other artifacts in Stonington Harbor.
Rieger, along with a team from the University of Rhode Island headed by professor Brennan Phillips, were on a three-day mission to do a sonar side-scan and magnetic survey of the harbor where the 1814 Battle of Stonington took place.
“We run a sonar, which tells you what structure could be on the bottom, and a magnetometer, which tells you where there could be concentrations of ferrous magnetic material, or iron,” said Rieger, who is a member of Stonington Historical Society and the project manager of a $52,000 National Park Service grant to study the battlefield site.
He said the URI team had collected raw data that will require processing and analysis for archaeological interpretation.
“For the sonar, we have seen structure, but you don’t know if it’s a rock, a piece of a ship or an old car,” he said. “For the magnetometer, we did get anomalies, we did see readings of metallic content, but the students have to process these data and then overlay them to find out if the structure you saw was magnetic, which means it could be a cannonball or it could be a rock.”
It was too soon to tell if the team had found anything of historical significance and more extensive survey work would be done this summer, he said.
The Battle of Stonington began on Aug. 9, 1814, when a British naval squadron commanded by Capt. Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy began bombarding the Stonington settlement.
The British had more men and firepower, but after the four-day battle, the Americans triumphed, said Rieger. “The British had 60 cannons and almost 1,300 men on six ships against Stonington’s small militia with three cannons and about 40 men who were mostly teenagers,” he said.
The battle was part of the War of 1812. The U.S. declared war on Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, at time when Britain and France were blockading American shipments, and American sailors were being impressed into the Royal Navy. The war ended in February 1815.
One of the fighters in Stonington who was instrumental in the American victory was Jeremiah Holmes, of Mystic, who had been trained in artillery by the British when he was forced into service.
Holmes’ story was one of American ingenuity, said Christopher Kepple, director of development at the Stonington Historical Society and the co-author of the grant, who greeted the Shanna Rose as it docked at the New England Science and Sailing dock on Tuesday. He noted that "there was some irony in that Jeremiah Holmes was pressed into the British navy and was able to turn his skill set back on them.”
The harbor’s topography also aided the Americans, said Rieger.
“The waters around here are very shallow, full of shoals, full of rocks, and very treacherous to navigate,” he said. “The British ships had a hard time coming in, they grounded themselves, and couldn’t get quite close enough — so our geography here helped us.”
The project includes research using materials from area institutions such as the Mystic Seaport Museum, as well as materials from the National Archives in Britain, Chelsea Ordner, library director of the Stonington Historical Society said on Friday.
“We have ordered the logs of the five ships that were attacking Stonington on those days in August of 1814,” she said.
Ordner said that she and Rieger have spent the past six to eight weeks transcribing the logs.
“We’re going day by day, just reading what happened, and what was recorded and comparing that to the collective narrative of what we say happened at the Battle of Stonington, which over the past 200 years has gained a bit of folklore as well as hard fact,” she said.
Combing the British logs revealed the existence of a British supply ship, the Sylph, that was delivering ammunition, food, and water to the ships that were attacking Stonington, said Ordner.
“Unfortunately, the ship was lost in a storm in 1815, so there’s no log for it, but we see it mentioned in all five of the other logs that they’re meeting up with the Sylph to get more rockets, more shot, to continue bombarding the town,” Ordner said.
The combined research of URI and the historical society will be used to create a new display about the Battle of Stonington at the Stonington Harbor Light, built in 1840 in the borough. The grant also represents a step toward the designating the battleground as a historic site.
As word has gotten out about the project, the community has actively responded with information about the battle, Ordner said.
“I’ve had many calls from local people who want to share with me what they know about the Battle of Stonington,” she said. “It’s great to see that they’re really engaged in this project and as equally interested as we are.”