Stonington Historical Society receives grant to look for underwater battle artifacts

Stonington — The National Park Service has awarded a $52,000 grant to the Stonington Historical Society so it can search for artifacts from the Battle of Stonington in the waters off the borough.

The historical society also will use American Battlefield Protection Program grant to create an updated map of the battlefield with digital applications, as well as update an exhibit at the society’s Old Lighthouse Museum with newly found artifacts.

Historical Society Director of Development Christopher Kepple said the society will be assisted in the 630-acre search by Cottrell Brewing Co. owner Charlie Buffum, who found the wreck of the 206-year-old USS Revenge off Watch Hill in 2005. Last year, the Navy raised a cannon from the wreck, which sank 19 months before the Battle of Stonington.

Also assisting the historical society will be Brennan Phillips, an assistant professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island who has worked with Titanic discover Robert Ballard on his expeditions.

During a four-day period in early August 1814, five British Royal Navy ships commanded by Commodore Thomas Masterman Hardy attacked the village after residents refused to surrender. Using three cannons, two of which are on display today in Cannon Square, the residents repelled the attack. The barrage damaged many borough homes, leaving cannonballs in their walls.

“It was a bold act of defiance that bordered on being foolhardy,” Kepple said. “They were a group of very determined and salty Yankees who refused to surrender and (fought) against all odds.”

The cannonballs were the last shots fired by the British in New England during the War of 1812.

“The most precious item in our collection is the flag that flew over Stonington during the battle,” Kepple said. "And arguably one of the most important events, and the most important military event, in the town’s history is the Battle of Stonington.”

While battle artifacts such as cannonballs have been recovered over the years, Kepple pointed out that approximately 630 of the 1,000-acre battlefield is underwater. And with the exception of the two harbor breakwaters, the bottom remains undisturbed from that time.

In addition to cannonballs, he said researchers using sonar and other high-tech equipment will look for cannons, muskets and other metal items that may have fallen into the water during British landings.

He said that with the massive amount of munitions that rained down on the borough, there is a good chance of finding more artifacts.

Kepple, who worked for Buffum at Cottrell Brewery when Buffum found the Revenge, said he came up with the idea of seeking the battlefield grant as the society developed plans to upgrade the museum’s handicapped access with a small addition and update it exhibits.

“We talked about what are the most important stories we tell at the lighthouse museum, and the Battle of Stonington is among the most important,” he said.

Kepple and historical society volunteer Bob Rieger prepared the grant application. It included letters of support from Buffum, New England Science and Sailing, town Director of Planning Jason Vincent, Economic Development Commission Chairman Dave Hammond, First Selectmen Rob Simmons, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and borough Warden Jeff Callahan.

Kepple said the grant and search for artifacts will allow the society “to create new scholarship around a historic event” while “infusing energy and interest in the lighthouse museum and the borough.”

The historical society will spend the next six months researching diaries and other primary sources seeking more information about the battle to determine the best places to look for artifacts. Kepple said he expects the actual search to begin next spring and the society plans to hold a public meeting about the project.

In announcing the grant, the park service said documentation of the battle site will allow the historical society to nominate the battlefield for state and federal designation. Kepple said gaining such designation also would help protect the waters around the borough from development such as wind farms.

Since 1996, the American Battlefield Protection Program has awarded 600 grant awards totaling $20.6 million to various organizations "to help preserve significant historic battlefields associated with wars on American soil." The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Old Saybrook Historical Society have received grants in the past to document the Pequot War.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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