Archaeological dig at Lafayette Square turns up Civil War history

Archaeologists continued to dig at Lafayette Square Sunday, where an Army barracks and hospital reportedly once stood during the Civil War. Among the artifacts found was a Maryland regiment dress uniform button.
Archaeologists continued to dig at Lafayette Square Sunday, where an Army barracks and hospital reportedly once stood during the Civil War. Among the artifacts found was a Maryland regiment dress uniform button. (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore Sun)

Local archaeologists have not only confirmed that Baltimore's Lafayette Square Park was once the stomping ground of a Civil War army barracks, but they also dug up a little-known fact about the soldiers who dwelled there: They had a knack for losing buttons.

On Sunday, volunteers who joined the Baltimore Heritage and Archaeological Society of Maryland in searching for remnants at the former Union army encampment ended a three-day quest of exploring the park's history in the 19th century.

In the final hours of the dig, cheers came from a small group that was surrounding a 2-inch-excavation, where a gold-gilded button emerged from the rough, stamped with "Maryland" and bearing the state's seal.

"The fact that it was just right there — it called to me," said Tracey McIntire, a Civil War re-enactor who traveled from Laurel for her first dig. She recognized the button — which looks like a rock to the untrained eye — from her re-enactment uniform. "This is just incredible, it's almost serendipitous," she said.

It was also a fitting end to the dig, which archaeologists said became more exciting once they began discovering evidence of things lost at war, particularly paper-backed tin buttons used for Union soldiers' trousers and army-issued underwear.

"We'd been finding good stuff, but [the buttons] were the first, bona fide thing that came from the Civil War," said Brandon Bies, a Civil War archaeologist who came up from Washington to join the effort. "It was definitely a geek-out moment."

Until then, diggers found several artifacts that merely pointed to the 19th century, such as cut nails, tableware and decorative wrought iron, and a piece of a pocket watch.

In addition to the buttons, the end of the dig yielded a buckle from a rucksack, .31-caliber buckshot, a handle from a ceramic teapot, a slate pencil, pieces of an arc lamp, a tobacco pipe, old food bones, and an old printer's type letter "E."

The military barracks and hospital stationed on what is now Lafayette Square were a rendezvous point for a succession of military units from Maryland, New York and Delaware that passed through between 1862 and 1865. Newspaper accounts show it was also a refuge for runaway slaves and a source of neighborhood trouble, as soldiers housed there drank and caroused and, in at least one case, tried to desert — with bloody results.

Having fielded questions from curious passers-by about whether they found gold or bones, the archaeologists maintained that it was the little things that kept them excited and motivated.

"It helps being an imaginary thinker," said Jennifer Babiarz, a career archaeologist who volunteered her services this weekend. "I like exploring how people live their lives — a piece of gold is not going to tell us anything about them — it's the smaller moments."

Judging from the finds, volunteers speculated that from the abundance of ceramic found at the site, soldiers brought utensils from home. The troops may have also preferred meat over oysters, enjoyed smoking and lost a lot of buttons.

The discoveries at the park, now surrounded by abandoned houses, prove that even in the most blighted of places, there's still history to be celebrated, said David Gadsby.

"There's a lot of forgotten history in Baltimore," said Gadsby, an archaeologist brought in by Baltimore Heritage to lead the Lafayette Square Park dig. "This is a reminder that what's just beneath our feet can connect us to our heritage."

Gadsby said the key goals of the project — to determine whether it hosted a Civil War barracks and whether it was worth further exploration — have been answered affirmatively. The items found over the weekend will be processed for data, which will be used for further interpretation of the park's usage during the Civil War.

Baltimore Sun reporter Frank Roylance contributed to this article.


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