Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Fossil Hunt in An Historical Context

Eighteen Sixty-One

Arm'd year – year of the struggle,
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you terrible
Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas
But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,
carrying a rifle on your shoulder,
With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands, with a
knife in the belt at your side,
As I heard you shouting loud, your sonorous voice ringing
across the continent, . . . .
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Paleontology takes us into time, deep time. But, on this occasion, it serves as a passage to recent human history, placing me amid the contrasts between then and now.

Alone on the Shore

The woods come to the edge of the drainage ditches that straddle Riverside Road, a two-lane strip of asphalt. In places, from either side of the road, the trees’ canopies join overhead, shutting out the bright hot July day, creating a dark tunnel down which I’m traveling, heading southeast in what’s known locally as “Southern Maryland,” some 60 miles from the District of Columbia.

A deer stands in the brush beside the road, tracking my swift passage with its broad black nose. To my right, the woods extend often less than a mile to the shores of the Potomac River. To my left, who knows. I come to attention when I cross Liverpool Point Road, not much more than a blur on either side of me. I’m doing the speed limit but feeling that it’s too fast for the sudden dips and rises in this narrow road. I am now looking for the small gravel parking area for Purse State Park that I know will appear all too suddenly on my left.

My car crunches to a halt, the only vehicle in the parking area. I turn off the engine. It takes a moment for my ears to clear and then I hear the precise, abrupt sounds of birds and insects, there is nothing manmade to be heard at the moment.

The hike to the Potomac shore is through the woods, down a dirt, gravel path that is punctuated by ankle twisting tree roots. There is evidence that, in the heavy rains of the late spring and early summer, water coursed swiftly down this path, scouring it of small stones and leaves. Now, the summer heat penetrates a bit through the dense trees, and, without much breeze here, the black flies make an appearance.

I pass the tree with the triangular blaze that points off to my right down a path that presumably ends up at the river. I’ve been told that the blaze represents a shark tooth and signals a short-cut to a productive stretch of the shoreline. I prefer the more well trodden path that angles to the left and ends at the ruined concrete foundation of a house. A brick chimney rises phallically from the foundation. Nature is slowly absorbing this remnant of human habitation. It’s just a matter of time. Over the years, the chimney has shed bricks from the ravages of the weather (and from the not so natural impact of bullets shot, perhaps, by bored hunters in this no-hunting area).

I work my way from the house ruins, down a steep slope, to the shoreline. It is near low tide and the shore is exposed. At high tide, there’s not much beach, the river lapping at the edges of the low-lying cliffs that line the shore to the south and to the north. The Aquia Formation bleeds fossils onto the shore for a mile or so to the south; to the immediate north, there are few fossils on the shore or in water, but, after that interruption, the cliffs resume giving up their treasures about a mile away. The Aquia Formation is Paleocene (an epoch that began 65 million years ago and ended about 56 million year ago). I head north.

The breeze from the river drives away the biting bugs and, with a western exposure, the beach is in shade for much of my morning hike. Swans appear briefly on the river, moving away at my approach. Three osprey break from the tops of trees ahead of me, swing out over the river and then fly up the river before cutting back into a marshy area far to the north. At this juncture, I realize that there is little to be gained by scanning closely the ground as I walk, this is usually barren territory.

I am rewarded by this decision as I am startled by flashes of white to my right, toward the cliffs. These resolve themselves into lush, opulent flowers, Crimson-eyed Rose-mallows; they decorate the cliff base for several hundred feet, proving irresistible to bumblebees. It’s not surprising that I am now accompanied by butterflies, large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and what I think are small Red Admirals, the latter too anxious in their movements to be captured by my camera.

As I enter prime area for finding shark teeth, my focus shifts to the shore line. I walk in the surf, scattering minnows as I go. In this effort, concentrate, but not too much. The shoreline is broken by the long trunks of trees that have fallen from the tops of the cliffs into the river. These must be climbed over or ducked under. With my head down and eyes on the stones and sand, I walk into tree branches.

In time, I begin to find teeth from sand tigers, among them Striatolamia striata, and a tooth or two from the giant shark of this epoch, Otodus obliquus. Teeth from this shark species range up to 4 inches in length on the slant (that truly would be a crown jewel). My best find this day would be 1 1/4 inches long.

In this stage of the search, fossil hunters run the risk of missing the world that is speaking to them as they focus on their ground level quarry. But, sometimes, there is no escaping that sudden tap on the shoulder that announces, “You are not alone.”

I work my way north. Suddenly, there’s an explosive movement from the cliff base and a large, light tan snake, some three feet long, flashes down the sand toward me. I jump back and it slips into the river and disappears. A Northern Water Snake . . . I hope.

I catch my breath and wait for my heart to slow. Okay, I understand, this land and water are fecund. I am surrounded at this place by life. The rest of my hunt has an edge to it. My screening tool serves to announce my presence to any other snakes as I strike the tree trunks and branches before I scramble over them. Some downed trees I avoid by wading out into the river. Wait, isn’t that where the snake went?

When I decide to head back, I am close to Liverpool Point, a bulge in the shore, a bit to the north of me, that juts out into the Potomac toward the Virginia side. I’ve been the only person on the shoreline until now, and I will be for the return trip. A solitary sail boat tacks its way upriver.

History Intrudes

I hear the muffled thuds of detonating ordnance from, I presume, the Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center which is miles to the south on the Virginia shore. A distant train whistle follows.

These two sounds remind me that this absence of human contact along this shoreline, probably not too unusual today, might actually have been a rarity a century and half ago. And the sounds of exploding shells would have resonated repeatedly over this landscape. During a six month period early in the Civil War, from the fall of 1861 through the winter of 1861-62, Union and Confederate armies eyed each other along the river here.

The shelling would have come from cannon on either side of the river. In the fall of 1861, the Confederate Army established the Cockpit Point Battery and other emplacements of cannon on the Virginia shore, and fired on Union ships coming up river, thereby trying to close the Potomac to shipping and isolate Washington. Union batteries put in place on the Maryland shore returned fire.

There would have been a surfeit of people in this area, making it unlikely that anyone could have wandered up the shoreline, as I did today, unheeded and unchallenged. An historical marker on the drive down told me that, from October 1861 to March 1862, Union General Joseph Hooker was headquartered not too far away at a little church and in command of some 12,000 soldiers encamped along the river.

Among the various brigades under Hooker’s command, the Second Brigade, of perhaps somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers, was stationed just up there ahead of me at Liverpool Point. Hard to avoid human contact with that many people around, particularly when much of today’s woods would have been open fields. The area I just hiked through was, after all, farmed land a century and a half ago. And the soldiers would have made their presence known that fall and winter. The drawing below shows members of Hooker’s division (though not the Second Brigade) in camp on the Potomac during a cold March, 1862.

Liverpool Point figured in Abraham Lincoln’s thinking as well. He pushed an idea on Major General George McClellan, who led the Army of the Potomac – build a bridge across the Potomac from the point using a flotilla of canal boats. Not a workable idea in the end. Instead, these Union troops left their encampment on the Potomac in 1862 on steamer troop ships (similar to that in the drawing below) that loaded at Liverpool Point. I imagine a river horizon crowded with smoke-belching ships and the shore dark with blue clad soldiers. They were headed down the river for a disastrous campaign against Richmond. In May, 1862, the Second Brigade would lose a quarter of its men at the Battle of Williamsburg.

I like to think that, during the fall and winter encampment, in the midst of that “terrible year,” at least one or two soldiers may have wandered down to the river’s shore and found fossils.

An Aside
The Second Brigade (so-called Excelsior Brigade) was initially raised and organized by Daniel Sickles, a Democrat who’d been a U.S. Representative from New York, serving two terms beginning in 1857. Sickles is a fascinating character, for whom the war was a godsend, though early on proved a bit of a struggle. He generated significant debts building the brigade, and found it hard to get the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to approve his appointment to command the brigade. Not only was he a member of the opposite party who had used his New York City Democratic political ties to recruit troops, but he had an unsavory past that certainly did not endear him to Senators. Some two years earlier, in February, 1859, Sickles had learned that his wife was having an affair. Enraged and heavily armed, he chased his wife’s lover into Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and killed him. The dead lover was Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. If that weren’t notoriety enough, Sickles was the first person in the U.S. to be acquitted by reason of temporary insanity.

Ultimately, he did get command of the brigade, though not after first being voted down by the Senate.

Sickles rose to the rank of Major General during the course of the war, losing a leg at Gettysburg. Later, following retirement from the army, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Spain.

For information on Sickles, I relied primarily on the Christopher Oates’ article “Daniel Sickles: An Unlikely Union General,” that ran in the March, 2008 issue of America’s Civil War magazine; and Civil War High Commands by David J. Eicher, 2001.

"Drawing of 8th N.J.V. Camp near Matawoman [sic] Creek on the Potomac Charles Co. Md." by Arthur Lumley, created March, 1862. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-1060 (b&w film copy neg.). Web link here.

"U.S. Transport 'Oriental'" drawing by Alfred Waud, created between 1860 and 1865. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ6-537 (b&w film copy neg.). Web link here.

"Gen. Daniel Sickles, U.S.A.," photo by Matthew Brady, created/published between 1860 and 1870. From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: DIG-cwpb-05564 (digital file from original neg.). Web link here.

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