PORTLAND – Many things get stuffed in closets: old shoes, worn-out sweaters, sometimes even important papers.
In Portland City Hall, the odds and ends stashed in a closet under the main staircase included a cannon.
Not just any old cannon, if there is such a thing. This cannon dates back to the early 1800s and, many researchers believe, was on the HMS Boxer when the British warship battled it out with the USS Enterprise off Monhegan Island in 1813.
On Thursday, the Maine Historical Society packed up the 1,200-pound cannon – plus a 400-pound carriage — and sent it off to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, where it will be part of a bicentennial exhibit on the War of 1812.
The historical society was given the cannon in 1894 and immediately loaned it to the city, most likely because the society had no place to display it, said Holly Hurd-Forsyth, registrar for the society, who observed the cannon’s move on Thursday morning.
She said the 118-year loan is over and the cannon can be put to better use in the museum’s display. The cannon will likely remain in Bath on another long-term loan after the exhibit is gone, she said, although it should be returned before another 118 years pass.
Ken Crocker, a volunteer with Maine Maritime Museum who has researched the cannon’s origins, said he’s “99.5 percent” certain that the cannon came from the Boxer.
He discounted reports that all of the Boxer’s arms went down with the Hyder Ali, a privateer whose owner bought some of the cannons after the Boxer was brought into Portland Harbor in 1813 and auctioned off, along with its contents.
Markings on the cannon are clearly British, he said, and records suggest it was purchased at the Boxer auction by Green Walden, a captain with the Revenue Cutter Service, a forerunner to the Coast Guard.
Walden had the cannon in the yard of his home in Cape Elizabeth, Crocker said, pointed toward Peaks Island. It eventually was passed on to a veterans group, which donated the cannon to the Maine Historical Society.
OUT OF THE CLOSET
Early Thursday morning, a crew of movers rolled the cannon out of the closet into City Hall’s rotunda, where it has been displayed occasionally over the years. They put it on a large cart and rolled it slowly down boards laid across the short set of steps between the rotunda and City Hall’s entrance.
Outside, a crane was used to lift the cannon and carriage onto a truck for the trip to Bath.
Hurd-Forsyth admitted that there’s uncertainty over the cannon’s history, particularly since Portland City Hall burned to the ground in 1908 — 14 years after the society gave custody of the cannon to the city.
“There’s a lot of mystery about this cannon,” she said, but “if it’s not the Boxer’s cannon, what is it?”
Early records about the disposition of the Boxer’s contents are a bit sketchy, she said, “and after 1894, there’s a big gaping hole.”
But Crocker’s certainty about the cannon’s origin means he believes it should be seen as a key relic from the war’s major naval battle off Maine.
BOTH CAPTAINS KILLED
The Boxer and the Enterprise shot it out on Sept. 5, 1813, until the Enterprise gained the upper hand and the Boxer surrendered. Capt. Samuel Blythe of the Boxer was killed early in the battle. The Enterprise’s captain, Lt. William Burrows, was mortally wounded and died shortly after it ended.
The battle was big news in Portland, though David Hanna, a Maine native who wrote “Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812,” says the local legend that Portland residents could hear the boom of the guns many miles away is almost certainly untrue.
Hanna, who’s a high school history teacher in New York, said the two ships probably played cat-and-mouse for most of that day until the battle broke out in earnest in the afternoon.
Aboard the Enterprise, Burrows had a local fisherman, who knew that the wind would turn and come out of the southeast in the afternoon, Hanna said. That local knowledge enabled the Enterprise to gain position on the Boxer.
The Enterprise outraced the Boxer, turned in front of it and let loose with its starboard cannons, Hanna said, with the first fusillade killing Blythe.
If Blythe had lived and been able to ram the Enterprise, turning the battle into a contest between boarding parties, the outcome might have been different, Hanna said.
Burrows was mortally wounded in an exchange of gunfire, but the Enterprise inflicted enough damage to force Blythe’s second-in-command to surrender. Offered Blythe’s sword by the British, the dying Burrows declined and said it should be sent to Blythe’s family.
VICTORIES NOT A FLUKE
When a spotter in the Portland Observatory saw the Enterprise coming into Casco Bay with a captured British warship, “electricity must have gone through the town,” Hanna said.
Americans had won early naval battles in the war, he said, but there had been a series of setbacks through the summer of 1813.
The Enterprise’s triumph “sort of reasserted that American victories earlier in the war were not a fluke,” Hanna said
The mood turned to sadness when residents learned that the young American captain and Blythe, who was well respected even though he was the enemy, had both died in the battle.
The decision was made to bury the two together, with full military honors for both, which was “a beautiful gesture” by Portland’s residents, Hanna said.
Hanna said he’s intrigued by the cannon’s return to public view in the Maine Maritime Museum’s exhibit.
“I can’t wait to touch it,” he said, but to him, the story of the people trumps the equipment they used.
“Blythe was a remarkable character and Burrows was, too,” he said. “They were naval superheroes.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: