John Diguo, a 20-year-old apprentice shipwright from Cape Elizabeth, was traveling on the brig Spitfire, on his way to New York City, when his life took a dreadful turn.
The Spitfire was captured on May 1, 1811, by a British warship off the coast of New Jersey. Diguo, who had never before been at sea, was impressed into the British Navy, despite the brave protests of his boss and the Spitfire’s captain, John Neal.
“His master and I then went on board the ship,” Neal reported two weeks later in the Eastern Argus, forerunner of The Portland Press Herald. “The commanding officer (said) he should keep the young man, which he did. It was utterly impossible to obtain either the name of the ship or that of the captain.”
The impressment of Diguo — one of about 10,000 American men who were forced to serve in the British Navy in the decade before the War of 1812 — fueled calls to fight the old enemy of the fledgling United States.
A little over a year later, on June 18, 1812, Congress declared war on England and set in motion events that would propel Maine to separate from Massachusetts and become a state in 1820. The push for statehood was led by William King, a Bath businessman who had served in the war and became Maine’s first governor.
“It was such an amazingly unpopular, unhappy war in Maine,” said Joshua Smith, a maritime historian who recently spoke about the war’s impact on Casco Bay communities at the Freeport Historical Society.
“New England, as a region, was against the war,” Smith said. “It almost seceded from the nation as a result of the War of 1812.”
Maine’s coastal communities are marking the 200th anniversary of the war’s start with various events, including a free lecture Monday evening at the Yarmouth Historical Society. George Daughan, a retired university professor who lives in Portland, will discuss his latest book, “1812: The Navy’s War.” Daughan will speak later this week in Rockland and Bath.
The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath recently opened a five-month exhibit, “Subdue, Seize and Take,” which highlights the fear, confusion, double-dealing and defiance that engulfed the Maine coast from Kittery to Eastport during the war era.
The exhibit includes memorabilia from the Dash, a schooner built in Freeport that was one of Maine’s fastest and most successful privateers; and a cannon from the HMS Boxer, a British Navy ship that was captured by the USS Enterprise in a battle off Pemaquid Point on Sept. 5, 1813.
‘A REMARKABLY UNNECESSARY WAR’
The war era was an exciting, troubling time in Maine, rife with kidnapping, smuggling, polarizing politics, privateering as government-endorsed piracy and bad blood with Massachusetts brethren who left the region vulnerable during the conflict.
The war permeates the early history of Casco Bay communities, but most people today struggle to recall its causes and effects, stumbling over old political parties and battles that occurred weeks after diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814.
“It’s a remarkably forgettable war,” said Alan Hall, a social studies teacher at Yarmouth High School who specializes in local history. “It also was a remarkably unnecessary war.”
Unnecessary, in part, because on June 16, 1812 — just two days before Congress declared war — England lifted its ban on U.S. trade with France, which had chafed British-American relations since 1807. Unfortunately, in the days before modern telecommunications, it took a while for the news of England’s action to get here, as it did when diplomats in Belgium agreed to end the war.
To breathe life into the war era, Hall and other historians focus on local aspects of the conflict, including some incidents that show how little we’ve changed in the last 200 years.
In the decades after the American Revolution, shipbuilding took off in Maine. Coastal communities such as Portland, North Yarmouth and Freeport thrived. Still, conflicts arose between British-friendly Federalists and upstart Republicans, hinting at war-related controversies to come.
In June 1806, a group of Federalists vandalized a sloop in North Yarmouth that was owned by David Drinkwater, Smith said. Drinkwater had been appointed postmaster by President Thomas Jefferson, a founder of the early Republican Party, which was a forerunner of the modern Democratic and Republican parties.
The vandals cut all but one of the sloop’s dock lines and painted “Black Sal and Jefferson” on its hull, according to an account in the Eastern Argus. The anti-Republican graffiti referred to Jefferson’s well-known relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.
“It was ugly stuff happening in North Yarmouth,” said Smith, who is a professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and interim director of the American Merchant Marine Museum, both in Kings Point, N.Y. He’s writing a book about the war’s impact on Maine.
PRIVATEERING AND PLUNDERING
When England banned U.S. trade with France in 1807 — the British were at war with Napoleon — Jefferson responded with an embargo on U.S. trade with both countries. As a result, unemployment in Maine’s coastal towns skyrocketed, smuggling increased and many merchant mariners were wheeling and dealing with the British, especially along the porous border with Canada.
In December 1808, a mob pulled a man from a ship docked in Portland Harbor, stripped off his clothes, slathered him in tar and feathers and left him exposed on a wharf overnight, according to a letter written by U.S. Rep. William Widgery.
The man was suspected of informing customs collectors that a sloop just back from Passamaquoddy Bay, on the border with New Brunswick, was carrying rum that the British had traded for American flour, Smith said.
To enforce its trade blockade, the British impressed more American sailors, many of whom served in treacherous conditions. John Diguo, the Cape Elizabeth shipwright, was fortunate to be released a few weeks after he was captured, when British diplomats intervened on his behalf, Smith said.
After Congress declared war, at the urging of President James Madison, the U.S. government commissioned 526 merchant vessels to act as privateers and capture British ships and cargo, Daughan said. They backed the U.S. Navy, which had fewer than 20 vessels, while England had 1,000 warships.
About 45 privateers operated out of Casco Bay, Hall said, and one of the fastest was the Dash, a topsail schooner that was built by the Porter family in Freeport and sailed out of Portland.
“She was unbelievably fast,” Hall said. “She captured 15 prize vessels in all. It was economic warfare against the English, so I don’t think they saw it solely as plundering.”
Each time the Dash returned, loaded with rum, pork and other loot, customs officials awarded a portion of its bounty to the ship’s owner and crew. The Dash’s success continued long after the British blockaded New England in the spring of 1814. Sometimes, however, the Dash’s cargo may have been kept off the books.
One of the Dash’s owners, Seward Porter, lived in Portland and was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. U.S. District Court records show that Porter engaged in questionable trade with the British, Smith said, indicating that he may have been more opportunist than patriot.
A letter in Canada’s national archives shows that Porter openly tried to negotiate an illegal trade agreement with military officials in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He offered $50,000 as security if they would allow one of his privateers to bring flour, beef and pork to Canada and fake the “capture” of British goods to be brought to the United States.
“I don’t believe they ever answered him,” Smith said.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: