June 24, 2012

The war that made Maine a state

The British occupation of eastern Maine in the War of 1812 prompted a split from Massachusetts.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

EASTPORT — In the late afternoon of July 18, 1814, the soldiers manning Fort Sullivan were greeted with an awesome and frightening sight.

The fort, perched on a promontory behind what is now Shead High School, had sweeping views of the passages and islands of Passamaquoddy Bay, which for two years had been the quiet front line between two warring powers: British North America and the young United States. Fifty soldiers had whiled away the days, watching small boats shuffle to and fro across the bay, many of them chock-full of contraband but representing no military threat to American control of Eastport.

Now a 74-gun British ship of the line was barreling through Head Harbor Passage bound straight for town, accompanied by three armed auxiliaries, an assault ship, and troop transports carrying nearly 1,000 soldiers. As the tiny American garrison readied its six cannons, the invasion fleet anchored beneath the fort, guns and mortars trained above.

Resistance was futile. Maj. Perley Putnam surrendered his garrison. British troops swarmed the town, taking the troops into custody, seizing the customs house, and raising the Union Jack over Fort Sullivan. Within a few weeks, all of eastern Maine was under foreign occupation, and communities from Camden to York braced for the expected attack.

The War of 1812, which broke out two centuries ago this month, was a watershed moment in Maine's history. The British occupation and Boston's lackluster response to it prompted Mainers to reclaim their independence from Massachusetts, from which it had been ruled as an internal colony since the 1650s.

"Maine's very negative experience with the War of 1812 accelerated the political process that would lead to Maine becoming a separate state in the Union," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian (and Portland native) Alan Taylor of the University of California--Davis, author of "The Civil War of 1812." "There was a feeling that the Massachusetts government didn't have the best interests of Maine at heart."

The war is poorly understood and largely forgotten -- a peculiar and humiliating conflict that exposed the weakness of the young United States' central government and profound differences between its regions. In a war that saw Washington plundered and New Orleans placed under siege, the District of Maine was perhaps the most profoundly affected region of all, with much of its territory under foreign control and many of its people deeply disillusioned with their colonial overlords in Boston.

Prior to the invasion, Mainers had been divided on whether to pursue independence from Massachusetts, which had annexed Maine in the mid-17th century in the aftermath of the English Civil War. (Maine's leaders had backed the king, while Massachusetts backed the victorious forces of Parliament, which gave them free reign to absorb what Bostonians came to refer to as "the Eastern territories."

For the better part of a century, settlers in what were then backcountry towns -- Whitefield, Jefferson, Liberty and many others -- had been engaged in an armed insurrection against Bay State land barons like Samuel Waldo, James Bowdoin and Henry Knox. People in the wealthier port towns like Portland, Wiscasset and Castine were opposed to independence, which for various technical reasons would have disrupted coastal trade.

When President James Madison declared war on Britain in 1812, New Englanders from Greenwich, Conn., to Eastport were appalled. The conflict disrupted the region's trade with London and the British Caribbean, and many Yankees felt the U.S. should be fighting Napoleon Bonaparte, not harassing his opponent.

Regional solidarity collapsed in the summer and fall of 1814, as British forces surged down the coast, occupying Machias, Blue Hill, Castine and Belfast, looting Hampden and Bangor, and setting fire to a Biddeford shipyard. Residents of Wiscasset expected the village "would be laid in ashes" at any moment, while thousands of militiamen rallied to defend Portland from the expected assault.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Lt. Kervin Waters of the USS Enterprise, Capt. William Burrowes, commander of the Enterprise, and Capt. Samuel Blyth, commander of the HMS Boxer, are buried in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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