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

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"The whole District of Maine is threatened by a raving foe," Washington, D.C.'s leading newspaper lamented in October, "and scarcely a soldier of the U.S. troops is there to assist in repelling invasion, although thousands have been enlisted in that part of the country."

With the federal government already bankrupted by the long war, Mainers and the White House alike looked to Massachusetts to take action to defend southern Maine and liberate the occupied zone. Instead, legislators in Boston chose to do nothing, while Gov. Caleb Strong carried on secret diplomacy with his British counterpart in Nova Scotia, hoping to secure assistance in the event the Bay State made good on threats to secede from the United States. When Maine's William King met with Strong to discuss an expedition to push the British out of Maine, the plan was promptly leaked to Boston newspapers and thus to the British.

Fortunately, the British never moved on southern Maine, in part because they had overestimated the strength of its defenses and partly because they thought they could still win over southern New England. "If you're in Boston, you might say, OK, take Castine and Eastport, what do we care? But take Portland -- that might be a problem," says Joshua M. Smith, associate professor of humanities at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in King's Point, N.Y., who has written widely on the conflict. "The British didn't want to antagonize Boston. Throughout the war they were pretty clever at playing Americans off each other."

Meanwhile, Mainers reacted in a variety of ways to the occupation. "Some people were shocked and numbed by it and became obsessed with survival, others became rebellious, viewing the invasion as a sort of punishment by God for being wicked," Smith says. "Others see it as an opportunity to make money."

Smuggling was rampant, with Eastern Maine serving as the transshipment hub for a massive black market trade between Halifax and Boston. "Then as now, Americans didn't want to do without their consumer goods, and the source wasn't China, it was the factories of England and Scotland," says Taylor. "This created an enormous opportunity for smugglers, and the best place to do it was from Maine to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia."

Risk was low because the British encouraged the trade, collecting customs fees at Castine. Huge fortunes were made, and so much money was collected at Castine, it was used to endow a new college in Halifax, now Dalhousie University, the most prestigious in Atlantic Canada.

Even the most famous incident in Maine during the war -- the clash of the USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer -- was the result of smuggling. "A group of New England merchants had sent a representative to New Brunswick to meet the captain of the Boxer and essentially hired him to escort one of their merchant ships down to Maine," protecting it from privateers and other British warships, says James Nelson, the Harpswell-based author and maritime historian.

The complex plan included a mock battle off Popham Beach between the Boxer and one of the merchants' vessels, which went off without a hitch. "Unfortunately, the gunfire of the fake battle drew the attention of the Enterprise, which was in Portland at the time and engaged the Boxer in battle two days later," says Nelson.

Ultimately, the Enterprise -- a 16-gun brig, not the famous "Old Ironsides" -- defeated the British warship in a battle that took the lives of both ships' commanding officers. (They are buried side by side in Portland's Eastern Cemetery.) An incriminating note was found in Boxer Capt. Samuel Blyth's pocket, Nelson says, revealing the plot.

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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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