June 17, 2012

Resonating in Maine's history: The War of 1812

The U.S.-British conflict, which historians describe as ‘amazingly unpopular’ in this state, started June 18, 200 years ago.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

This etching by James Lane Berkeley depicts the Dash, a topsail schooner built in Freeport by the Porter family. The Dash was one of the most successful privateers that operated out of Casco Bay during the War of 1812, capturing 15 British vessels and their cargoes while prowling the Atlantic.

Artwork courtesy Freeport Historical Society

click image to enlarge

William King


JUNE 18, 1812

U.S. declares war on England.


Fort Mackinac and Detroit fall to British troops.

AUG. 19, 1812

USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere.


British blockade South Carolina and Georgia.

MARCH 1813

British blockade extends from Long Island to Mississippi River.

APRIL 27, 1813

Americans capture York (Toronto).


Americans defeat British in Battle of Lake Erie.


Americans rout Indians allied with British in Battle of Thames.

APRIL 1814

Napoleon abdicates, British extend blockade to New England.

AUG. 24-25, 1814

British burn Washington, D.C.


British occupy eastern Maine, from Eastport to Bangor.


Thousands of Maine militiamen muster to defend Portland.

DEC. 24, 1814

Diplomats sign Treaty of Ghent.

JAN. 8, 1815

U.S. wins Battle of New Orleans.

FEB. 17, 1815

President James Madison declares war over.


The captain's log of the Dash tells heart-thumping tales of a Maine privateer hunting British ships and their cargoes in the wild Atlantic.

In late 1814, the Dash captured six vessels on its last successful outing, according to the log at the Maine Historical Society.

By Dec. 19, the Dash had already captured four vessels when its crew spotted an English brig near Bermuda. Rolling through rough seas, the Dash chased the brig into the next day.

"The brig ran inside some breakers thinking we would give up the chase," wrote Capt. John Porter of Freeport, "but we kept right up with her."

On Dec. 20, the Dash ran down the English brig and boarded her, finding the ship laden with barrels of rum, sugar, porter, wine, pork and butter. Over the next few days, the seas were calm as the crew of the Dash "took in our loot."

On the way back to Portland, the Dash captured another English brig, confiscated casks of shrub (rum cocktail) and lime juice, and let the ship go.

The Dash reached Portland in January 1815. After a short layover, the privateer headed out again. This time, it ran into rough seas on the shoals of Georges Bank and was never seen again.

Sixty men, including 16 from Freeport, were lost.


George Daughan will discusss his book, "1812: The Navy's War," at 7 p.m. Monday at the Yarmouth Historical Society; at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Rockland Public Library; and at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. For more information, visit georgedaughanevents.blogspot.com.

"Subdue, Seize and Take: Maritime Maine in the Unwelcome Interruption of the War of 1812" will be on exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum through Oct. 12. For more information, visit mainemaritimemuseum.org or call 443-1316.

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.


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.

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