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XVIII. THE BRITISH AGAIN IN MAINE.
THIRTY years had passed since the close of the Revolutionary War, and Maine had enjoyed her long-fought-for and hard-won peace and been greatly increased and prospered. But she had to have her share in the crisis of a difficulty with England which had lasted long and become unendurable.
Forced to acknowledge the independence of the colonies, Britannia still claimed to rule the wave, and constantly inflicted outrages upon our commerce and impressed our seamen for her navy.
Aroused by more and more flagrant offenses of this kind, the American Congress, on the 18th of June, 1812, passed an act declaring that war existed between the United States and England. To meet the expenses of the war, a tax of $74,220 was levied upon Maine, and it is said that more soldiers were enlisted in the district of Maine, according to its population, than in any state of the Union. There were over twenty thousand men, all in marching order, ready to do Maine's share in another struggle for liberty.
A British brig carrying eighteen guns and a crew of a hundred and four men had been, for a long time, the scourge of our coasts. No gallant merchant ship, no modest coaster, was safe from the depredations of the Boxer. Captain Blythe, who commanded her, was a daring young Englishman, only twenty-nine years old. There lay at anchor in Portland harbor the American brig Enterprise, commanded by Captain Burrows, who was only twenty-eight.
The Boxer cruised off Portland harbor for the purpose of drawing the Enterprise into an encounter. It was a fierce and bloody fight which took place between the two vessels on the 5th of September, 1814, at three o'clock in the afternoon.
They were very near together and poured a deadly fire into each other. Within half an hour both young captains lay dead upon the bloody decks and the Boxer had struck her colors. Her defeat was utter, for she had lost, besides her captain, nearly half her crew. On the Enterprise but two were killed and twelve wounded. The Enterprise returned victorious to Portland the next day, bringing the Boxer as her prize.
The public rejoicing was great, although it was mingled with sorrow over the death of the brave young Burrows. The officers were buried side by side with military honors.
The whole Atlantic coast was declared by the British in a state of blockade, and was infested by the enemy's cruisers. Any American vessel upon the seas was liable to be stopped by threatening guns from a British war ship, and an officer would board her and select from her crew any American seamen, and drag them on board the British man-of-war. If resistance were attempted, the British officers did not scruple to use club and sword to compel submission. Even our armed vessels were searched, and were fired upon if they resisted. More than six thousand men were taken from American vessels and forced to man British guns.
The British claimed that Moose Island, upon which the fortified town of Eastport was situated, belonged to them by virtue of the treaty of 1783. On the 11th of July, 1814, a British fleet of five war vessels and three or four transports arrived at Eastport, anchored beside the fortifications, and demanded their surrender. It was a powerful fleet. The Ramilies, having on board the commodore, Sir Thomas Hardy, was a seventy-four-gun ship. The Martin, Rover, Breame, and Terror were large ships carrying heavy guns; there was a bomb ship also, and the transports carried a great force of men. It is no wonder that the little town was appalled and hopeless when the surrender of the fort was demanded in five minutes. Major Putnam, the commander, was a man of reckless courage. His reply to the British was: "The fort will be defended against whatever force may be brought against it." But the whole town remonstrated against the hopeless resistance to a force which could destroy it in an hour, and Major Putnam was compelled to strike the fort's flag.
The British flag was hoisted over the fort. The commodore took possession of the town, with all its public property, and seized all the American soldiers and forced them on board the British ships.
The inhabitants of Moose Island, and of all the other islands in Passamaquoddy Bay, were ordered to assemble at the Eastport schoolhouse on the sixteenth day of the month, and then and there take the oath of allegiance to the King of England, or else within seven days to take their departure from the islands. Nearly two thirds of the inhabitants submitted to this demand, feeling themselves utterly helpless to resist.
On August 26, a still more powerful British fleet set sail from Halifax to the Maine coast to reduce its hardy and defiant sons to submission to the British rule.
This fleet consisted of three seventy-four-gun ships, two frigates, two war sloops, an armed schooner, a large tender, and ten transports. The troops embarked numbered nearly three thousand men. Some authorities give the number as six thousand; it is certain that there were two regiments, two companies of a third regiment, and a detachment of royal artillery. The fleet was commanded by Lieutenant General Sir John Sherbrooke, governor of Nova Scotia.
When, on the 18th of September, this powerful fleet cast anchor in Castine harbor, it was evident that resistance was useless. The garrison blew up its small battery and fled, and the British took undisputed possession. One of the officers, with a force of six hundred men, crossed the bay and seized and plundered Belfast, returning after this exploit to Castine.
Everywhere the quiet little towns were wholly unprepared for war. In all Massachusetts only about six hundred regular troops were to be found, and beyond the Penobscot, in September, 1814, hardly a full company could have been collected. The able-bodied voting male population of the counties of Kennebec and Hancock, on either side the Penobscot, was about twelve thousand. And the powerful British troops met with little or no resistance. A few days before Sherbrooke's descent upon Castine, the United States ship Adams, a heavy corvet, carrying twenty-eight guns, which had escaped from the British at Chesapeake Bay and had been cruising some months at sea, struck on a reef at Ile au Haut, and was brought into the Penobscot River in a sinking condition.
Captain Morris, who commanded the Adams, took her up the river about twenty five miles to Hampden, near Bangor, to repair her. General Sherbrooke, on occupying Castine, sent a force of six hundred men up to Hampden, in boats, to capture and destroy the Adams, while he occupied Belfast with another regiment. Captain Morris's crew numbered probably only about two hundred men, but he placed great dependence upon aid from the militia. When he heard of the approach of the British he hastily put his guns in battery and prepared to defend the ship.
On the morning of September 3, in a thick fog, the British boats sailed up the river and announced themselves by firing at peaceful citizens on the east side of the river, in Orrington. They fired a cannon ball through the house of Mr. Lord, near the ferry, killing a man named Reed. A little farther up the river they fired a cannon ball which came so near the head of Mr. James Brooks as to blow his hat off. He had with him the children and the cattle, escaping to the woods. Another cannon ball went through the meetinghouse, and there is set down in the annals of the Orrington (Methodist) Quarterly Conference this record: "September 3, 1814. The British troops coming up the river prevented Q. M. [Quarterly Meeting]. They shot a cannon ball through the meetinghouse this day."
The little hamlet of Hampden was panic-stricken. "The sons of Revolutionary sires at Hampden had never seen battle," says an old record. "Their white-haired fathers were too old for the fray. Besides, the councils of New England had decided the war unnecessary and wrong. The United States made no demands and rendered no aid." Eastport fell in June, Washington and Alexandria a month later, Castine and Bangor in September.
In an hour Hampden was entirely in the power of the enemy. They plundered property, killed cattle, abused the inhabitants, and burned their vessels. They spared only those vessels for which money could be extorted from their owners.
Robert Barrie, the commander of the British fleet, was insolent and brutal. When a committee of citizens waited upon him and begged him to treat the community with more humanity, he replied angrily: "I have no humanity for you. My business is to burn, sink, and destroy. Your town is taken by storm. By the rules of war we ought to lay your village in ashes and put its inhabitants to the sword. But I will spare your lives, though I mean to burn your houses."
But an order came from General Sherbrooke not to burn the houses. So the fleet proceeded up the river to Bangor, and took possession of the place without encountering any resistance. All public or private property upon which hands could be laid was regarded as lawful spoil.
The British crossed the river to Brewer and burned all the shipping there. . It was a reign of terror in all the region about Bangor, but a gala occasion for the British officers, who disported themselves about the neighborhood of the city, wearing uniforms glittering with gold lace, and making themselves especially free with sideboards and cellars, which, in those days, it was the fashion to keep well stocked.
Across the river, in Brewer, a party of officers attempted to force the hospitality of General Blake, an old soldier of Revolutionary fame. But the general forestalled them and dispensed liquors from his sideboard with the stately courtesy of a gentleman of the old school. To one of them he was so extremely polite that the officer remarked in surprise:
"Perhaps you do not know who I am, sir. I am a British officer. I am General Gosselin!"
"I know you are," returned the old general, his indignation getting the better of his politeness, "and curse the goose that hatched you!"
There were many humors of the trying and discouraging situation, as there is, almost always, a lighter side to the dark things of life.
General Sherbrooke had no orders to occupy country west of the Penobscot; so, after a hundred and ninety one of the principal citizens of Bangor had been compelled to sign a document declaring themselves prisoners of war and promising not to serve against the British government unless exchanged, the fleet descended the river to Frankfort.
Here the British officers contented themselves with seizing forty oxen, a hundred sheep, and all the poultry and produce that they could lay hands on.
On the 9th of September they returned to Castine, which was made a port of entry. Several ships of war guarded the harbor, and twenty-two hundred troops were placed there in garrison. All the province of Maine east of the Penobscot was then in Sherbrooke's hands, and the inhabitants of the Kennebec valley feared that he would overrun and lay waste their country in the same manner that he had ravaged the Penobscot shores.
The British commander organized a provincial government for the territory, and all male inhabitants over sixteen were forced to take the oath of allegiance to the King of England. "A hundred miles of our seacoast passed quietly into the hands of King George."
At Hampden a customhouse was opened for the introduction of British goods. Castine, the headquarters of the British, became very gay socially. Many of the English officers were gentlemen, and endeavored to relieve the monotony of life in the little Maine town by gentlemanly amusements. A theater was opened, and there were balls, at which many a Castine maiden first learned to trip the light fantastic toe; for dancing was an amusement that had been frowned upon by the sober-minded settlers.
The gay times that were enjoyed "when the British were at Castine" have been the theme of many a grandmother's reminiscences in that region. Castine remained to all intents and purposes a foreign port. It was the only place in the United States which was allowed to hold any commercial relations whatever with England or her colonies, and many cargoes of European merchandise were brought there.
Upon the principle of international law that neutral vessels must be allowed to enter our harbors, large quantities of merchandise which had been imported into Castine were continually carried away from there, in a Swedish schooner, to Hampden, where Mr. Hook, the United States collector of customs, had established his office, and there duly entered under our laws.
This traffic was so extensive that duties amounting to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars were received at Hampden during a period of five weeks, and from. twenty to forty teams were constantly engaged in transporting goods across the country.
A little company of militia from Northport captured, near Castine, a sloop with her cargo of cloth and silks, which brought seventy thousand dollars at auction.
American paper money not being current, traders from Boston and other points would pick up Eastern bills and require their exchange for gold and silver. The result was that every bank in Maine was soon obliged to suspend specie payment.
An inveterate smuggling, for which the long stretch of unguarded territory afforded great opportunity, was carried on, and all sorts of schemes were invented to elude and deceive the revenue officers.
Wagons with double bottoms, affording a hiding place for silks and laces, were a favorite device. A sheriff of Hancock county, living in Ellsworth, on his way to Boston stopped for the night at Wiscasset. The peculiar appearance of his wagon excited suspicion, and upon examination two bottoms were found, between which was concealed a quantity of valuable English merchandise, which was seized and condemned.
As the smuggler occupied a high office and was a prominent member of the Federal or anti-war party, the affair attracted widespread attention, and the following jocular allusion to it appeared in the Boston "Patriot" of November 9, 1814:
"The Double-bottomed Wagon: The next trip Mr. Sheriff Adams takes to Castine we would advise him to make use of an air balloon, as there appears to be no safety in traveling by land. The double-bottomed wagons are not safe from the grip of James Madison's sentinels; but in an air balloon there will be perfect safety, as the officers of government are not permitted to travel in the air nor to make seizures there."
After sleighing commenced, sleighs with false backs and fronts, and pungs with false bottoms, became favorite vehicles with the smuggling community. It was not unusual to see a large, portly gentleman drive up to the tavern door just at dusk, order his horse to be put up, and after taking supper retire for the night, leaving orders to be called early in the morning. He invariably came from the East. A rigid examination of him and his surroundings would have led to the discovery, probably, that the plump saddle on his horse's back was stuffed with sewing silk; that silks and satins were hidden between the two backs and fronts of his sleigh; that the false crown in his hat concealed a pound or more of needles, and that his trunk contained nothing but a lot of old newspapers. The lean, lank, shadlike guest who appeared in the early morning would hardly be recognized as the portly gentleman of the preceding night, and the increase in the weight of his trunk during the night was truly miraculous. Travelers of this character invariably took the back route from the Penobscot for the West; all the revenue officers were stationed on the shore route.
As the duties established on imports at Castine ranged from five per cent. ad valorem to forty-three cents per gallon on spirits, the amount of revenue collected there must have been large. This seems to have accrued to the province of Nova Scotia, for, in 1816, Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, authorized the expenditure of duties levied at Castine on such local improvements as the governor should suggest.
From the customs receipts collected at Castine, in 1814-15, £1,000 was granted to aid the military library at Halifax, and £9,750 toward the establishment of a college at Halifax. This was the foundation of Dalhousie College (now University), with buildings located on a public square of the city, departments of art and science, and a faculty of ten professors,—all from duties levied on the Yankees by the British at Castine.
On the 24th of December, 1814, was signed the treaty of Ghent, by which peace was established between Great Britain and the United States. The news reached this country on the 11th of February, 1815, and was received with great demonstrations of joy all over the country. On the 25th of April the British troops evacuated Castine, after having occupied it for eight months. Old 'Biguyduce, after its varied fortunes, was once more Yankee soil, and has remained so ever since.