Maine’s War of 1812
We are approaching the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. On June 18, 1812 President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain. This was to be our second war for independence. In Maine, a far eastern backwater (actually part of Massachusetts) surrounded by loyalist colonies New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, war fever was tepid, tempered by familial relations across the borders and a weak federal presence. Castine, Maine was a bulwark of the British with Fort George built and manned by the colonial power continuously from 1690 until the close of the War of Independence. It was the last British outpost surrendered [update…this is disputed by a Michigan friend who says Mackinac Island was occupied by British forces much longer]. In 1814 the Brits returned and once again occupied the fort from September until the following April.
Meanwhile, ordinary Mainers and their friends across the border cooked up a way to peaceably profit. Privateers are pirates licensed by governments to harass and plunder enemy ships. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia privateers would head to Maine to do their dirty work, but had it worked out so that they would be “captured” by their Maine buddies. Crews would be released back home to collect their insurance, and their cargo and ships would be auctioned off in Maine by the Americans, with kickbacks going across the border. Everybody wins except the insurance companies. There’s a great blog article describing this chapter of Maine history here.
There were hot confrontations too. The most notable was a sea battle in 1813 off Pemaquid between HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise. The battle gained international attention because both captains, the Boxer’s Samuel Blyth and the Enterprise’s William Burrows were killed in the action. The Enterprise ultimately prevailed and was steered to Portland with the captured Boxer in tow. Both commanders were given an elaborate funeral and laid to rest side by side in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery. Before dying, William Burrows was offered the dead Blythe’s sword in surrender, but he refused, insisting it be sent to Blythe’s family. “I am satisfied, I die contented,” Captain Burrows exclaimed.
The war raged on. The Penobscot River was the effective new border, meaning our Acadia region was in British control. Britain had plans to rename Maine “New Ireland”, perhaps because it was to the west of Nova Scotia. The Battle of Hampden occurred in August of 1814, concurrent with the retaking of Castine. A particularly brutal British Captain Robert Barrie saw to it that after defeating a small local militia, Mainers would pay for their crimes. His troops sacked the towns of Bangor and Hampden, burning, smashing and looting. When local leaders begged him to show a little humanity he said,
“Humanity! I have none 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.”
He only stopped when local leaders promised to deliver unfinished ships to Castine. Still, it was the last minor Maine battle of the War of 1812, by December of 1814 hostilities ended in Maine with the Treaty of Ghent, and the Brits withdrew to prewar borders with the exception of Eastport, which they managed to hold until 1818. From then on, with the minor exception of the Aroostook War, which wasn’t really a war, Maine and the entire US, Great Britain and Canada have been the best of friends.
In closing, to my family the War of 1812 was important for one other reason, the defection of one Peter Kinsley from the British side, by swimming across the Niagara River. The Dublin native was the founder of Kinsley’s Corners, Ohio (now named New London), and my third great grandfather.