After its success in achieving independence with the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, the United States hoped to avoid conflict with European countries.
However, in 1793 France declared war on Great Britain, both of which then began harassing American shipping along the east coast, including Maine, and in the West Indies. The French captured, among others, the Portland based Neptune (1798) and the Castine based Hiram (1800). The British focused on forcing Maine and other American sailors to serve on British ships of war.
On December 22, 1809, President Thomas Jefferson’s “long embargo” on trade with foreign ports went into effect. Its goal was to avoid conflict with the British and the French.
At first merchants and ship masters, such as Bath’s William King, favored what was hoped to be a short disruption of trade. However, as the embargo continued, it became more unpopular and more prone to evasion.
Maine was the greatest offender. Ever since the close of the Revolutionary War, to avoid burdensome restrictions, many a cargo had been transferred from an American to an English bottom in Passamaquoddy Bay, or on the shores of Campobello or some other neutral island.1
Finally, the embargo was enforced in Maine with federal troops and vessels. Eventually shipping recovered as the British tolerated limited trade hoping to keep New England neutral.
However, on June 18, 1812, Congress declared war on England citing continued harassment of American shipping. In the vote, New England members of Congress voted nineteen to nine opposing the declaration, but members from the South and West prevailed.
On September 5, 1813 the British brig Boxer was captured by the American brig Enterprise off Portland. “Old Boynton,” a cannon captured from the Boxer sits on the grounds of the Limington Library. People in the town of Buxton decided to build their own powder house for local defense. The town of Ripley is named for Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, an officer in the war.
However, Massachusetts bankers and merchants openly sided with Britain and refused to cooperate with the federal government. In response, in 1813 President Madison
ordered all federal garrisons in the District of Maine to withdraw to more loyal states of the Union. William King, major general of one of the principal militia units in Maine, found his state suddenly defended by “a few invalids . . . who were retained on account of their indispositions. 2
As a result, by the fall of 1814 the British had invaded and occupied eastern Maine, and formally brought all of the District east of the Penobscot River back into the British Empire. In August they had occupied and burned the U.S. Capitol and White House in Washington. In 1817 three hundred casks of lime were shipped from Rockport to Washington for use in rebuilding the Capitol.
In Maine’s mid-coast, the British were less successful. Their frigate Bulwark visited Southport Island and landed a group of marines at what is now Hendrick’s Harbor. They were beaten back by the local militia. Fort Edgecomb avoided attack and housed some British prisoners of war. In 1814 a militia regiment, with future congressman Benjamin Randall, was deployed to Coxes Head in Phippsburg to make improvised earthworks on its summit, creating a sod fort.
Following the War of 1812, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed that a fort be built on Hog Island Ledge, in Casco Bay at the entrance to Portland harbor. Construction did not begin until 1858 on what is now Fort Gorges. Under British control during the war, the Prospect-Bucksport area belatedly received its own protection in the form of Fort Knox, with construction between 1844 and 1869.
Massachusetts did nothing to defend its eastern District, earning the long-term anger of many in Maine, and adding more strength to those seeking separation and statehood.
The whole Downeast area remained firmly under British control until news of the end of the war reached Wiscasset in February 1815. The Treaty of Ghent ending the conflict was signed on December 24, 1814, but it took two months for the news to reach America. Even then, Massachusetts did little to regain control of Eastport, which remained under British control until June of 1918!
After the war, the devastated shipbuilding and shipping industries recovered in Boothbay and elsewhere along the coast, sparking an economic boom, which eventually included the construction of the famous clipper ships.
Personal stories of Maine people affected by the war include Edward Soule, from Freeport but living in Parkman, who was captured three times by the British, and spent fourteen months in Dartmoor prison. Rufus McIntire, who later served as a legislator and member of Congress, recruited a company that marched to the northern frontier during the war.
James Bates served as a surgeon and was present at the surrender of Fort Erie and was in charge of the general military hospital near Buffalo. Then he returned to Maine practicing medicine until he was elected as a Jacksonian to the Twenty-second Congress (March 4, 1831-March 3, 1833).
Revolutionary War General Henry Dearborn was made commander-in-chief of U.S. forces stationed along the northern frontier from Lake Champlain to Lake Michigan. Samuel Veazie reached the rank of general by the war’s end, then became a successful industrialist in the Bangor-Old Town area.
A farmer from Dixmont, Samuel Butman served as a captain during the war. He later was elected to the state legislator and then Congress. Similar stories are reflected by the experiences of Camden’s Joseph Hall, Monmouth’s John Chandler, Brownfield’s Rufus K. Goodenow, and JoshuaHerrick who became a Brunswick resident.
Memories of the conflict, and Massachusetts’ neglect, were still fresh in 1819 when a Constitutional Convention held in Portland drafted Maine’s state Constitution.
Rowe, William H. The Maritime History of Maine: Three Centuries of Ship Building & Seafaring. Gardiner, Me. The Harpswell Press. 1989. (Copyright W.W. Norton, 1948) 1 Rowe, p. 81.
Woodard, Colin. The Lobster Coast. New York, NY. Viking-Penguin. 2004. 2 Woodard, p. 151.
Woodard, Colin. “The war that made Maine a state: The British occupation of eastern Maine in the War of 1812 prompted a split from Massachusetts.” Portland Press Herald. June 22, 2012. http://www.pressherald.com/news/200-years-ago_2012-06-24.html?pagenum=full (accessed January 22, 2014)