Rockland and the War of 1812

By Ann Morris | Jun 14, 2012
A halberd from the War of 1812.

During the early years of the 19th century, shipping and shipbuilding made Maine (still a district of Massachusetts) and New England the most prosperous states in the Union. Shipbuilders, ship owners, sea captains and merchants received shares in the profits from shipping lumber, wheat, dried fish and other natural resources to Europe and returning with cargoes of hardware, cloth and other manufactured goods not yet made in America.

But the Napoleonic Wars that raged across Europe from 1800 to 1815 took a toll on the American shipping industry. France and England forbade their merchant ships to trade with the enemy, and when they saw Americans profiting by filling the void, they forbade Americans to trade with their enemies. Britain gave British ships permission to capture American ships to prevent them from sailing to France, and France gave French ships permission to capture American ships to prevent them from sailing to England, thus the dangerous business of privateering resumed.

Atlantic seamen feared the British Navy, for British naval officers were so cruel in their enforcement of discipline, they often beat sailors to death. British sailors deserted in such numbers that the British Navy had to fill its ranks by boarding American ships at sea to search for British deserters, and they kidnapped American sailors to serve in the British Navy.

To remain neutral, yet protect American seamen from the British Navy, in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo, confining all ships, both foreign and domestic, to port. Seamen were thrown out of work, lumber piled up on the wharves, and fish rotted. Sea captains and traders eluded the Custom House officials, becoming privateers and pirates. U.S. forts were built at the mouth of the Kennebec, at Wiscasset, at Damariscotta, at McCobb’s Narrows near Thomaston, and at Castine. Local seamen hated the forts, thinking they were built to enforce the embargo.

After much pleading from New England traders, Congress repealed the embargo in 1809, but still forbade trade with England and France. The British Navy continued to impress American sailors, and privateers continued to capture American ships. So in April of 1812, President James Madison imposed a second embargo, again causing economic prostration and deep gloom along the coast of the District of Maine and New England. Ships launched at the shipyards could not sail. Local tax revenues declined sharply.

Finally, on June 18, 1812, President Madison declared war on Britain on behalf of seamen’s rights. There were many battles at sea, and battles were waged on the Great Lakes, as British Canada attempted to redefine her borders. The forts on the coast of Maine were bereft of soldiers, as U.S. troops were sent to fight along the Canadian border. A British blockade bottled up maritime trade, and the British raided American harbors and burned ships.

The coastal towns of Maine raised militias, taxed themselves to provide extra pay for those who enlisted, and petitioned the federal government to provide more forts and gunboats along the coast. A committee of men from neighboring towns met to discuss plans for defending the waters of Penobscot Bay, including the purchase of weapons. Men from the Shore Village (now Rockland) who participated included: James Jameson, Benjamin Packard, Dr. Ezekiel Dodge, David Crockett, Charles Spofford, Job Ingraham and Jacob Ulmer.

Toward the end of 1812, a company of 65 Coast Guards from Thomaston and Camden enlisted and were quartered at the Fort at St. George. In March 1813 they sailed to Castine, and in April they sailed to Eastport where they suppressed contraband trade. At Christmas the Thomaston Coast Guards were discharged and sent home without pay. Meanwhile, the coast was so beset by British warships and privateers that it became dangerous for American vessels to put out to sea.

One of the greatest sea battles of the war occurred on Sept. 5, 1813, off Pemaquid Point near Monhegan, between the USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer. The loud cannon explosions could be heard all along the Midcoast. The smoke from the cannon fire could be seen from the top of Dodge Mountain and from the top of Mount Battie. Carpenters building the Snow house on Metinic witnessed the battle and recorded it on one of the beams in the attic. Both commanders were killed. The victorious Enterprise escorted the captured British brig into Portland, where the two sea captains were buried side by side.

Five days later, Commander Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.

The following summer, on July 11, 1814, the British captured Eastport and destroyed the fort at St. George. Residents along the coast feared the British would mount a large invasion from Halifax. Local men stationed guards from Camden Harbor to Owls Head. They hastily erected forts on Eaton’s Point and Jacob’s Point at Camden. They hauled one of the large cannons from St. George to Clam Cove to prevent the British from landing there and hauled the other cannon from St. George to the top of Mount Battie to use as an alarm.

On Aug. 24, 1814, the British attacked Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the National Intelligencer, a newspaper persistently critical of the British. First Lady Dolly Madison rescued Gilbert Stewart’s full-length portrait of George Washington from the burning White House, thus saving one of our first American icons. A hurricane the next day tore off roofs and destroyed buildings, but it put out the fires at our national landmarks. Two days later, the American Navy defeated the British at Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner.

On Sept. 1, 1814, the British captured Castine, occupied Belfast, and plundered Bangor. The townspeople of Camden feared they would be next. Militias came from Thomaston, St. George, Hope and Appleton. On Sept. 6, British warships sailed into Penobscot Bay. The local militias paraded and loaded their weapons, making so much noise, that the British ships sailed away to Halifax. Ships were captured at Owls Head and Lermond’s Cove.

On Christmas Eve of 1814, a peace treaty was signed at Ghent, to go into effect after it was ratified by both governments. Meanwhile, the British had hoped to invade New Orleans and from there take possession of the Louisiana Territory. On Jan. 8, 1815, Major General Andrew Jackson stopped the British invasion in the famous Battle of New Orleans. Americans killed or wounded 2,000 British soldiers, while the British killed only six Americans and wounded 10.

Finally, news of the peace arrived on Feb. 14, 1815. The driver of the western stage thundered into Camden at midnight, blowing his post horn loudly. Citizens roused from their slumber proclaimed the glad tidings, firing guns and lighting bonfires. Cannons at the forts began to roar, and that roar continued until morning, celebrating the dawn of peace. At sunrise, men fired the large cannon on top of Mount Battie, announcing the peace to a larger audience. The thunder-like cannon blasts belching from the top of the mountain shook the buildings below to their foundations, and the reverberations echoed over the waters, the hills, and the valleys, announcing the peace to the surrounding towns. The day was spent in celebration, and the night closed with a public dance.

The British left Castine on April 25, 1815, and it took a while for Maine’s shipping industry to return to prosperity. American vessels had to compete with those of other nations, and American markets became overstocked with English goods.

The War of 1812 served as our final battle with Britain. It was the first time the 13 United States of America faced a common enemy, bringing about the birth of the U.S. Navy and a professional army. The war settled our boundaries with British Canada until the Aroostook War of 1839, during which Maine and Canadian lumbermen sabotaged each other. The present boundary of Maine was not established until 1842.

The War of 1812 gave us some of our favorite symbols of American national pride: the rebuilt White House, the rebuilt Capitol, Gilbert Stewart’s portrait of Washington, and our National Anthem.

Sources

Eaton, Cyrus; Eaton’s Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Volume I. Hallowell, Maine: Masters, Smith & Co., 1865.

Robinson, Reuel; History of Camden and Rockport. Camden, Maine: Camden Publishing Co., 1907.

Smith, Joshua M.; Blockhouse and Battery: A History of Fort Edgecomb. Wiscasset, Maine: Friends of Fort Edgecomb, 2009.

Daughan, George C.; 1812: The Navy’s War. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

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Rockland artifact from the War of 1812

The Rockland Historical Society owns a halberd from the War of 1812. A halberd is a weapon from the 15th and 16th centuries, a tall thin pole, 7-feet long, with a steel blade and pike (dagger) on the top. Halberds were used in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. At that time a musket had to be reloaded every time it was fired, and its aim was unreliable, so a sergeant or commanding officer did not bother with a gun, but carried a halberd to show his men where the front was. During the War of 1812, a commanding officer carried a halberd when boarding an enemy ship to stab the enemy before the enemy could reach him.

The Rockland Historical Society’s halberd belonged to Abiathar Richardson, originally from Jefferson, Maine. Richardson served as a sergeant in the American Revolution, defending the seacoast at Boothbay. During the War of 1812, Richardson commanded a Company from Jefferson that served at Fort Edgecomb near Wiscasset. Richardson moved to Appleton in 1819 to become pastor of the new Baptist Church.

Richardson’s granddaughter, Mrs. Earle Pitman, who lived at Norumbega in Camden, donated the halberd to the Rockland Historical Society in 1978.

Ann Morris is the curator of the Rockland Historical Society. She works at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop in Camden, and she has written several local histories, including: “The Camden Chronology” and “A Walk Along Main Street, Rockland, Maine.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: Phil Edwards | Jun 23, 2012 09:28

Ann,interesting article. As to the natural resources we shipped to Europe you can add slave-picked tobacco and raw cotton, and items made from cotton. And, as you stated, our ships returned with cargoes not yet manufactured here---thanks, in part, to that tobacco and cotton.    



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