The Boxer and Enterprise

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Apr 08, 2021
USS Enterprise takes the HMS Boxer, Sept. 5, 1813 in a painting by James Osborne, entitled "The Boxer and Enterprise, Monhegan, 1831." (Image in Public Domain)

As far as wars go in American History, the War of 1812 does not get that much coverage or study. But here in Maine, the conflict proved to be a momentous event that shut down our economy, devastated our commercial shipping and saw us militarily occupied. It also put us on the road toward statehood.

One major event that happened here in Maine was an epic maritime duel between two square-rigged naval vessels of war, the HMS Boxer and U.S. Enterprise. They met off Pemaquid Peninsula, a spectacle witnessed by many Mainers from the shore and surrounding hilltops.

The American ship Enterprise was built and launched in Baltimore in 1799. Its first commander was John Shaw (1773-1823), a native Irishman who sailed the vessel to Caribbean waters in the midst of the non-official war with France. Command then passed to Andrew Sterett (1778-1807) who captured privateer Amour de la Patrie on Christmas Eve 1800. In June 1801, Shaw captured the 14-gun corsair Tripoli off the Barbary Coast. Command then passed to naval hero Stephen Decatur in 1803.

By 1813, America was at war with the British and 29-year-old Capt. William Burrows was in charge of Enterprise. On Sept. 5, off Pemaquid, Burrows’ brig spotted, then chased and then engaged the British warship Boxer.

Boxer, a 12-gun Bold-class gun-brig built and launched in July 1812, was commanded by 28-year-old Capt. Samuel Blyth. He had taken command in September and sailed for Halifax in April 1813. Boxer cruised New England waters that summer harassing American vessels. At one point, Blyth captured a small sailboat crewed by women. Bringing them aboard Boxer, he politely suggested that next time they sail closer to shore, and then released them. The husband of one of the women put an advertisement in the local newspaper praising Blyth for his chivalry.

When Enterprise and Boxer met up off Pemaquid, both captains jumped to action. A 30-minute exchange of cannon and small arms followed. At the first main broadside from Enterprise, Blyth exclaimed “Great God, what shots!” seconds before he was killed, cut nearly in half by a cannon ball.

The battle raged on with cannon shots and small arms fire being exchanged. People watched from surrounding hilltops and shorelines as the ships pounded each other. On Kenniston Hill at Boothbay, spectators watched the battle from a range of 2 to 3 miles. Artist Carlton Plummer later depicted this scene in his painting of Mainers craning their necks for a better view from atop the hill, as the ships valiantly fought.

Burrows received a mortal wound from a sharpshooter in the Boxer’s rigging. He died eight hours later, before the ship reached Portland. The battle was finally decided when Enterprise raked Boxer, and the broadside brought down the enemy’s mainmast. Enterprise had also maneuvered to a position from which no effective return fire could be made from the captain-less Boxer. They struck their colors and asked for quarter.

Both ships were heavily damaged and the wooden decks awash in blood and gore. Some reports say 20 to 25 men on Boxer were killed, with 14 wounded. Others say seven killed and 13 wounded. Enterprise had 12 men wounded, two mortally, in addition to Burrows. Other sources say four were killed and 10 wounded.

Enterprise sustained a lot of damage to its rigging. Boxer’s hull had been holed and its masts toppled; the victors had difficulty keeping it afloat as they brought it into Portland. Large crowds gathered and watched as the battered ships arrived and wounded men and dead brought ashore.

After two days of intense planning, local authorities conducted an impressive state funeral for both commanders. On Sept. 9, 1813, in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery, with full military honors, William Burrows and Samuel Blyth were interred next to each other. Two years later, after 18-year-old Lt. Kervin Waters died of his wounds received during the battle, he too was buried alongside the two captains.

Washington Irving wrote “It was a striking and affecting sight, to behold two gallant commanders, who had lately been arrayed in deadly hostility against each other, descending into one quiet grave, there to mingle their dust peacefully together.”

Even Henry Adams wrote “No incident in this quasi-civil war touched the sensibilities of the people more deeply than the common funeral of the two commanders, both well-known and favorites in the service, buried, with the same honors and mourners, in the graveyard at Portland overlooking the scene of the battle.”

A contemporary ballad lauded both commanders; it was printed in 1818. Local Maine musician Fred Gosbee has put it to the music of Portsmouth, calling it “Boxer & Enterprise.” He performed it for his Castlebay CD, “Bound Away: Traditional Seafaring Songs from Maine.” It can be found at https://castlebay.net/home.

To raise prize money for Enterprise sailors, Boxer was sold at auction in Portland for $5,600 to Thomas Merrill Jr. Its guns and ballast were also sold; total proceeds came to $9,755. Burrows' family received over a thousand dollars, and each Enterprise sailor got a share of prize money, roughly $55.

Some Boxer spars and rigging went to equip the ship Mercator. The British cannon went to arm the privateer Hyder Ali. At first, Boxer was used to defend Portland harbor but then was converted to a merchantman. Merrill sold it in 1818 to Portuguese owners, where it was used as a mail packet between Lisbon and the Cape Verde Islands. As late as 1825, it was still in service. One source suggests Boxer was finally lost off the coast of Brazil. Enterprise ran ashore and was lost in July 1823 off Little Curacao in the West Indies. No reports of fatalities, but the vessel was declared a total loss.

Over the years, this epic battle has been captured by numerous artists. Fifty years after the event, artist Charles Frederick Kimball painted the “Graves of the Captains, 1876.” There is a painting of the battle by James Osborne entitled “The Boxer and Enterprise Monhegan, 1831.” The naval duel has also been portrayed on scrimshaw.

A lot of historic items have come down through the years regarding the captains, ships and naval battle. The Maine Historical Society has Boxer’s ensign, captured during the battle. They also have documents in their archives, such as an 1813 statement of expenses by John Leach for his part in the burial of British Capt. Blyth. There is even an 1813 Benjamin Radford signed receipt for $24, the amount of money he received for “a mahogany coffin and trimmings” for Blyth. An itemized list of the 1813 auction survives, a record of items sold from aboard Boxer, as well as the sale of the brig itself.

Actual historical-related items have also been preserved. A mast-band, reputed to have come from Boxer, apparently floated ashore on a mast after the battle onto Damariscove Island. In the 1890s, the Maine Historical Society donated one of Boxer’s 1,200-pound cannon to be put in front of Portland City Hall. In 2012, it was transported from the front steps to a truck for transport to Bath’s Maine Maritime Museum for its bicentennial exhibit about Maine and the War of 1812.

Portland’s own poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow referenced the battle in his poem “My Lost Youth”:

I remember the sea-fight far away,

How it thundered o'er the tide!

And the dead captains, as they lay

In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay

Where they in battle died.

And the sound of that mournful song

Goes through me with a thrill:

'A boy's will is the wind's will,

And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'

In 1821, Congress authorized a series of medals commemorating American successes during the War of 1812. Gold medals were awarded to naval commanders and the officers received silver ones. There was no portrait of William Burrows, so for the Burrows Medal the obverse features a funeral urn and trophies. It is inscribed “Victoriam Tibi Claram Patriae Maestam” or "The Victory meant fame for thee, but for thy country sorrow." On reverse is a port broadside view of Enterprise and port-quarter view of Boxer with its main topmast carried away and inscribed “Vivere Sat Vincere” or "Victory is life enough."

Two of the more interesting relics from this naval battle can be found at Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library in Boston. They are human bones. One, a humerus or leg bone, has been mounted on a stand. The bone had been broken from an injury suffered during the battle by a sailor on board Enterprise. The large bone had healed in united fracture. The other is a human skull from a sail maker aboard Enterprise with a lead ball still embedded in the skull. This sailor had been struck above his right eye by a musketball during the battle. Apparently, he lived with the wound for 25 years.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.

 

 

The naval battle from Fredrick Hill’s "Twenty-Six Historic Ships." 1905 (Image in Public Domain)
Samuel Blyth Esquire, Commander, R.N., in Naval Chronicle 1814 engraving by Joyce Gold. (Image in Public Domain)
Pictured is the grave sites of the two captains in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery in 1910. (Courtesy of: the Library of Congress)
Pictured are the grave sites of the two captains today. (Photo by: John F. Berube)
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Comments (1)
Posted by: Daniel Purdy | Apr 08, 2021 19:51

That seems like forever ago, But! In 1968, a new Minister came to the Methodist Church in Friendship. He talked to an old lady there. When she was little, she talked to her old grandmother. She talked about watching the battle. There are also writings of people who watched from Pemaquid Point and Long Cove in Bristol.



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