British Raids and Privateering: The War of 1812 Comes to the Midcoast
Thursday, August 30, 2012 6:05 AM
Two hundred years ago was a turbulent time to live on the coast in the District of Maine, then still part of Massachusetts. The newly established United States was in its infancy and the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France were taking their economic toll on Maine's coastal communities that were dependent on the sea trade. Both the French and the British had permission to capture American ships trading with the enemy, leading to a series of self-imposed trade embargoes, first in 1809 and again in 1812.
An etching of an infamous Maine privateer, the brigantine rigged Dash - Courtesy Collections of the Freeport Historical Society
"The times are exceedingly dark, scar[c]ety and war. Hundreds and hundreds have neither bread nor potatoes to eat and the back country seems to be worse of[f] than the seaports by resin of the frost being more sever than last seson and that makes it harder upon the seacoast by resin that the co[a]sting is almost cut off. The British take and carey of[f] and burn numbers of them so that . . . the southern trade is so stopt that no provisions is brought from thence to help the difucalty."
- Alibeus Partridge of Camden, Maine, April, 1813 (From Liberty Men and Great Proprietors by Alan Taylor)
Rockland historian and author Ann Morris describes a "deep gloom" that fell along the coast during that period. As ships were confined to port, "seamen were thrown out of work, lumber piled up on the wharves, and fish rotted," she writes. Forts made of heaped earth and logs were built along the coast in Thomaston, Edgecomb and Damariscotta to ward off potential British attacks. The measures were resented by many locals, who believed the structures only served to enforce the embargo, and the locals often flouted the law, turning to smuggling.
There was also militant unrest among the settlers in the backcountry towns of Waldo, Lincoln and Knox counties. In his book Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, Alan Taylor recounts the armed rebellions in inland towns like Liberty, Freedom and Jefferson over land rights, which raged on for decades from the mid 1700s through the early 1800s. The "Liberty Men" were known to dress up as Indians and attack, tar and feather the agents of wealthy land barons like Henry Knox and Samuel Waldo, who laid claim to large parcels of land and charged steep rents to the hardscrabble farmers who settled there.
In June of 1812, at the urging of President James Madison, in the closest vote on a war in U.S. history, Congress declared war on Great Britain. Due to internal conflicts and wanting to avoid disruptions in trade, most Mainers were very opposed to the war. However, where there was crisis, there was also opportunity for excitement and riches for many young men in the area. Privateering, occasionally referred to as "legalized piracy," was when private seamen were authorized by the government to attack and plunder foreign ships during wartime.
"Privateering really appealed to Mainers because it was seafaring, which is what Mainers did, it had the veneer of patriotism, and it was extremely lucrative," says James Nelson, a naval historian and author of several books including his latest, With Fire and Sword. "It was the ideal wartime activity for Mainers who were largely ambivalent about the war itself."
No sooner had war been declared than 19-year-old Charles Ingraham of East Thomaston joined other young men from his neighborhood to set out for adventure on the high seas aboard a privateering vessel called the Dart.
Rockland author Peter Richardson, a descendant of the Ingraham family, and his wife Eleanor recently transcribed an 80-year-long diary kept by Charles' brother Henry and father, Joseph. The Ingrahams were some of the earliest settlers of Rockland, then known as East Thomaston, arriving in the late 1700s from Gloucester, Massachusetts. A veteran of the Revolutionary War, commanding the Lincoln Row Galley during the Battle of Castine, Joseph Ingraham bought 200 acres of land from General Henry Knox for $400 in what is now the south end of Rockland. In addition to farming, Joseph Ingraham served as a justice-of-the-peace and a selectman and he also built the original Atlantic Wharf. During the summer of 1812 he and his wife Mary were also worried sick about their wayward son Charles. Their youngest son, Henry, was only 15, but he soon became a spotter for the local town militia, keeping a look out for the British, as well as keeping tabs on his older brother Charles. On July 31, 1812, Henry writes:
"Foggy weather. Charles entered on Bord the privateer Dart, Capt Curtis commander. Father & mother very much against his going a privateering. He is a poor fellow inexperienced knows but little what a place he has put himself in. But we hope for the Best."
Joshua Smith, a professor at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y, has also written extensively about the War of 1812 and his latest work, tentatively titled Yankee Doodle Upset, focuses on Maine's role during the War of 1812. Smith characterizes the typical privateer as not the kind of guy you would want marrying your sister. In addition to plundering merchant vessels, they were also known, Smith says, to raid local hen coops.
"The privateers were a pretty rowdy bunch," says Smith. "They beat up people and they beat each other up."
Smith describes the Dart as a unique vessel in that it had three masts joined just above the deck so that they could be dropped in order to row the boat and possibly hide in coves from the British. In spite of his parents' reservations, Charles set out from Portland aboard the tiny ship, bound for Nova Scotia.
"Father says he thinks it a poor plan to fix out privateers when we are so much exposed to the enemy," wrote Henry in late 1814. "Some a trading with them and some a fighting them. Strange war and people."
When Charles returned, his family saw a different person, changed by his experiences and the company he kept.
"Charles went up To the Store Drinking & swearing. wicked Boy allmost ruined - having his own way & going a privateering," wrote Henry. In September of 1812, Charles went off privateering again, on the Growler, which Smith notes was much larger than the Dart at 175 tons, and sailed as far away as Cape Verde, getting into several skirmishes and capturing many prizes. However, by March, the family had received news that the Growler was in a fierce battle off Holmes Hole (now known as Martha's Vineyard), during which two men were lost and six wounded, including the captain.
"Father is very much troubled about Charles for fear he is amongst the killed or wounded," Henry wrote.
Charles eventually returned to his family a few weeks later, only to drown with two of his friends after a fishing party out in the harbor in May of 1814. He is buried in Tolman Cemetery.
Henry continued to write about the war, documenting the sightings of enemy ships off the coast, skirmishes with local militia men on land and a British plundering raid in Northport. As the justice-of-the peace, Henry's father Joseph also signed the warrants for local officials searching homes for contraband, the much-coveted British manufactured goods that were not being produced yet in pre-industrial America. Then in November 1814, shocking news arrived from Camden.
"Very much alarmed this night," Henry wrote. "The enemy threatened to burn Camden Harbour or the houses on the shore."
The background to this brief panic can be traced up the coast to Lincolnville, where a militia major and customs officer named Noah Miller lived. In August and September the British had sent a force of 500 into eastern Maine, destroying 17 American ships, invading Machias, Hampden and Bangor, and occupying Castine. Seeing a lucrative opportunity, Miller, with four other local men in his employ, hired a whaling boat and set out to find a merchant ship supplying the British troops. About five miles from Castine at Turtle Head, they found their mark - the schooner Mary. After taking the captain, his wife and four crew members prisoner, Miller sailed to Lincolnville, where he found militia Major Philip Ulmer to help ensure the boat's safe passage to Camden. The British, who had witnessed the affair, followed in hot pursuit. Upon arriving in Camden, Miller put the Mary's captain and his wife up in an inn, "engaging the kindest attention to them . . . becoming the American character to do," Miller later recounted.
According to Miller, the British offered 10,000 pounds for the ransom of the schooner and its cargo, but Miller rejected it, stating that he would not grant the enemy to receive the "aid and comfort" of such a cargo of supplies that enabled them to maintain their position at Castine.
Miller quickly chartered several wagons to transport the plunder to Waldoboro and Warren, with Portland as the destination. The British soon issued a threat that if he didn't release the cargo, they would hang him "up to the yard arm." They also offered a 10,000-pound reward for Miller's capture, accompanied with threats to burn Camden to the ground if the townspeople didn't comply with their request. Miller claimed later that a number of Camden residents gathered to plot his arrest, but he said he made it "hazardous, if not impracticable, to carry that resolution into effect."
Soon General William King, later the first Governor of the state of Maine, called out the local militias from all of the surrounding towns to defend Camden Harbor.
According to Miller, Josiah Hook, a customs officer for the district of Penobscot, convinced him to give up the spoils to the U.S. government, as the area where it was seized was in the United States' jurisdiction. Major Philip Ulmer, promptly shipped the cargo to Portland, where it was sold at auction for $65,943.52, the larger share going to the U.S. Treasury, with small fees paid to Hook, Major Ulmer and his crew.
Miller felt stiffed out of his commission and regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After being stabbed and rendered paralyzed by an angry beef merchant in Belfast for confiscating the man's shipment, Miller filed a petition to the U.S. government for what he felt was his rightful compensation for the Mary's seizure. His request was ultimately turned down in 1845.
When news of the end of the war arrived in the midcoast in February of 1815, there was reportedly rejoicing in the streets. Bonfires were lit and revelers danced. At dawn a large cannon was fired off the top of Mount Battie in Camden to signal the war's end.
In the war's wake came a monumental change. For many years Mainers had been debating independent statehood, and their resolve was cemented after Massachusetts refused to send troops to drive the British out of occupied eastern Maine. Five years later, Maine was finally granted statehood in the Missouri Compromise, establishing Maine as a free state and giving Missourians the right to own slaves. During the following decades Maine became a center for the abolitionist movement. In 1860, taken with anti-slavery fervor, Henry Ingraham's son Oliver Francis Ingraham was inspired to join the Free-State movement in "Bleeding Kansas," a conflict leading up to another devastating war that would impact Americans and Mainers for generations.