Tomorrow, we celebrate the day when the nascent United States of America declared its independence from Great Britain. (So far-sighted of our Founding Fathers to do it in July. Sure, they were sweating it out in wool coats back then, but generations of beach-going, picnic-toting, barbeque-throwing Americans are thankful the Continental Congress didn’t meet in February.)
However, I want to talk about a slightly later war between the United States and Britain – one that might have left every Mainer north of Waterville out of the fireworks-bespangled fun.
This year is the bicentennial of The War of 1812, mostly remembered in the US for two things: inspiring
Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that became the National Anthem, and Dolley Madison saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington from a burning White House. I don’t think many of my fellow citizens realize these events occurred because British ships were occupying American waters and British troops were kicking American keisters.
It was, however, the United States which declared war on Britain, not the other way around. At the time, it was the equivalent of David declaring hostilities on Goliath – without a slingshot. The US had five frigates and a few thousand troops armed with obsolete weapons and doctrine. Britan was the greatest sea power in the world, and her vast armies, under the Duke of Wellington, were conquering Spain and moving towards Waterloo. (I learned this from watching SHARPE. Thanks, Sean Bean!)
The western states and territories thought war was a fine idea. The states along the eastern seaboard – i.e., those within easy reach of British man-o-wars – though it was a terrible idea. After Congress declared war, the British proved them right by promptly seizing the entire Chesapeake Bay and putting our capitol city to the torch. They also locked up the vital shipbuilding harbor of New London, Connecticut, fought to a standstill in New Orleans, and – most dastardly of all – set their sights on Maine. Specifically, Castine, Maine.
The English seemed to have a thing for Castine. The city had been occupied during the Revolution, and when the tide turned in favor of the Patriots, Castine’s disgruntled Loyalists literally uprooted themselves, towing their houses behind their boats and founding the town of St. Andrews in New Brunswick. Mainers, ladies and gentlemen.
Perhaps some of the expatriates got the ear of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, because in August, 1814 he left his base in Nova Scotia with a fleet of ships and 500 British grenadiers. It took them only 26 days to conquer Castine, Hampden, Machias and Bangor, giving the British absolute (and profitable) control over Penobscot Bay. The strike was fairly bloodless, although seventeen American ships were captured or destroyed. Ouch.
Today, the Penobscot region is valued for its beautiful wilderness areas and waterways, its outdoor recreation, and its picturesque seaside towns. Presumably, those were also around when Sir John and his troops landed; however, they were more
interested in the rich merchant shipping and lumber trade streaming in and out of the bay. Most tourists to Vacationland go home with pine-scented sachets and a live lobster on ice; when the British left (after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent gave Maine back to the US) they took £10,750 in tariff fees they had collected during their eight month stay. That’s worth £7,130,000 today! What did they do with their ill-gotten loot? Took it back to Nova Scotia and used it to found Dalhousie University. Oh, Canada.
So be thankful, my fellow Mainers. If not for the hard work of those Ghentish diplomats, we’d all be sitting around eating poutine and watching the Stanley Cup Finals. Not a bad life, but I’ll stick with BBQ and baseball.