BELFAST, Maine — Some cities commemorate solemn moments of bravery, heroism and tragedy that happen during wartime.
But those cities aren’t Belfast, where a group of citizens is getting ready to mark the 200th anniversary of its uneventful five-day British occupation during the War of 1812.
“That’s what we’re commemorating — the inglorious surrender of Belfast,” Megan Pinette, the president of the Belfast Historical Society, said Wednesday afternoon of the events of Sept. 1, 1814.
The war was primarily a naval war, although the White House and Capitol were burned to the ground during the 1814 invasion of Washington, D.C. The conflict occurred in part because the British Royal Navy had forced or impressed at least 6,000 mariners from the United States into joining its ranks, and because the new country was upset by British activity on its western frontier, according to the USS Constitution Museum. By 1814, the Royal Navy controlled much of the coast of Maine and had attacked Hampden and Bangor, and raided other communities.
On Sept. 1, 1814, the nervous residents of Belfast — about 700 at the time — watched the big British ships sail toward them from Castine, which back then was Hancock County’s seat. In Castine, American militia saw the fleet coming and blew up Fort George so it couldn’t be seized, spiked the cannons so they could no longer be used, and fled.
The fleet turned toward Belfast with eight vessels of war, 11 transport vessels and as many as 600 soldiers. When it arrived in the harbor, the masts were so numerous that it was described by an eyewitness as “looking like a spruce swamp,” Pinette said. The local militia scurried to pack up Belfast’s two cannons and hid them out of town.
So when Gen. Gerard Gosselin, some British officers and a flag of truce landed at the harbor, the city fathers did not fight back. Instead they took the Brits up Main Street hill to Huse’s Tavern, located where Alexia’s Pizza is now, to hand over their flag of truce. The general — who reportedly came ashore with his personal orchestra and his chestnut pony — told chief magistrate Alvan “Toad” Edmunds that his men would stay in town for a few days, then leave peaceably.
“The condition was that if, during their stay, a gun was fired against them they would be forced to burn the town,” Pinette said.
The British fleet wanted to be in Belfast because the general figured they would be able to disrupt communications in the region, thanks to the city’s location close to the mouth of the Penobscot River, the historian said. In order to prevent troops from deserting, the British officers told their men that Belfast was an island at some distance from the mainland. But one picket guard decided to explore the “western shore” and ended up in Montville, at some distance from Belfast, and remained there for the rest of his life, Pinette said.
The British regiment kept its word and did not burn or ransack the city. One troop member who went into a garden uninvited ended up being “severely flogged,” Pinette said, and one of the hardest parts for Belfast residents was the fact that they didn’t have enough provisions to sell to the British regiment for a healthy profit.
“People jacked up their prices,” she said.
On Sept. 5, the troops left Belfast and returned to Castine, where they remained until April 25, 1815 — four months after the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the war. That winter, the British troops sailed once again to Belfast, where a group of officers hosted a ball at the Whittier Tavern on Primrose Street, Pinette said.
One anonymous British soldier kept a diary of his adventures in Maine. He was favorably impressed by Belfast, which he wrote “appears as though it would in time be a place of some importance.”
Pinette said that the events of 1814 were being marked in Castine, and Belfast did not want to be left behind. Those interested in celebrating the occupation are encouraged to bring their flags of truce at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1, at Heritage Park at the Belfast Public Landing, where they will hear some history and walk up Main Street hill to Alexia’s Pizza. There, history and pizza lovers can enjoy a special English pizza or mosey back down the hill to sample the special Bitter Truth ESB on tap that night at Three Tides on Front Street.