June 05, 2020
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British and American troops once fought a battle in Hampden that nobody wanted to fight

Alec Kramer | AP
Alec Kramer | AP
This photo released by the U.S. Navy shows British Red Arrows Fighter jets, officially known as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, flying past the USS Constitution, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, in Boston. The USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat, was launched in 1797 and saw most of its action during the War of 1812 against the British.

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on May 16, 1990. We are republishing this story as part of our ongoing bicentennial coverage. These stories tell us about key moments in Maine’s history that shaped the world around us today.

The streets of Brewer were once occupied by soldiers belonging to a foreign power.

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, the Royal Navy quickly blockaded American ports. New England coastal towns suffered the most economically from this blockade, which was supervised from British bases in Bermuda and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and could be described as “loose” at best.

The presence of English warships persuaded honest merchant captains not to put to sea, but many Maine seamen sailed aboard privateers that had been issued letters of marque to prey on English shipping.

These privateers captured British merchant vessels supplying the garrisons in Canada and even raided England’s home waters, picking off valuable cargo ships within sight of English shores. By the war’s third year, the privateers had become more than a thorn for the British.

Despite 30 peaceful years since the Revolutionary War had ended, Maine had not grown that much in population or economic strength. Massachusetts still set the laws for Maine residents, who were less than eight years from statehood.

More towns dotted the coast, particularly eastward from Penobscot Bay to the St. Croix River, a region that the British had declared theirs’ during the Revolution. Upriver from Castine, the site of a major American naval defeat in 1779, towns like Bucksport, Winterport, Hampden, Orrington, Bangor, and Brewer attracted some people, most of whom suffered from the lack of trade imposed by the British blockade.

Although some 25 miles from the sea, the small town of Brewer soon felt the war’s impact. The shipyards located in Brewer built some vessels during the War of 1812, but no actual warships were launched in Brewer or Bangor. A few ships constructed in regional shipyards did sail as privateers.

As with most legalized “pirates” — as privateers were railed in national capitals — that flourished during 18th- and 19th-century wars, Maine-based privateers suffered heavy losses at British hands. Shipraiding went in both directions.

Little fighting took place along the Maine coast until 1814, when British ships appeared off Castine. The English had built Fort George atop the Castine peninsula in 1779 and had defeated an American force sent from Massachusetts to stop them. In 1811, American troops constructed Fort Madison in Castine and reoccupied Fort George when hostilities broke out.

The British, sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, decided to retake Castine as a base for operating against the growing number of privateers sailing in Maine waters. Of particular irritation to the British had been the depredations of the U.S.S. Adams, a 24-gun American brig that had captured several English ships. The Adams’ captain was Charles Morris.

Damaged after colliding with rocks off Isle au Haut on Aug. 17, 1814, the Adams sailed into Penobscot Bay in search of repairs. The brig finally dropped anchor off the mouth of the Souadabscook Stream in Hampden.

Unfortunately for local residents, the warship’s passage up the river did not go unnoticed.

British headquarters in Halifax planned a campaign that would neutralize the Penobscot Valley and convince area residents not to support the American war effort. The English fleet that sailed from Halifax planned to occupy the coastal towns along the Maine coast (Eastport fell to the British during this expedition).

Somewhere east of Mount Desert Island, an English warship overhauled a sloop whose crew knew about the Adams. Possibly threatened with sinking, the sloop’s captain ventured this information to the English, who were spared a long search through Maine’s dangerous coastal waters.

Whether or not the captured sloop was sunk or pressed into British service can be conjectured. As events proved in the next few weeks, the English either burned or reflagged captured shipping.

To prevent a repaired Adams from escaping to the open sea, the British fleet appeared in the lower approaches of the Penobscot Bay in late August 1814. As with the 1779 debacle, American ship masters sailed their vessels upriver to hide wherever a cove or an island might conceal a ship.

Not even willing to fire a few shots to uphold their honor, Lt. Henry Little and the American militia guarding Castine gladly gave ground when English regulars landed on the peninsula.

Perhaps the memories of the 1779 occupation remained vivid in the minds of older Castine residents, who recalled being treated fairly well by the British. Only too glad to trade information for the sparing of property, a few people living in Castine let their tongues wag. Someone told the British where the Adams could be found.

After leaving a detachment to rebuild the weatherworn Fort George, Capt. Robert Barrie of the Royal Navy sailed upriver on Sept. 1 with two sloops (HMS Sylph and Peruvian), a transport called the Harmony, a schooner, and nine launches ferrying several hundred British soldiers. The British fleet anchored for the night off Bucksport, then disembarked some soldiers the next day to occupy Belfast and Frankfort.

When he heard that the British had captured Castine, Capt. Morris realized that his enemies would be coming for him next. His appeals for help fell on willing ears in Hampden, Bangor, and Brewer, where militiamen turned out with what weapons they had to defend the damaged warship. Other militia units came from Bucksport, Monroe, Eddington, and Dixmont.

Yet defend the Adams against what? Sadly lacking a professional military presence to bolster their undisciplined ranks, the Maine militiamen lacked an intelligence system to estimate the number of British troops and cannon. One could only stand on shore and count the English ships as they sailed past, and the British quickly discouraged that practice.

During the voyage upriver, Capt. Barrie apparently granted his gun crews permission to target practice with live shot and powder. The records indicate several occasions when British cannons opened fire on houses, people, and livestock along the riverbanks.

Since the cannon had to be elevated to fire at targets set higher on the shore, most cannonballs missed. Orrington residents took a particularly bad drubbing from English gunfire, especially in the area now called Orrington Center.

On Sept. 3, 1814, HMS Sylph sailed past Orrington Center, discharging a few cannon and frightening the residents. A cannon ball struck and killed William Reed, a 47-year-old man who had moved to Maine from Maryland. Houses were hit, livestock bolted for the woods, and families ran for safety.

Anticipating an assault on the Adams, and warned by some local residents that English warships hunted along the river, Brig. Gen. John Blake of Brewer hastily gathered in Hampden the militias from the surrounding towns.

Despite ample warning that war might come close to home one day, the local militias lacked training, combat experience (although some officers had served during the Revolution) and most of all, firearms and ammunition. The sad state of affairs for the Maine boys was reflected in the decision to concentrate their forces in Hampden, leaving Orrington and Brewer undefended.

The 258 crewmen from the Adams represented about the only trained American troops in the Penobscot Valley (some U.S. Army troops who had fled Castine with the militia joined Blake’s forces on Sept. 2). Probably aware that the British would get his vessel sooner or later, Capt. Morris ordered the brig’s guns removed to lighten the ship, which was then hauled closer inshore for repairs.

When the British appeared in the river, the ship’s cannons were then placed at strategic points along the Hampden shore to prevent English warships from sailing within firing range of the Adams. Sailors and marines from the Adams crewed the cannons, which were pointed in the wrong direction.

Armchair historians might wonder why the Americans never moved a few guns across the river, camouflaged them in concealed firing pits, and waited to catch a British warship or two in a murderous crossfire. Looking back 176 years later, one might also wonder just why Brewer and Orrington were left unguarded; once the British captured Castine, the Americans did nothing right.

So the cannon crews watched the river for British shipping.

But the battle-experienced British anticipated such a move and landed some soldiers farther south at Bald Hill Cove in Winterport. Opposed only by the pickets that Gen. Blake had strung south of his positions as an early warning net, the British soldiers brushed aside this sporadic resistance and spent a rainy night in a makeshift camp.

The virtually unopposed landing suggests that the British knew exactly where American troops were not, hinting at vital information provided by someone living along the river.

Did a secret British sympathizer betray the American forces who defended Hampden and the Adams? If so, history does not reveal the person’s identity.

Throughout Sept. 2, inadequately armed militiamen convened on the camp in Hampden, where everyone momentarily expected the sails of British warships to appear on the river. The rain that soaked the British soldiers that night in Winterport also dampened American fighting spirits, which were not enhanced by arguments among the high command as to whether the militia should fight or flee.

Sept. 3 dawned foggy, the dampness chilling the bones of the militiamen who had tried to sleep the previous night. The militiamen might have been kept warmer — and the battle’s outcome might have been decidedly different — if the American officers had set their soldiers to digging entrenchments during the night.

The British soldiers assembled that morning to the sound of the drums. By now, the English intelligence system apparently failed; unsure just where the Americans awaited them, the British ordered a local man named Oakman to guide their advance.

Unlike most residents, Oakman had not fled when the British appeared in the river. Was he a British sympathizer?

History does not say, for despite his sympathies, Oakman was shot by one side or the other before the battle really began. One account says that the British shot him when he tried to flee.

With flankers thrashing through the woods and fields, about 750 British soldiers marched north along Route 1A. By 8 a.m., the advance guard exchanged shots with the American pickets, who fell back in good order to Academy Hill. Unfortunately for the Americans, and fortunately for the British, a thick fog masked their approach, allowing them to reach Pitcher’s Brook (now Reed’s Brook) at the foot of the hill before the militiamen saw them.

As the British soldiers deployed across the bridge and formed two lines on either side of Route 1A, the three cannons defending the American right flank opened fire. Reports suggest that the guns fired too high, inflicting only minor casualties on the advancing British.

After fighting Napoleon’s vast armies in Europe for almost 20 years, the seasoned English soldiers knew their business and went about it with little fuss. Equipped with bayonet-tipped muskets, they moved uphill in their neat, orderly ranks, presenting an inviting target for the militiamen.

Although they held the high ground on Academy Hill, the local militiamen swallowed hard when they saw the bayonets, the scarlet jackets, and the ease with which the British regulars fell into line.

What history calls the Battle of Hampden would be classified as a skirmish by European standards. The British apparently expected little opposition, since they marched with little artillery. The Americans expected no enemies on their right flank, since they had dug no fortifications.

Either way, the British leveled their bayonets and marched in paradeground precision toward the American lines.

The “battle” might have been won had the militiamen been protected by earthworks — or had they stood their ground. Instead, the Americans fired a few volleys at the advancing British, inflicted and took some casualties, then fled in disorder across the Souadabscook Stream.

History indicates that the crewmen from the Adams and the few Army soldiers fought better than did their militia allies, actually bringing one or more cannon into action against the British and then opening up with muskets when the cannon proved unable to lob shells uphill to where the British infantry stood.

Reading the signs correctly, Capt. Morris ordered his ship burned and its cannons spiked. He and his crew withdrew in good order, losing only two men captured to the British.

The English promptly captured the Adams’ guns.

At a cost of two soldiers killed and eight wounded (records differentiate on the actual number of British soldiers who died in the battle), the British scattered a potentially dangerous enemy force. Today, a gravestone in the Hampden Cemetery marks the final resting place for the two soldiers officially slain by American gunfire.

Including Oakman, two Americans were killed. Many more were wounded, and about 80 were captured, most of them while running away from the battle.

Moving quickly upriver against negligible resistance, the British occupied Brewer and Bangor. Key public buildings and some private residences were used as barracks, and many residents of both towns were forced to swear allegiance to the English king.

In Brewer, the British limited their activities to searching private homes for weapons and other contraband and to burning three unlaunched ships in the town’s shipyards (accounts suggest that at least one completed ship “joined” the Royal Navy).

British soldiers searched those residences within a reasonable march of the river; with the vast forests still surrounding Brewer, the English preferred not to venture into dense thickets and woods. There are no indications that English soldiers marched as far as Eddington bend, although they apparently did search houses and barns as far as Oak Grove Spring on North Main Street.

Accounts later written by local residents hint at the arrogant behavior displayed by British soldiers, who sacked some buildings and — in some numbers — drank confiscated liquor in great quantities. The occupation lasted only a few days, however, so the “locals” tolerated such behavior — not that they had much choice.

Very little resistance was offered the English after the Battle of Hampden, but historical accounts suggest that a British warship did fire several cannonballs at various targets in Brewer, including a residence on Chambers Street.

Content with some pillaging for food and drink, the British soon returned to Castine and left Brewer residents to ponder how their little community had become embroiled in a war that nobody wanted.

The occupation disrupted Brewer’s already war-shattered economy. Since the British withdrew before the autumn harvest, however, Brewer families still brought in their crops. Smart residents, of course, had driven their cattle into the forests before the English arrived.

 


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