On the Road to 1812
A guide to the forts and batteries that saw action in the War of 1812 across Maine.
By Larry Glatz
Maine’s coast saw sustained action during the War of 1812, and forts and batteries were thrown up to defend against British attack. The following sites are both historically important and easily accessible. They also are among the most interesting and scenic destinations in the state.
Fort McClary State Historic Site, Kittery Point
Along with Fort Constitution across the bay on New Castle Island in New Hampshire, Fort McClary was designed to protect Portsmouth Harbor and its naval shipyard. The original fort of 1808 was rebuilt and expanded several times over the years. The imposing blockhouse that now dominates the park was built about 1846, but several structures from the War of 1812 era remain. The most notable of these are the earthworks and granite wall of the battery, the original brick powder house, and the riflemen’s quarters.
During the War of 1812, Fort McClary served primarily as a recruiting rendezvous and training ground for federal artillery units. Several hundred York County men who drilled here fought in a number of the critical battles along the Canadian frontier in 1813 and 1814.
Fort Sumner and Fort Allen Parks, Eastern Promenade, Portland
With its commanding vista of Casco Bay, Munjoy Hill has been the site of numerous military installations, beginning with Fort Sumner and the works later known as Fort Allen, built during the Revolution. At the time of the War of 1812, the old fort served as a recruiting and training facility for federal troops. The exact location of the blockhouse is unknown, but it was most likely near Fort Sumner Park on North Street, between Melbourne and Quebec streets.
The earthwork remains of one of the fort’s artillery batteries can be seen at the brow of Eastern Promenade; the notable flagstaff and cannon memorialize later events. Nearby stood the fort’s hospital. The graves from the hospital cemetery were recently relocated and new commemorative stones have been installed. The soldiers buried there had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Queenston, Ontario. After a prisoner exchange in late 1812, they arrived sick in Portland, where they died and were buried. This is one of only two memorials in the state dedicated specifically to soldiers of the War of 1812 (the other is in Hampden), but none of the interred are Mainers. The only other structure on Munjoy Hill at the time of the war was the Portland Observatory, which had been built in 1807.
Fort Preble, Fort Street, South Portland, and Fort Scammel, House Island, Portland
Fort Preble and Fort Scammel were designed to create a brutal crossfire should British warships approach Portland Harbor. The works of the original forts are gone, but visitors can still appreciate their imposing locations. Indeed, during the war, British warships cruised into Casco Bay, but they avoided any near approaches to these forts.
The tenor of daily life at the fort can be gathered from orders issued by Captain Robert Douglass of Portland in June 1813: There was to be no “segar” smoking, no playing of cards or dice, no selling of army equipment, and no fraternizing with the washer-women in camp.
Now private property, Fort Scammel is maintained as an events location and tour site (houseislandmaine.com), and Fort Preble is part of the Southern Maine Community College campus.
Fort Edgecomb State Historic Site, Eddy Road, Edgecomb
Fort Edgecomb’s dramatic blockhouse is said to be one of the best-preserved 1812 era structures in the nation. The earthworks battery below the fort, with its partially exposed brick and stone wall, is still visible. Soldiers were stationed here throughout the war and at perimeter outposts at the lower reaches of the St. George, Damariscotta, and Kennebec rivers. The fort also served as a keep for British prisoners of war.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Edgecomb is the only major War of 1812 fort in Maine named after a place rather than an historic or military figure. The park includes several interpretive panels; a particularly interesting one details the use of artillery during the 1812 era.
Hampden Battlefield, Route 1A, Hampden
The Battle of Hampden on September 3, 1814, was brief, with just two or three casualties on each side. If you enter the upper gate of Locust Grove Cemetery and walk to the left to the top of the yard, you’ll be standing near the location of the American line of battle. In the early morning light, the local militia saw seven hundred enemy soldiers march out of the fog and up the hill from the brook below. From the academy grounds, sailors and Marines of the river-bound USS Adams fired a volley from their cannon, which they had aligned on the hill. The militia followed with a musket volley, and the British charged up the hill firing back. The Americans hastily withdrew, and the battle was over. The British then swept through Hampden and on to Bangor.
Although a minor affair in terms of men and equipment, the battle sent shock waves through the state and triggered the activation of almost twenty thousand militiamen for the defense of Maine’s more southerly ports and towns. The battle also underscored for Mainers the neglect they had suffered at the hands of their government in Boston, and these hard feelings contributed significantly to the drive for statehood, which followed in 1820.
A memorial to the two British soldiers who died in the fight can be seen just inside the gate of the Old Burying Ground. Unfortunately, the site where the Adams was moored, at the end of Elm Street East, is not accessible to the public.
Forts George and Madison, Perkins Street, Castine
When a British fleet of fifteen ships, including two, seventy-four-gun battleships, approached Castine on September 1, 1814, and demanded the surrender of the town, Lieutenant Andrew Lewis of the 40th U.S. Infantry and his small company of men at the battery below Fort George were the town’s only defense. Wisely, Lewis ordered the cannons to be spiked, the magazine to be exploded, and his detachment to withdraw up the Penobscot toward Bangor. Castine then peacefully capitulated to the enemy, who took over the fort and established a headquarters for their occupation, which lasted until April 1815.
Today, the grounds of Fort George on the height above the village provide a scenic vista of the area, but the battery now known as Fort Madison presents a more immediate feeling of how Lieutenant Lewis’ men would have viewed the harbor in 1814. The twenty-four-pounder cannon mounted there is one of the weapons Lewis spiked and abandoned. Of the dozens of pieces of heavy artillery mounted at positions along the coast during the war, this is the only one to survive in its original location.
Fort O’Brien State Historic Site, Route 92, Machiasport
The first battery on this site was constructed in 1775, and from it, the American artillerymen witnessed the first naval battle of the Revolution. During the War of 1812, the installation was manned by Captain John Leonard and a company of fifty soldiers of the 40th U.S. Infantry. After the British captured Eastport and Castine, they sent a flotilla to take Fort O’Brien. Upon its approach, Captain Leonard fired a volley from his ten guns, spiked as many as he could, burned the buildings in the compound, and retreated westward, eventually reaching Portland and then Boston with his unit intact and a clutch of British prisoners in hand.
Behind the earthworks of the battery is the large central mound of the fort’s powder magazine.
Fort Sullivan, McKinley Street, Eastport
Federal troops were sent to Fort Sullivan in 1812 not only to secure the town but also to control the rampant smuggling traffic. Both efforts failed. Smuggling continued apace throughout the conflict, and on July 11, 1814, a large British squadron from Halifax gave Major Perley Putnam and his modest contingent of the 40th U.S. Infantry little option but to surrender themselves and the fort forthwith. The British refused to leave the area until 1818, almost four years after the end of the war.
Today Shead High School sits on the heights overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay, and the only suggestion of the fort is an historical marker at the parking lot and one of His Majesty’s cannons at the school’s entrance. Below the school, on McKinley Street, the remains of a British stalwart powder house can be explored. The house of the fort’s sutler has been moved to Washington Street, where it serves as the museum of the Border Historical Society.
A retired teacher of English and theater, Larry Glaz has compiled and edited several historical volumes. He won the Maine Historical Society’s James Phinney Baxter Award for Historical Writing in 2005.