After leaving his home to stroll through Portland on a pleasant June morning, John Mead Gould chased Confederate raiders, helped save innocent sailors from murder, and informed the Associated Press that the Civil War had come to Maine.
All in all not a bad day’s work for a former soldier currently between battlefield gigs.
Born in Portland in mid-December 1839, Gould essentially lived there all his life, except for his schooling at Gould Academy in Bethel and his service as a combat infantryman. By June 27, 1863 Gould was a clerk at the Merchants’ and Traders’ Bank of Portland.
Fifty days earlier he had mustered out with the 10th Maine Infantry Regiment, battle-hardened at Winchester and Cedar Mountain in Virginia and Antietam in Maryland. Gould could certainly handle a pistol or rifle.
Throughout that June, Portland newspapers printed lurid tales of a Confederate brig wreaking havoc along the East Coast. Commanded by Lt. Charles W. Read, the brig CSS Clarence and a volunteer crew snagged a Union collier off North Carolina on June 6.
Emboldened by his success, Read steered north by east. He bagged ship after ship, 22 in all by the time he was done. Some vessels he burnt; others he released after obtaining a bond from their respective captains.
On June 12 he captured the bark Tacony; Read transferred his crew and cannon to the Tacony and set ablaze the Clarence.
In late June Read captured the fishing schooner Archer, based out of Southport in Maine. Aware that Federal authorities now sought the Tacony, he figured the Archer would escape detection as a de facto Confederate warship. Read transferred his crew and weapons to the Archer, burned the Tacony, and sailed toward Portland.
While en route, Read captured Falmouth fishermen Albert Bibber and Elbridge Titcomb, Stunned to be snatched by Confederate sailors, the men spilled the beans about target-rich Portland:
• The side-wheel gunboats Agawam and Pontoosuc, launched at a local shipyard in mid-April;
• The 600-ton steamer Chesapeake, scheduled to depart Portland on June 27;
• The 136-ton revenue cutter Caleb Cushing, a topsail schooner lacking steam propulsion. Based at Portland, the cutter had docked there on Friday, June 26 after Capt. George Clarke had suddenly died.
Disguised as fishermen, the Confederate sailors maneuvered the Archer past the threatening guns of Fort Preble after dark on Friday. A raiding party led by Read poured over the Caleb Cushing’s rail at 1:30 a.m., Saturday and captured the cutter’s crewmen.
Confining them below decks, the Confederate sailors slipped the Cushing’s lines and, beset by a calm wind, manned two boats to tow the ship seaward.
They didn’t get very far.
Looking forward to a pleasant Saturday, “this morning I went down [to downtown Portland] to have my photograph taken and found that some of the citizens were talking very loudly about the … [cutter’s] capture,” Gould reported.
Alerted by 8 a.m. that the Caleb Cushing had unexpectedly vanished, the suspicious federal port collector, Jedediah Jewett, audibly hypothesized that the cutter’s executive officer, Georgia-born Lt. Dudley Davenport, “had probably concocted a plan to run the schooner out and … had done so” to transfer the ship to the Confederate navy, Gould heard in the Portland streets.
“I went home and was half inclined to side with the faction who said the new captain had taken a new course, turned over a new leaf, a very much needed turn by the way,” he said.
Gould learned at 10 a.m. that Jewett had hired a steamer “to go out in search of the runaway.” Accustomed to the ensuing excitement of military alarums, “I buckled on my pistol and made good time for the wharf,” he recalled.
There Gould could see that the steamer Forest City, a paddle wheeler “of 8 or 9 hundred tons,” was “out by Fort Preble taking in guns.” He learned that the Chesapeake, slated to sail for New York, “was getting ready and I started for the N.Y. wharf.”
Gould sent a friend to “get my Sharps carbine,” and thus armed, the two men scurried to Brown’s Wharf to join the ad hoc posse sailing aboard the Chesapeake. The paddle wheeler slipped her lines at 11 a.m.
Describing the Chesapeake as “partially loaded with freight,” Gould noted the ship “had for offence and defense” two rifled “6 pounder field pieces on the bow, mounted on old fashioned carriages. The ammunition was very light in quantity and the cartridges had to be made after we got the powder aboard.”
The fearless warriors joining the pursuit aboard the Chesapeake included “about thirty men” from the 7th Maine Infantry Regiment “here on recruiting service” and some “30 more citizens armed with State of Maine Enfield rifles and with their owns guns,” Gould noticed.
While the combat-experienced soldiers coolly gathered at the Chesapeake’s stern, the enthusiastic volunteers “were running around the vessel at large,” he expressed his disgust at their behavior.
Anticipating Confederate cannon fire, Chesapeake crewmen placed cotton bales around the wheel house and the boiler’s safety valve and along the railings. Apparently the 7th Maine’s Col. Edwin Mason, as senior military officer aboard the steamer, asked, “Who can man a gun?”
Men volunteered to man the cannons.
The Chesapeake “steamed out rapidly” to discover “about fifty sail, all becalmed with the merest puff of a south wind,” commented Gould, an experienced amateur sailor. He noticed the Forest City and the Tiger, a tug, “were over to the east and nearly out to Half Way Rock” steaming “for a lone schooner” identified as the Caleb Cushing.
“There goes a gun!” someone exclaimed as the Confederates fired a cannon at the Forest City. The report caused “general confusion high and low” aboard the Chesapeake, said Gould, who heard two more cannon blasts by 11:45 a.m.; by then the Forest City “had turned about and the cutter was chasing it if such a thing could be called a chase.”
The Forest City soon reached the Chesapeake, and the respective skippers exchanged questions about which ship should lead the chase. Aboard the Chesapeake, Navy Capt. William Leighton growled, “Attack her [the Cushing] on the quarter immediately!” The Chesapeake poured on the steam and passed the Forest City.
“Three cheers [from us], and three cheers from them and three from the tug and three from us again and so it went round,” Gould commented.
“We’ll fight her boys!” Leighton exclaimed. “Fight is our game! Head her right on.”
Examining the cutter with his binoculars, Leighton noticed a boat “full of men [clad] with blue jackets” casting off from the target. “Helm a port, pick up the boat first,” he ordered.
The boat’s crew “ran up a white flag just in time” to avoid a broadside from the Chesapeake’s cannons, Gould reported.
The sailors aboard the boat identified themselves as the cutter’s crew. Disbelieving this claim, the martial ardor-infected “citizen soldiery at this point became perfectly crazy,” an alarmed Gould said.
“‘Shoot ’em, hang ’em,’ they cried and commenced aiming their guns, fixing their bayonets and unfixing them and such a rumpus I never saw,” he described the frenzied behavior.
“They were kept from their evil intentions on the innocent fellows by some strong minded men (likely 7th Maine soldiers and Gould himself), but I never saw any men so particularly anxious to do something,” Gould said.
Read and his crew fired at least three times at the Chesapeake; the third round “passed through our rigging” without causing damage, Gould happily noted, and “we fired two” shells, one from each cannon. “Both fell short but were splendid line shots.”
Among the Caleb Cushing sailors scrambling aboard the Chesapeake “was Tom Hefron formerly of our Company in the Tenth Maine,” Gould noticed. “He showed his good pluck as usual and was very indignant when a [civilian] man pushed him down for shaking hands with me.”
Suddenly smoke erupted from the distant Caleb Cushing. Confederates fled their prize aboard two ship’s boats almost immediately scooped up by the Forest City; that ship’s skipper decided to pursue the Archer, which had almost slipped over the horizon.
The fire reached the Cushing’s powder magazine, which blew up at 1:50 p.m. “A volume of black and red flame shot up from the whole aft part of the schooner,” an awestruck Gould said. “It reached in a second of time its altitude and then with a lesser force expanded into one grand immense wreath of smoke, the debris commenced to fall and the fire to disappear.
“Simultaneously with this grand explosion came the report,” he reported. “Cheers went up from all the vessels in the vicinity and a hundred echoes came from the hundred islands of our bay.
“The blowing up of something was heard” in Portland “and when it was announced from the Observatory on Munjoy Hill that it was the cutter[,] all the town went mad with delight, so they say,” he heard ashore afterwards.
The respective seaborne posses returned to Portland. Between the Chesapeake’s gunners “firing away our spare powder as we went along” and construction workers at Fort Preble adding “their blast … with cannonading and blasting and hurrahing we had noise enough,” Gould relished the celebration.
Crowds jammed the streets and wharves as he went ashore and “to Steve [Barry] I gave the news to be telegraphed over the country to the Associated Press.”
Ironically Gould wished the Confederate sailors “had been picked up by us or come within range of us. I would not have restrained the fanatics that were … so anxious to shoot somebody.
“The whole story reads like a romance,” commented Gould, who spent a “pleasant” Sunday, June 28 by attending the Third Parish Church in the morning and sailing “over to Fort Preble to see the prisoners” in the afternoon.
Did the excitement ignite in Gould a desire to don the uniform again? In mid-September he joined the 29th Maine Infantry Regiment, as did so many other 10th Maine veterans; Gould survived combat in Louisiana and Virginia to return home in 1867.