Some Bangor boys once spent a pleasant wartime summer guarding a fort on the Maine coast.
Not many Mainers visit Fort McClary, an interesting state historic site located off Route 103 in Kittery Point. Built to protect Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H. against enemy warships, the fort comprised a blockhouse and other buildings perched on a hill overlooking Pepperell Cove and the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor.
Until May 1864, soldiers assigned to Battery B, 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery Regiment, garrisoned Fort McClary and manned its four cannons. Then the War Department summoned Battery B to garrison a Washington, D.C. fort that May, and the McClary garrison vanished.
Seeking replacement soldiers, the War Department called to active duty Co. A, Maine Coast Guards, a militia outfit primarily drawn for the Bangor area. Among the 80-100 men donning Union blue and reporting to Fort McClary in early July was Pvt. Hannibal Hamlin.
By civilian profession a lawyer and political election the vice president of the United States, Hamlin joined other Bangor-area men at Fort McClary. Asked to explain to his commander, Capt. Llewellyn J. Morse, why the politician nearest in succession to Abraham Lincoln would join the Army, Hamlin responded, “I am the Vice-President of the United States, but I am also a private citizen, and as an enlisted member of your company, I am bound to do my duty.
“I aspire only to be a high private in the rear ranks, and keep step with the boys in blue,” he wrote.
Soon designated by Morse as the Co. A cook, Hamlin spent time fishing in local waters. Whatever he caught supplemented the garrison’s Army fare; neither Hamlin nor his comrades went malnourished that summer.
In fact, the garrison troopers really enjoyed their Kittery sojourn. Fort McClary sat on “one of the most lovely spots to be found along our coast, and none more healthy or desirable can be found for a summer residence,” wrote soldier “Thomas Cod” (likely a pseudonym) in a July 14 letter addressed to the editor of the Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, forerunner of the Bangor Daily News.
“Knowing that the good people of Bangor feel a deep interest in Co. A, and believing they will be glad to learn of their condition, I am induced to communicate to you,” Cod started his letter. He described the local geography and history, even venturing with his pen as far afield as the Isle of Shoals.
“Co. A is well quartered in the barracks, and while it is not home life, they are comfortable,” Cod informed Whig & Courier readers. The officers and “non-commissioned officers” were “industrious in their efforts to provide for the wants of the Company, and their welfare is promoted at all times.”
Morse apparently ran a tight ship — and his men approved. During “the dress parade” held Sunday evening, July 17, the NCOs (sergeants and corporals) announced “the following rules” that they would follow while stationed at McClary:
• “Considering profane swearing a wicked and ungentlemanly practice, we will use our best endeavor to refrain from its use”;
• “We will abstain from the use of all intoxicating liquors” while persuading other soldiers “to stop its use”;
• “We will assemble in our dining room at least fifteen minutes before taps, except when it interferes with other duties,” and “listen to the reading of the scripture, which we will take turns in doing.” The NCOs would also “listen to prayer if one of our number shall feel disposed to offer it”;
• “We will endeavor so to conduct ourselves in daily intercourse (interaction) with our fellow soldiers that they will have no reason to say that these devotions are but an empty show.”
Cod was impressed with his comrades. “Bangor may be proud of Co. A,” he wrote. “There is not a man in it who is not determined to do his duty, and to observe and maintain the deportment of a soldier and gentleman.
“The Company left their homes with a reputation dear to themselves and friends for integrity and correct deportment,” Cod wrote. “Be sure it will return in no way diminished, but increased.”
So while savage fighting raged at Petersburg in Virginia, the Co. A soldiers guarded Fort McClary, fished, likely enjoyed some social interaction with Kittery and Portsmouth residents, and kept an eye out for any Confederate warship that might approach the Piscataqua River on a perfect summer day in Maine.
Having signed up for three months, the boys in blue went home in September.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.