Historical memory runs deep in Eastport, Maine’s easternmost city.
Enduring a four-year British occupation connected to the War of 1812, a “throng of spectators” gave “six hearty cheers” when British troops departed Eastport on Sunday, June 30, 1818.
Exactly 200 years later, a few hundred Eastport residents and visitors applauded as the British left Maine’s easternmost city again. This time, however, the Americans eagerly welcomed the Brits right back.
What connection have a War of 1812 occupation and its 2018 re-enactment with Maine and the Civil War? Not much — and yet a lot.
Eastport literally spread across several islands until connected to the mainland by a Quoddy Dam causeway in the 1930s. Geographically isolated from the District of Maine in the early 19th century, residents traveled primarily by sea and got along well with their New Brunswick neighbors living just a short sail away.
With Napoleon battling almost every European power in the 19th century’s first decade, the U.S. Army constructed a small fort (soon named Sullivan) atop Clark’s Hill on Moose Island (Eastport’s largest piece of real estate) circa 1808 or 1809. From their hilltop perch, American soldiers could see Campobello Island and Deer Island in Canadian waters to the east and Lubec to the south.
Then Jimmy Madison got his dander up and convinced Congress to beard the British lion with a war declaration in 1812. Having attempted to convert eastern Maine into the colony of New Ireland during the Revolution, Britain made another go at such a colony in summer 1814.
Around 2:40 p.m. on Monday, July 11, the 80-odd soldiers at Fort Sullivan “saw a flotilla making directly for them” along Head Harbour Passage “between Campobello and Deer Islands,” writes author George F.W. Young. Seven British ships arrived off Eastport, a British sloop slipped around the backside of Moose Island to block any escape, and the senior British commander demanded that Maj. Perley Putnam, the Fort Sullivan commander, surrender or else.
He opted for surrender, and British troops disembarked to occupy the town and Fort Sullivan.
The Brits stayed for four years, long after the Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war. Not until early on Sunday, June 30, 1818 did American troops march into Fort Sullivan. The British lowered their flag, the Americans hoisted theirs and fired a 20-gun salute, a band played Yankee Doodle, and the British marched down to the sea and their ships.
For all intents and purposes, Fort Sullivan remained an active Army post, because Mainers (and to some extent Washington) feared the British might return. Then, for about four weeks in spring 1861, Sullivan teemed with life as 500-odd soldiers from the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment gathered there. Representing five companies drawn from eastern Maine, the soldiers finally boarded the steamer Eastern City in late June and cruised to Portland.
For the war’s first few years, Mainers (especially the State House crowd) worried that Britain might recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation and militarily support it by invading eastern Maine. Such fear transitioned to serious concern about Confederate raids after the June 1863 capture of the Revenue Service cutter Caleb Cushing in Portland Harbor.
The Confederacy fell, Britain never again cast a covetous eye on Eastport, and Canada assumed responsibility for the islands opposite the city. Fort Sullivan fell into ruins; only the barracks (now home to the Border Historical Society) and the powder magazine remain.
Kicking off Fourth of July festivities this year (Eastport goes all out for this holiday), the local folks held a ceremony in downtown Eastport on Saturday, June 30 to mark the bicentennial of the 1818 British departure. The weather was perfect for the 10 a.m. ceremony.
A British Union Jack hung on a pole above a Fort Sullivan replica set up near the Fisherman’s Statue, set up when Fox TV filmed Murder in Small Town X in Eastport in 2001. Portraying the 1814-1818 British garrison, the Fredericton Ceremonial Guard under Maj. Doug Hall and the Fredericton Society of Saint Andrew Pipe Band under Pipe Major Eric Horncastle marched along Water Street and formed up near the make-believe Fort Sullivan.
Clad in period costume, Eastport resident Wayne Tripp played the role of town crier and, while clanging a bell, called people to witness the transfer of power between America and Britain. After Tripp read an account of the 1818 ceremony, two Ceremonial Guard soldiers took down the Union Jack and carefully folded it.
Dressed as American soldiers, Tom Reis and Jake Thayer of Eastport ran the American flag up the pole while two fifers and a drummer played Yankee Doodle. The Ceremonial Guard and the pipe band then marched out onto the Fish Pier in much the same manner that the last British troops went away in 1818.
The Society of Saint Andrew Pipe Band soon performed in concert right on Water Street, and a good time was had by all. People watching the June 30, 2018 ceremony will not forget it.
Slightly more than 157 years ago, many older people watching the 6th Maine lads board the Eastern City likely recalled watching the British soldiers leave in 1818.
Historical memory runs deep in Eastport.
Sources: William Henry Kilby, Eastport and Passamaquoddy: A Collection of Historical and Biographical Sketches, 1888, reprinted by Border Historical Society, Eastport, Maine, 2003, pp. 216; George F.W. Young, The British Capture & Occupation of Downeast Maine, 1814-1815/1818, Penobscot Bay Press, Stonington, 2014, p. V
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.