Maine Forts and
the Civil War
By Tom Desjardin
Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
Maine Department of Conservation
The effects that the Civil War had on Maine and its people are wide and varied. The period that included the war is the only one that saw a drop in Maine’s population from one census to the next, and Maine’s two key industries, lumber and ship building, began a decline from which they never recovered.
Thousands of men came home from the war with scars, both physical and emotional, that they bore for the remainder of their lives, and the home front to which they returned had changed as well.
The war also had a physical effect on the coastline of Maine, as the threat of raids by Confederate ships caused the U.S. Congress to hasten appropriations to fortify the coastline around important industrial ports.
These seacoast fortresses remain today as state historic sites operated by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, under the Maine Department of Conservation. Today these wonderful structures, as remnants of a bygone era, welcome thousands of visitors each year.
To protect the shipbuilding industry of Bath, the War Department began construction of Fort Popham at the mouth of the Kennebec in 1862 and garrisoned it with a company of “unassigned infantry” through the end of the war.
Another of Maine’s largest rivers became the site of a granite behemoth with the construction of Fort Knox. Work on this fort at the mouth of the Penobscot River began in 1844 but was accelerated by the Civil War. While workers continued to build, detachments of men from the 7th Maine Infantry and then the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery garrisoned the fort between 1863 and 1865 but never totaled more than about 100 men.
In August of 1864, the ironclad Confederate raider Tallahassee cruised off the Maine coast raising great alarm in many coastal towns. It captured and scuttled the bark Glenarvoz out of Thomaston, the coaler James Littlefield out of Bangor and the schooner Restless out of Boothbay. It also captured the Maine schooner Carrol which was bonded and released.
Under this threat, the people of Edgecomb and Wiscasset re-garrisoned the 1812-era Fort Edgecomb and kept it on alert for about a month until the danger had passed.
There has been some sort of fortification at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in Kittery since before the American Revolution but, as with Fort Popham, construction of a larger granite fort, known as Fort McClary, began in 1862. The octagonal blockhouse there was rebuilt (to its current form) in 1864. Like Forts Popham and Knox, Fort McClary never saw action and was never completed, but its Civil War story includes something that is unique in all of U.S. history.
In its July 8, 1864 edition, the New York Times reported the following:
“Fort McClary Garrisoned: Vice President Hamlin Among the Privates. Company A, State Guard, which was ordered to garrison Fort McClary, left this afternoon with 103 men. Among the privates was Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin.”
When the war began in 1861, Hamlin had enlisted as a private in Company A of the Maine Coast Guards. His unit was called to active duty in 1864 and ordered to report to Fort McClary. Although Hamlin could have opted out of this service, he insisted on fulfilling his duty. Hamlin reported for duty on July 7, drilled, and did guard duty and kitchen patrol along with the rest of the enlisted men.
"I am the Vice-President of the United States,” Hamlin wrote, “but I am also a private citizen, and as an enlisted member of your company, I am bound to do my duty." He added, "I aspire only to be a high private in the rear ranks, and keep step with the boys in blue."
After a few nights of guard duty, Hamlin was made the company cook which allowed him to enjoy the "excellent salt water fishing," catching cod, haddock, hake, cunners, and mackerel in abundance, and adding to the flavor of the soldiers’ mess.
One exception was made, however, for the vice commander-in-chief who was given better quarters than a private’s bunk.
Hamlin returned to Bangor on furlough in August when there was a fire in his stables, but he returned to Fort McClary to complete his tour of duty, which ended in September. When he was relieved of duty, he left the company to campaign for the Republican ticket.
Most of these forts were rearmed and re-garrisoned when the U.S. declared war on Spain in 1898, but then became obsolete when modern battleships with high-explosive shells began to patrol the seas.
Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors take the time to stop and see these unfinished fortresses and marvel at the workmanship and ingenuity of the builders who labored in an era before hydraulic equipment, when men and oxen did most of the heavy lifting.
Maine Department of Conservation