The Caleb Cushing Affair

Yes indeed, the Civil War came to the state of Maine, albeit briefly and with little fanfare from the national front. One of these instances was the attempt by a few Southern privateers, or CSN sailors if you’d rather call them that entered Portland Harbor with the intent of disrupting shipping by burning and otherwise destroying the waterfront of this hub of marine activity. What follows is but a brief portion of a longer piece I have written under the same title, which will be available in an upcoming book. In 2007 I posted this piece to the Wikipedia platform, but it is far from complete in this format. But the general details given here can tell most of the story, and you can go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Portland_Harbor to read that version with its changes. The accompanying image is of the Caleb Cushing on fire from Harpers Weekly magazine.

The Caleb Cushing Affair;

The Civil War Comes To Maine

The Federal Government during the Civil War had made many preparations to prevent attacks by the Confederate Army and Navy along the Southern sections of the Eastern Seaboard. Various installations of cannon and earthworks were built here and there for protection against any possible incursions. Construction of earthen works and establishment of batteries at strategic points were planned and some were begun.

The construction of Fort Popham, in Phippsburg, was just one such installation. Portland Harbor was considered an important location as well, and several projects were begun, and forts were constructed. But a lot of time was wasted on some of the proposed projects, and one of those was the construction of earthworks and battery at Portland Head in Cape Elizabeth.

Before the earthworks were commenced, a small detachment was assigned to the Head with the intention of placing a cannon there for firing warning shots should the rebel navy make it this far along the coast. The actual establishment was delayed for some reason, and the detachment was not posted until well after originally planned.

This was a serious mistake on the governments part as the following year, on June 26th, a Confederate raiding party entered the harbor at Portland, sailing right past the Portland Head Light. Two days prior to this a Confederate raider named the Tacony was being pursued by the union navy at sea.

To thwart the pursuers, the Confederates captured a Maine fishing vessel of the name Archer from out of Freeport. After transferring their supplies and cargo onto the Archer, the Confederates set fire to the Tacony hoping the Union navy would believe the ship was destroyed. The rebels then slipped into Portland Harbor under the guise of fishermen. Their plan was to slip back out of the harbor and try to destroy the commercial shipping capability of the area.

Sometime after midnight, the raiders slipped into the harbor itself and proceeded to the federal wharf. Having the advantage of surprise, the crew seized a cutter belonging to the Revenue service, the USRC Caleb Cushing, named after a Massachusetts Congressman . They made their escape and fled out to sea. News of the actions of the Confederates spread and the military was informed of the rebel intrusion. They had been observed by several persons while taking over the cutter, and public fury was fanned by the incident.

The seventeenth infantry was stationed at Fort Preble and 28 infantry men along with ten artillery men were dispatched to pursue the Southerners. Early in the morning, the soldiers went in pursuit after the sailing vessel in two small steamers.

Along with the soldiers went a six pound field piece and a 12 pound howitzer. The soldiers commandeered the steamer “Forest City” a cruise ship, and another steamer called the “Chesapeake”. All of the civilians on board were issued muskets to defend against the Rebels. The Forest City, being a faster boat, caught up to the Cushing and the Archer first. The Cushing opened fire upon the Forest City when it was within the two mile range of the Cushing. The Captain of the Forest City was afraid, and refused to pursue any further.

The Chesapeake, which had left port sometime after the Forest City, finally caught up and continued on towards the Cushing. The wind was beginning to blow against the rebel sailors and the steamers soon caught sight of the Cushing. Lt. Read, of the Confederate Navy ordered the Cushing torched.

The munitions exploded and destroyed the cutter after it was abandoned by his two dozen crewmen escaped in the lifeboats. They were subsequently captured and held as prisoners of war at Fort Preble. The Archer was also soon captured and all Rebels were returned to Portland. It was discovered that the Rebels were in possession of over one hundred thousand dollars in bonds. These were to be paid after a treaty for peace was ratified between the North and the south.

Public anger against the Southerners was high, and additional troops to safeguard the prisoners was requested. They had to be spirited out of Portland during the night to prevent a riot from breaking in July, when they were removed to Boston Harbor, where they were then held at Fort Warren.

This true story is just one of thousands of little stories that make Maine what it is today. History tends to place emphasis on the heroes, the newsmakers, the solitary leaders surrounded by the story. But history is much more than the big news flash of the moment. History is all of the little stories combined. Fact and fiction strive against one another and legends are born in the process. Because of this educators and history buffs tend to overlook the many little pieces that assemble into the puzzle of our past.

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Categories: articles, Books, civil war, Education, events, history, Maine, preservation, stories, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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