Two weeks ago as I write this – and 210 years after it took place – the battle between the USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer was in the news again. In a ceremony in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery, where the captains of both ships are buried, a headstone was erected for the Enterprise’s helmsman, whose navigational skill ensured the American victory. The naval duel off Monhegan – remembered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as “the sea-fight far away” – is a well-known bit of Maine history.

What I suspect fewer people know is that the Boxer’s captain was part of a scheme between two merchants, one American and one from New Brunswick, to smuggle English goods to Maine. Under Boxer’s “protection,” vessels loaded with high value cargo would rendezvous with an American privateer, which would “capture” them and lead them triumphantly into an American port as a prize. It was just such an operation that had brought her to Pemaquid Point the day she was sighted by the Enterprise.

As Joshua M. Smith explains in his new book, “Making Maine: Statehood and the War of 1812,” “collusive capture” was one of several ingenious ways the maritime merchants of Maine and British Canada circumvented, first a hated embargo, and then a despised war.

Smith is the head of the American Merchant Marine Museum and a professor in the Humanities department at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. In his previous books, Smith has written about smuggling across Passamaquoddy Bay and the naval war of 1812 from the British viewpoint. Both of these topics are further explored in “Making Maine,” which shows how the war galvanized popular opinion in favor of statehood, achieved five years after the war ended.

The war that Smith depicts is hardly that of the small united David nobly battling the British Goliath over press-ganged American seaman that we learned about in school. Nor is it one of gallant naval duels. In the only engagement he recounts, as noted above, one of the participants was just coming off a smuggling racket.

In Massachusetts, and especially its District of Maine, the War of 1812 was “a disorderly discourse,” writes  Smith. Its politics “devolved into arguments, lawsuits, riots, fistfights, shouting matches, and street theater.” Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans regularly resorted to threats of bodily violence and death against each other. At times, their rage completely overshadowed the animosity of the belligerent nations, and in Maine it was more than tinged with class resentment. The Federalists tended to be urban Anglophiles, while the Republicans were rural yeoman.


Federalists made no bones about their hatred of the war, which was ruining their maritime business. The Massachusetts governor did nothing to protect Maine, which not only had a vulnerable coastline but shared a border with the enemy.

Affairs were hardly better in the ranks. Squabbling between the regular federal troops and the state’s militia and volunteers was endemic and vicious. On the water, privateers put to sea for the spoils rather than glory. Their nautical ruses and skullduggery leave little room for mention of the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” famed in song and story. Chapters with headings like “A People Naturally Bad and Violent,” “Much Abused & Most Piratically Treated,” and “Ravings of a Political Maniac”– the opinions of Americans about Americans – convey the tone of what passed for public commentary in those days.

The author has compiled an absolutely staggering number of events and actions that did anything but prosecute the war with the British Empire. (There are 57 pages of notes.) Nor will he be diverted from his main concern, the war along Maine’s coastline. A chance reference to Captain Sir Thomas Hardy, who famously received Admiral Nelson’s last words (“Kiss me, Hardy”), mentions only that he was “famous for fighting at the battle of Trafalgar.”

While each of these events is of grisly interest, all together they overwhelm the reader and impede the historiographical progress of the book. William King, who would become Maine’s first governor, pops up repeatedly as, variously, a land speculator, smuggler, cunning pol and hero of Maine’s defense; it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle of a portrait before the pieces have been put together. Some excellent maps help the narrative, but the publisher has reduced many of them to a size that is unreadable without a magnifying glass.

Nevertheless, “Making Maine” makes clear how the numerous rifts across overlapping political and social strata in Maine were exposed and exacerbated by the War of 1812. Curiously, he argues that statehood “was not inevitable;” but then he hits the nail on the head, “nor was it led by heroes.” With all the internecine backstabbing and plotting, “Making Maine” has rarely a dull moment. Anyone who is interested in the state’s history will love it.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

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