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Maine's Hidden History: The Civil War Clash in Portland Harbor
07/01/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Much attention is focused on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg as it approaches. But there's a similar milestone for a much less well-known Civil War clash - and it took place in Portland Harbor. Unlike Gettysburg, this was a more or less bloodless affair, but if it wasn't for some good Yankee luck, things could have turned out a lot differerntly. Tom Porter talked to local historian Herb Adams, in this latest installment of our Maine's Hidden History series.

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Originally Aired: 6/28/2013 5:30 PM
Maine's Hidden History: The Civil War Clash in Po Listen

Herb Adams

Herb Adams looks out over Portland Harbor, where a little-known Civil War battle took place 150 years ago.

The man at the center of this drama was a swashbuckling Confederate Navy lieutenant named Charles William Read. On June 26, 1863 he sneaked into Casco Bay, intent on causing trouble.

A short walk from the parking lot of Southern Maine Community College leads to some overgrown ramparts. It's a good vantage point to survey Portland Harbor and the islands that overlook it: the scene of the northernmost naval engagement of the U.S. Civil War.

Tom Porter: "We are standing here on the site of Fort Preble - the remains of Fort Preble, which was originally built over 200 years ago, in 1808. But it was in 1863, in June, when Lt. Charles Read was incarcerated with the crew of the CSS Archer, for activities that hadhappened the previous day, here in Casco Bay. Herb Adams, what was Lt. Read doing in Casco Bay. What was the Confederate Navy doing here 150 years ago?

Herb Adams: "An absolute surprise is what he was doing, very cleverly disguised, could have been an extremely negative mark upon the northern efforts in the war. Today, you kind of look upon it as a raid that was worth of Gilbert and Sullivan, via Grant and Lee. But had it worked the way he had intended, he would be remembered as a second Cpt. Mowatt, a man who burned the city of Portland for the second time."

Charles Read has been described as a "Confederate Corsair." As a so-called commerce raider, his job, says Adams, was to wreak havoc up and down the coast. His mission was simple: "To sink as many ships - capture them, sink them, bomb them, burn them - as possible," Adams says. "And Read was given papers and permission to do that."

Tom Porter: "So he was seizing Yankee property, basically, for the Confederacy - it sounds a little bit piratical."

Herb Adams: "And the reason he escaped being caught as a pirate is because he had official papers allowed by a government in conflict with the United States, that government calling itself the Confederate States of America. Now it depends on your point of view, he could indeed still be seen as a pirate by anybody whose ships he captured - and he captured plenty."

"He captured, in fact, 22 ships in 20 days, says Adams, as he headed north. But his luck ran out when he tried to overtake the Caleb Cushing - a United States Revenue Cutter.

On the night of June 26, aboard a captured mackerel schooner renamed the Confederate Ship Archer, Read sailed into Portland Habor. Relying on stealth more than firepower, he and his crew of 15 surprised sleeping crewmembers of the Cushing, tied them up, and prepared to depart.

His intention, says Adams, was to sail the vessel out into the bay, and bombard the city of Portland - but this wasn't to be.

"You know the gods that love gamblers dealt Read a very mixed hand," Adams says. "He had the vessel but the tide turned against him, the wind went down and he had no way to get that vessel out of this harbor except to put out boats on ropes and tow it away."

And this he proceeded to do. But Read was still only a few miles off Portland Head Light the next morning when dawn broke. The inhabitants of Portland were outraged that the vessel that was supposed to be defending the harbor had been taken from under their noses.

Their first thought was that the commander of the Cushing - a Captain Davenport from Georgia - had turned traitor and stolen his own boat. A sizeable posse was assembled, says Adams, and two steamships sailed out into the bay to intercept the Cushing.

Herb Adams: "If accounts are correct, 200 people piled aboard these things waving muskets and cutlasses and were armed by the city armory."

Tom Porter: "And that posse included regular soldiers based here at Fort Preble."

Herb Adams: "Absolutely true - they came puffing aboard with two brass howitzers from Fort Preble, the 17th United States regulars. They were joined by the 7th Maine volunteers, with their own two cannon, and their brass band from South Portland."

Tom Porter: "They took a brass band along?"

Herb Adams: "Well, of course, one must have music to do these things."

Shots were exchanged between the Cushing and her pursuers, but little harm was done. Seeing he was outgunned, Lt. Read decided to surrender - but not before he scuttled the Caleb Cushing, blowing it up in Casco Bay, in clear view of the Portland residents who had taken to their rooftops to witness the battle.

Only when Read surrendered did the Portland authorities discover the true identity of their tormentor. By this point Charles Read had become something of a celebrity - so much so, says Adams, that his presence as a prisoner at Fort Preble proved too distracting, and he was moved to Boston.

"It's easy for us to smile about it now, and I certainly have, but his designs were absolutely serious," Adams says. "And had he succeeded this would have been considered one of the great calamities of the Civil War."

On July 17, in Portland, Herb Adams will be giving a public lecture about the Civil War's most northerly naval battle.

Learn more about the Civil War strike on Portland Harbor. 

Photo: Tom Porter


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