American History and Genealogy Project

AHGP

The Sea Fight ~ Far Away

I remember the sea-fight far away,
How it thundered o'er the tide;
And the dead captains as they lay
In their graves overlooking the tranquil hay
Where they in battle died.
Longfellow.

One evening about dusk in the early part of September, 1813, a little girl wrapped in a long, dark cloak might have been seen hurrying along a lonely road in a seaport town on the coast of Maine.

The child walking swiftly, now and then running along the dusty road, saw none of the beauties of the night. She was trembling and gasping in great fear. Once as some shy, woodland creature fled from her approach, rustling through the under-brush, terror lent speed to her feet and she stopped not until brought suddenly to a halt, quivering and panting, by the sight of a black object cowering like some savage creature by the roadside. Not until she realized that it was only a stump could she keep on her way.

All summer the British brig, Boxer, had been the terror of the Maine coast. None could tell where would be the next point of attack, and they had stout hearts indeed whose faces did not pale and pulses beat faster at sight of a strange ship off shore. To the neighbor's house which the child had just left, alarming news had been brought that day by some fishermen who had gone out in the early morning to fish near the White Islands. Hardly had the first catch been taken from the lines, when another small boat appeared, the rowers plying their oars with such vigor that the craft seemed fairly to leap through the water. As they drew near they raised a shout which caused the two fishermen to look at each other with startled eyes. A British ship had been seen the evening before near Monhegan. Only one meaning could be attached to this appearance. No time was lost by the small boats in reaching the harbor and in a short time the news had spread far and near.

Little Elizabeth Stewart listened eagerly to her elders as they discussed plans for defense or flight. She had spent the afternoon with the neighbor's children and in the excitement had forgotten the passage of time until some chance remark caused her to remember that she had long overstayed her time and that her mother would be worrying.

Besides, they at home did not know that the British were so near; she must warn them and quickly. But oh, the terrors of that short journey home!

Hark! what was that? Nearer came the sound, and now as she crouched in the shadows, she could distinguish the rapid hoof beats of a horse. It was not far behind, there was a sharp clatter as the swift hoofs swept over the little bridge by the old pasture bars. Who could be riding like that? What new danger threatened? Straining her eyes, she could see a man mounted on a white horse. Reining in sharply beside her, he demanded sternly, "What is this! Who is hiding here?'
A half cry broke from the child; what a relief those familiar tones had brought to her. She sprang to the horse's side.
"Oh, Mr. Gresham, I was afraid, I thought oh, are the British coming?'' The hood fell back from her face showing it white in the moonlight. The man peered down from his lofty position.

"Why, 'tis James Stewart's little Elizabeth; what are you doing here, child?'' His voice had grown suddenly kind.
"I am going home, sir. Oh, I must hurry; father doesn't know about the British ships, do you think they will come tonight?" casting fearful glances about.

John Gresham stooped and swung her up to the saddle and the horse, at a word, started eagerly forward.
"Nay, little maid, I cannot tell. There is certainly a British ship between this place and Portland, for I am just from the village and have talked with the men who saw her. But she may look for a richer place than our little settlement, or perhaps one of our own ships may rout her."

Elizabeth, child though she was, felt the anxiety in his tones; he felt her tremble and went on more lightly. ''But here we are at the gate and here is father coming to look for you. Be not out so late again without a protector, little Elizabeth," he advised as he swung her to the ground.

Tall James Stewart clasped her hand silently and then pressed forward to ask an eager question.

"You have been in the village, Neighbor Gresham, what news there?'

In a few hurried words, John Gresham revealed the danger of the settlement. "I think it is the Boxer, she has been seen off this coast before. They may not come tonight but 'tis well to watch, " he said as he started on.

The thud of the horse's hoofs had died away as James Stewart, still holding Elizabeth's hand tightly, entered the fire-lighted kitchen of the low, substantial farmhouse.

"What is the news, James?" cried his wife. "I have been so uneasy since Elizabeth left. Why, child, what has happened to make you look so shaken?"

The father stood still for a moment before answering. Before the morrow's sun rose, it might be that this dwelling which had sheltered his father before him, would be ashes, and they themselves, where?

"Yes, Sally, there is news at last; I fear that the attack we have so long expected will be upon us soon. Neighbor Gresham has come from the village at full speed and says a British brig is off John's Bay. Best have the children lie down and perhaps they will sleep if we are not disturbed, but I shall watch."

As he spoke he slipped the heavy bar across the door, bolted it, and then went from window to window, closing the heavy wooden shutters and fastening all securely.

"Then I shall watch, too," said his wife quietly, "I could not sleep."

Suddenly little seven-years-old Martha darted from her place before the fire and hung upon her father's hand.

"Oh, father,'' she implored, "don't stay here don't! We shall all be burnt up if we do. Oh, let's harness Cherry and Tom and take our clothes and the brass andirons grandfather brought from Scotland and go as far as we can." Her voice was shrill with fear and she tugged at his hand as if to draw him to the door.

"No, no, Martha," said her father gently, "we will not run away; there is nothing to be gained by that and much might be lost. Father will not let any harm come to you if he can help it."

"James," said his wife suddenly, ''is there not a chance that one of our ships might meet this Britisher and destroy her? "

''Yes, there is a slight chance," he answered, "though the Boxer would give a stiff fight to any vessel not her equal in size and strength."

"If it should be the Enterprise," she said in a low, strained voice, "you know our Thomas is with Captain Burrows, and if there should be a fight " she broke off with a shudder.

"We must hope for the best," her husband replied, though the hand which he lifted to take down his musket, trembled slightly.

One by one the children, clinging to one another, fell asleep on a straw bed which had been dragged into one corner. From the opposite side of the room the tall clock commenced to strike the hour. James Stewart, sitting by the loophole in one of the shutters, counted the strokes.

"Ten o'clock,'' he said, ''Sally, I do not like to have you wear yourself out with watching; lie down with the children and rest while you may." His wife made no answer. "With hands tightly clasped she leaned forward, eyes fixed, listening. Then with a sudden motion she flung open the shutter.

''Hark! what is that!" she whispered. For a moment to their straining ears came only the sighing of the light wind through the leaves and the plaintive cry of a whippoorwill. Then came a faint cry as of a far-off halloo, then only the soft whisperings of the September night. "Does it mean that they are coming?" asked the woman below her breath.
"It may have been only someone in the village," he replied, "I cannot tell; we must be watchful."

The night wore slowly on and no further sight or sound met the straining senses of the watchers. As the morning broke and the birds began to twitter in the trees, a sweet relief came upon them. With cramped and weary limbs they rose from their position at the window.

"They will not come now," said James Stewart. "It is the Sabbath, Sally, let us thank God that it dawns in peace."
Soon the children awoke rubbing their sleepy eyes. "I dreamed that the British came," said little Elizabeth, "but brother Thomas came in a ship with a great gun and saved us. Father, must we go to the meeting-house today!"

"Yes, surely, child, " answered her father. "We shall see all our neighbors there and learn what has occurred overnight and what plans have been made."

So across the fields and pastures bright with autumn goldenrod they took their way. Everything was calm and peaceful this bright September morning; war and death seemed far away.

Little groups were gathered in front of the old meeting-house on the green common facing the distant sea. One subject only was discussed. A highly nervous feeling ran through the groups, yet even this could not keep these devoted people from gathering at the usual time to worship in the old church which their fathers had built.

The morning services were held, the noon hour came and went, and the afternoon worship began. The minister spoke with his usual earnest manner, but even he seemed to have caught the waiting, listening attitude of his people. At times he fumbled with the open Bible before him, ear inclined slightly toward the windows on his right, then his sermon swept on. The soft breeze came through the windows, rustling the leaves of the hymn-books.

And then all heard it, heavy, unmistakable the distant boom of a cannon! The preacher stopped in the midst of a sentence and all waited, breathless and pale. Again came the sound, another following closely upon it.

"Come, friends, to Kenniston's Hill!'* cried the minister, starting from his place. "Perchance we can see there!"
With one accord men, women and children rushed from the building and across the green. Little Elizabeth panted by her mother's side, a younger child held by each hand.

"Do you think, mother, the British are coming!" she managed to cry. But her mother did not answer; her eyes were fixed upon those who had already gained the summit of the hill and stood gazing seaward, hands shading their eager eyes. In a few moments they, too, had reached the hill-top.

Far out near the dim sky-line lay a soft, gray cloud-like smoke; as they looked, it was lifted by the breeze and two dark objects lay disclosed. A puff of white smoke came from the larger of the two and a deep, sullen boom smote the ears of the listeners. Then the gray curtain settled again, shutting the two vessels from sight. The next time it rose their positions were slightly changed; each seemed to be maneuvering for the advantage. The sound of the cannon came at intervals and the smoke rose and fell with the gentle wind.

To the watchers on the hill the moments were heavy with anxiety. Some American vessel had engaged the British brig and their fate depended upon the issue. An hour passed.

"If the Boxer is beaten," said someone, "They will go west toward Portland; but if she wins,'' he left the sentence unfinished and strained his eyes seaward.

Within the last half hour the cloud of smoke seemed to have grown heavier; for perhaps fifteen minutes no sound of firing had been heard. Then the fitful breeze which had almost died away awoke to sudden life and, as if out of pity for the waiting people, raised the enshrouding veil once more. The vessels were slowly moving! but which way? The anxious hearts beat fast. Then a soft movement swept through the crowd as when the summer breeze rustles the leaves upon the trees. The minister turned, Ms face glowing, and flung both hands toward heaven.

"Friends!" he cried, "We are saved! We are saved! They are moving toward the west!''

Charlotte M. H. Beath

Note. Many and varied accounts have come down to us of this famous battle between the Boxer and the Enterprise, off the coast of Maine, which history calls one of the important naval engagements of the War of 1812. On Monday, Sept. 6, 181 3, the United States brig Enterprise came into Portland Harbor, bringing her prize, the British ship, Boxer, captured on Sunday, the 5th, after a well fought battle lasting 45 minutes, off the shores of Pemaquid. Both commanders, Capt. William Burrows of the Enterprise and Capt. Samuel Blyth of the Boxer, were killed in the engagement. Both fell, mortally wounded, early in the action. The brave commander of the Enterprise remained on deck where he fell, refusing to be carried below. Raising his head, he requested that the flag might never be struck. When the battle was won and the sword of the enemy presented to him, the dying hero clasped his hands and said: "I am satisfied. I die contented." That night he died. The Boxer fired the challenging shot at half past eight Sunday morning and surrendered at forty-five minutes past three in the afternoon. The Enterprise brought into Portland sixty-four prisoners. She had lost but two men. Twelve were wounded. Great preparations were made for the burial of the two brave captains, neither of them yet thirty years old. Crowds of people from the neighboring towns and villages flocked in, on foot, on horse-back and some by ox team. The funeral ceremonies were very imposing and the two naval heroes were buried in Eastern Cemetery, Portland, where their graves are visited by many to this day.


Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

Back to AHGP

Copyright August @2011 - 2017 Copyright ©2000-2006  Founded April 8, 2000. Debbie Axtman,  Jim Powell, Jr., Ginger Cisewski, and  Brenda Hare, for
the exclusive use and benefit of The American History and Genealogy Project. All rights reserved.