The first of September — Belfast in the War of 1812, 200 years later

By Megan Pinette | Aug 28, 2014
An early view of High street showing the Huse Tavern on the left. The tavern was the site of the meeting between the Belfast magistrate and the British general as they negotiated the terms of the occupation.

The War of 1812, the second with England, was not looked upon with general favor by the citizens of Belfast, because, as a maritime town, it was inevitable that commerce should suffer greatly.

Many people in Belfast were receiving news about the latest war with the British through public readings of mail and newspapers from other towns and states. As they learned more about the battles and skirmishes, they knew that at some point the British fleet would be back to take charge of the Penobscot Bay and River.

The British fleet returned on the 26th of August, 1814, with eight vessels of war and 11 transports.

According to John Lymeburner Locke’s “Sketches of Belfast,” on Thursday morning, Sept. 1st, the British fleet made its appearance in Belfast Bay. So numerous were their masts that the fleet is described by an eye witness as having “looked like a spruce swamp.” It is a date well-remembered by the ditty, “On the first of September, the English we’ll remember."

It seems that most of Belfast was on alert. The local militias were assembling and gathering up their two cannons and small arms and heading out of town.

It was late in the afternoon, around 4 o’clock, when the British frigate Burhante and two transports anchored off Steele’s Ledge.

At 5 o’clock, a barge with several officers and a flag of truce landed on the shore. The officer in charge asked to be taken to see the chief magistrate, and William Moody conducted the British up the hill to Huse’s tavern, located at the corner of Main and High streets.

At the tavern was chief magistrate Asa Edmunds, who was informed by Gen. Gerard Gosselin that he and His Majesty’s troops would be stationed in Belfast for a few days, after which they would peaceably leave.

The condition was that if, during their stay, a gun was fired against them they would be forced to burn the town.

Edmunds accepted the flag and replied that the farmers of Belfast might be hard pressed to provide enough provisions on such short notice for the 500 to 600 troops. The general and his aides took supper at the tavern and returned to their ship to oversee the disembarking of the troops.

According to Williamson’s history, “To prevent desertions, the officers represented Belfast as an island, some distance from the mainland. One of the picket guards, stationed on Wilson’s Hill, conceived the idea of visiting the western shore of the 'island,' and started on an exploring expedition in the direction of the setting sun. When the troops departed, he was in Davistown, now Montville, where as a respectable citizen, he resided until his death.”

On the morning of Sept. 5, after an uneventful occupation, the British troops departed from Belfast and returned to Castine. Hearing this, the Belfast militia marched back into town from Belmont.

The British re-fortified Castine and remained there until April 25, 1815, four months after the December 1814 signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

The English returned to Belfast once more that winter, and, as a friendly gesture, a group of officers held a ball at the Whittier Tavern on Primrose Hill and brought their own military band.

The public is invited to join Megan Pinette, Belfast Historical Society president, on Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. at Heritage Park, for a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the occupation of Belfast. Afterward, attendees can come along on a walk following the route the British took up Main Street Hill to the site of the tavern, which is now Alexia’s Pizza.

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