The Cud On History:
From Trafalgar To Easport
Brian Swartz

Sir Thomas Hardy certainly knew how to ruin a perfectly good day for Spaniards and Americans alike.

Established in Eastport in 1808, Fort Sullivan had attracted no serious War Department attention during the War of 1812. Mounting four 32-pounder cannons atop a prominent hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay, the fort had sheltered federalized Maine militia until late 1813. With their commander, Major General Jacob Ulmer, sacked and jailed based on rumor mongering committed by Eastport’s notorious smugglers, the militiamen whiled away their time at Fort Sullivan until their enlistments expired in late December 1813.

Abandoning Fort Sullivan, the Maine boys headed home. The fort remained unmanned that winter.

Meanwhile, events in Europe would soon propel Eastport into history. In April 1814, the recently abdicated Napoleon took his entourage into exile on Elba; believing the war against France “c’est finit,” Whitehall released ships and regiments to reinforce hard-pressed British forces battling the upstart Americans in Upper Canada and as far west as the Pacific Ocean. Whitehall intended to occupy key towns along the New England coast and bolster an intermittent blockade trapping American merchant vessels at other ports farther south toward Chesapeake Bay.

The United States claimed eastern Maine as sovereign territory; some Mainers defined “eastern” to encompass the forests stretching to the St. John River and the St. Lawrence River. Great Britain disputed such nonsense voiced by the “Jonathons,” the caustic nickname which with British sailors smeared their American opponents.

To solidify its claims to eastern Maine, Whitehall ordered American fortifications at Eastport (also called Moose Island), Machias, and Castine captured and held. British troops would act offensively elsewhere, too, to deliver the royal “thumping” believed necessary to convince President James Madison and a recalcitrant Congress to declare the War of 1812 null and void.

Dusting off proposals initially penned in 1812, Whitehall developed a two-pronged effort to capture Fort Sullivan. Sir Thomas Hardy sailed to Bermuda with a squadron comprising HMS Ramillies, a 74-gun ship of the line, and HMS Terror, a “bomb” ketch mounting 10 cannon. Hardy’s diminutive squadron escorted transports that, after anchoring off Bermuda in mid-July 1814, embarked the 102nd Regiment of Foot, numbering almost 600 soldiers.

The offensive’s second prong would sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two transports would carry a Royal Artillery detachment and a few engineers under escort by HMS Martin, an 18-gun sloop. This miniscule squadron would rendezvous with Hardy’s squadron at Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

Not exactly a household name in the United States, Sir Hardy had garnered everlasting fame in Britain for the audacity and bravery he displayed on October 21, 1805. Off Spain’s Cape Trafalgar that autumn morning, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson had led a 27-ship British fleet in a brazen attack against a combined French-Spanish fleet. Designating HMS Victory as his flagship, Nelson had tapped as his flag captain the relatively unknown Captain Thomas Hardy.

On this bloody day, as HMS Victory battled various French warships at pistol-shot range, Admiral Nelson and Captain Hardy courageously walked the deck amidst whistling shot and shell and crashing cordage. A French bullet ultimately struck and mortally wounded Nelson. Hardy survived the battle. The British fleet carried the day and shattered the enemy fleet.

Not quite nine years later, Sir Thomas Hardy could be excused if he believed the Eastport expedition a bit melodramatic. After all, British spies had flitted in and about Fort Sullivan for months, and although American Army Major Perley Putnum brought 80 soldiers of the 40th Infantry Regiment to Eastport in late April 1814, Sir Hardy could not doubt that overwhelming odds would convince Major Putnum to lower his flag without firing a shot.

Actually, Putnum’s soldiers - perhaps 25 to 30 in all - had exchanged shots with British sailors along the Moose Island shore not long after arriving in Eastport. Two British “tars” suffered wounds during the skirmish. For a short time, Putnum left the British wondering if he might shoot after all if they attacked Fort Sullivan.

Sir Hardy’s combined fleet met HMS Borer, a 14-gun brig, off Grand Manan Island on July 11, 1814. Hardy promptly sailed with his fleet around Campobello Island, which effectively blocked the American soldiers at Fort Sullivan from detecting his presence until HMS Martin suddenly emerged from Head Harbour Passage (then dubbed Eastern Passage or Ship’s Passage) while flying a white truce flag.

Meanwhile, HMS Borer stood into Lubec Channel (then called West Passage) and sailed westerly around Moose Island to prevent the American soldiers from escaping in that direction.

With no American warship to patrol Passamaquoddy Bay and nose about the British-held islands across the way, Major Putnum had no inkling that, like Napoleon 11 months later, he was about to meet his Waterloo. In fact, a journal kept by the 40th Infantry’s Captain Jacob Varnum suggests a somnolent garrison caught napping. Varnum was the fort’s second-in-command.

On July 11, “when, we sitting on our piazza in the morning enjoying a cool breeze from the ocean,” Varnum revealed so many decades ago, “suddenly the reach or strait inside of Grand Meuan (Grand Manan Island) become whitened by the canvas of a large fleet of vessels making directly for our harbor.

“It was a beautiful sight but rather ominous,” Varnum recorded in classic understatement.

The American soldiers stood by their 32-pounders as HMS Martin appeared and soon anchored about a half mile offshore. A British officer came ashore under the truce flag and promptly found Varnum, who escorted the officer to Major Putnum.

The Brit gave Putnum Sir Hardy’s demands for an unconditional surrender. Demurring while the British officer returned to HMS Martin, Putnum resolved to base his next decision upon the recommendations of that venerable American institution: the committee.

Putnum “called the officers for consultation” and asked “that we each deliver our opinion,” Varnum recalled. “I was for giving them a round or two from the battery and then retreat, if practicable” to escape from Moose Island, he indicated.

Other officers had spotted HMS Borer tacking around Moose Island, however. Believing that a defiant stand would result in “an unjustifiable sacrifice of life,” these officers “preferred surrender” to glory, Varnum wrote. Agreeing that discretion made better sense than valor, Putnum ordered the American flag hauled down in mid-afternoon while HMS Ramillies anchored with her gun batteries run out and pointed at Fort Sullivan.

Varnum subsequently admitted his folly at seeking battle with the British. HMS Borer had moored to deliver enfilading fire across the only escape route available to American soldiers fleeing Moose Island, and a determined stand by 80 infantrymen against some 600 Royal Army soldiers “was too desperate a chance for any show of success for us,” Varnum realized.

So Sir Thomas Hardy occupied Eastport without firing a shot. The Royal Navy quickly transported Fort Sullivan’s 73 enlisted men to prison in Halifax; Putnum, Varnum, and the five other American officers signed their paroles and departed for Boston, arriving there on July 20, 1814.

The British would occupy Eastport for almost four years.