"I remember the sea-fight far away, how it thundered o'er the tide!" wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem "In My Youth". He was writing about the battle between the British brig Boxer and the USS Enterprise on September 5, 1813 in the midst of America's truly forgotten and ignored War of 1812. This little battle, based almost solely on wits and skill, may have been one of the high points of America's fight to retain its autonomy. In a war in which Washington, our national capital, was burned by the British, Maine's little sea fight was a source of pride. To quote an old sea chantey, "we had an Enterprising Brig that knocked your Boxer out".
During the summer of 1813, the 14 gun Enterprise was sent to Portland "for the protection of the coast in the neighborhood". All aboard knew of the Boxer and her sister ships, and of their harassment of the Maine coast. Only days before the battle the Enterprise put into Portland with a new captain on his maiden voyage. He was a 28 year old Philadelphian named William Burrows. The Enterprise was his first command; for some time he had been passed over for command of his own ship to the point of utter discouragement. Now he was out to prove himself!
Burrows' big opportunity for glory was imminent. He left port on Saturday evening to investigate a report of a brig firing upon a ship entering the Kennebec earlier that afternoon. Early Sunday morning, September 5th, he found the brig sailing out of Pemaquid Harbor. She was the HMS Boxer with 12 guns under the command of 29 year old Samuel Blyth. The Boxer was also his first command although he, like Burrows, was not inexperienced.
The two ships exchanged fire before the Enterprise pulled away in light seas. She was hardly retreating. Burrows is quoted as promising to outsail and then outshoot the enemy; but first he needed to maneuver into the best position. This took all day.
The actual battle began around three in the afternoon and, though intense, was quickly over. Many people crowded the shores of Pemaquid, Boothbay and other nearby points and islands to watch. The guns truly could be heard as far up river as Wiscasset. Mercy Grover, nine years old at the time, remembered later that “the guns fired so rapidly that they sounded like brush burning on the grate and the smoke was so dense there were only occasional glimpses of the ships.” The smoke was so thick that it was difficult to tell who was the victor and who was defeated.
Finally, when the air cleared, the Enterprise was victorious and the Boxer was crippled. Both young captains were dead. Portland staged an elaborate funeral, and Blyth and Burrows were interred at Eastern Cemetery on Munjoy Hill. Celebratory dinners were held, and toasts were made that often punned on the ship names. It was indeed a high point of the war until the little victory was eclipsed by the another much bigger US victory by Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie.
Graves of the commanders of the Enterprise and Boxer, Eastern Cemetery, Portland, Me.
Detroit Publishing Co., 1900-1910 Library of Congress
Of course, this is a very superficial account of the Enterprise’s victory and leaves many unanswered questions:
- Why is the Enterprise known as the ‘lucky little Enterprise? Is this the only event for which she is famous?
- How big were the ships, and how many guns did they have?
- Why did it take all day for the the ships to actually begin firing on each other? What is weather gage? And how does that enter into things?
- What happened during the battle? What is “raking fire”? What kind of damage did the ships take?
- How did the captains die and were there any other deaths?
- Why couldn’t the Boxer strike her colors?
- What about that other ship that was fired upon at the mouth of the Kennebec on Saturday?
- What did the battle have to do with smuggling and how was it covered up?
- What happened to the Boxer after she reached Portland? And the Enterprise?
- If Burrows was so famous, why did his grave go unmarked while Blyth had an elaborate marker?
If you are interested in the complete story of the Boxer and the Enterprise, please read the my MaineStory in
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.