The little town of Castine, on the Penobscot River, Maine, is a favorite resort for summer visitors, who are attracted by its fine air, its abundance of seafood, and its accessibility to the interior of the country. These same considerations together with the fine strategic location of Castine Peninsula at the head of Penobscot Bay, guarding the entrance to the Penobscot River, influenced the French adventurers of three hundred and more years ago to plant their settlement of Pentagoet and to build a fort in this very vicinity. Traditions of the settlement and grass covered ruins of the fort are still to be discovered at Castine.
In the course of the years there came here the British at war with the colonies, and His Majesty’s forces built Fort George, an important post in its day and one of the best-preserved Revolutionary works in New England. These ruins are the scene of pilgrimage of hundreds of people annually merry parties from the summer colonies which dot the shores of Penobscot Bay or from Mount Desert Island, around the corner as the land lies from Castine.
The remains of Fort George might even today be, with no disproportionate labor, put into condition for defense. The fort was a square bastioned work protected by a moat excavated down to solid rock. Each bastion was pierced with four embrasures. Though no buildings now remain inside the fortress, the position of the barracks, magazine and guardhouse may easily be traced.
Standing on the ruined wall of Fort George, one can easily discern in what features lay its strength and importance. The approach on three sides is by steep ascents, and especially is this the case to the south or seaward, the quarter from which attack might be expected. The shape of the peninsula is seen. Very similar to the peninsula on which Portland is situated, it is a large swollen heart of land hung to the mainland by a cord from the north. To the south the eye has a wide prospect, bounded in the distance by the blue mountains of the Camden range. To the west is Brigadier’s Island, and blue water where Belfast lies in the distance. To the north Fort Point can be seen with the granite walls of the never completed Fort Pownall, begun by Governor Pownall in 1759. North of east is more water and the distant solitary Blue Hill.
The military history of Fort George reflects no great credit on American sagacity, though it throws into strong light the national aggressive spirit. The first four years of the American Revolution passed very peacefully in Maine (then a part of Massachusetts), though its hardy seamen and backwoodsmen were not backward in joining the fighting forces to the south. Then, in 1779, the British powers in Halifax decided to carry the war into the northern colonies. Accordingly, in June of that year, Colonel Francis M’Lean was despatched from the aforesaid port with nine hundred men to seize and fortify the well known peninsula of Castine or, as it was then known, Penobscot Peninsula. He landed on the 12th of June, and with great energy commenced to establish himself firmly in his position.
The news was immediately carried to the Massachusetts fathers at Boston. Hancock was then Governor and General Gates commanded the Eastern Department of the colonies, with headquarters at Providence. With that cocksureness for which the Puritan colony has been distinguished since its foundation, the rulers of Massachusetts at Boston put their heads together without notifying Gates, the Continental Congress, or the leaders of the war in this county, and resolved to push an expedition against M’Lean. An embargo of forty days was put upon vessels in Massachusetts’s ports, so that transport possibilities could not put to sea, and a large land and naval force was raised.
The army was commanded by Solomon Lovell; the fleet by Captain Saltonstall of the Warren, a fine frigate of thirty-two guns. Peleg Wadsworth was second in command to Lovell, and Paul Revere, of Longfellow’s poem, was in charge of the artillery. The land forces numbered about twelve hundred men, and this number might be augmented by three hundred marines from the fleet. There were enough guns of large caliber and other supplies of war. The fleet was formidable in appearance and equipment, but it was entirely lacking in discipline and coordination, as was shortly to be seen.
The force appeared off Castine on the 25th of July 1779, and found the fort unfinished and thoroughly unprepared for defense. M’Lean despatched messengers to Halifax for aid, and kept busily on with his defenses. Two bastions had not been begun and the two remaining, with the curtains, had not been raised more than four or five feet. Captain Mowatt, a thoroughly hated British naval officer, and the bombardier of defenseless Portland, was in the harbor with three light vessels with which he took position to prevent a landing on the south side of the peninsula. A deep trench was cut across the isthmus connecting with the mainland.
No landing could be made except beneath the precipitous bluff, two hundred feet high, on the west.
On the third day the Americans succeeded in landing and in securing a position on the heights. Instead of making a final assault upon the unfinished fort now, however, they dallied where they stood, threw up earthworks and fought out a wordy battle amongst themselves as to how to go ahead. The commanding officers disagreed on any one plan, so, finally, at this late date, they appealed to General Gates for instructions. Two weeks passed and Sir George Collier arrived with a British fleet to relieve his beleaguered countrymen. The Americans were obliged to take to their heels.
General Wadsworth retired to his home near Thomaston, not a great distance from Castine, and was captured by a British detachment sent out from the fort for the purpose. His escape from the fort with a companion, Major Burton, is one of the interesting minor episodes of the history of that point. Suffice it to say that General Wadsworth on a dark night managed to get over the walls by the aid of a torn blanket and reached the mainland. Eventually he made Portland and safety.
For the remainder of the Revolution the British were at Castine, from whence they went forth on many expeditions of depredation. The loss of this little peninsula became a serious consideration, indeed, to the Americans.
During the War of 1812 Castine once more became a British stronghold, when, in 1814, the American defenders gave up the post to a force which made it a centre for plundering coast towns east and west, levying forced contributions, and destroying shipyards. At this time Bangor was taken, Belfast visited, and Hampden pillaged. After a stay of eleven months the British left Castine in April 1815. In the neighborhood of the fort they left a reputation for gayety, their stay having included a round of balls, teas, and dinners.
The history of Castine as a fortified point under New France commences with the reoccupation of Acadia, Nova Scotia, under Richelieu’s strong direction. Castine, or Pentagoet, as the French called it, was an extreme outpost against the English and was to be maintained at all costs. In 1654, however, it fell to the conquering hand of Sedgwick, a Massachusetts officer who reduced all French posts in Acadia. Sedgwick describes it as a small well planned work mounting eight guns. It was not until 1670 that the French flag was again unfurled over Pentagoet, and, at this time, it is shown in old records that the place was considerably enlarged and strengthened, only to fall, in 1674, to buccaneers from San Domingo, who carried off Chambly, the commander, and held him to ransom.
The next Frenchman whom we find at Pentagoet was that strange product of sophistication and savagery, the Baron St. Castine. Vincent, Baron St. Castine, came to America with his regiment in 1665, and the wild life of the great forests seems to have called him from the first. When his regiment was disbanded shortly after its arrival in this country, Castine plunged into the forests and took up life in the fashion that the Indians lived it. He joined the tribe of the Abenakis, a mighty people of that day, and become so high in their favor that he married the daughter of the chief, Madocawando, an implacable foe of the English. In 1685 we find Castine in command at Pentagoet with his dusky followers around him. He never changed his wife, though we have reason to believe that, like Sir William Johnson, of later times, he found pleasure in many coppery enchantresses. Toward the close of this century his fort and trading post was captured and destroyed by the English, and the Baron himself, it is believed, returned to his native France. His half breed son, by his Indian wife, for many years carried fire and sword against the English and was a picturesque figure in the wars of the Massachusetts border.