Coastal cruise brought dignitaries to Fort Popham as Gettysburg raged

The War Department started constructing Fort Popham at Hunnewell Point in Phippsburg, Maine in summer 1861. The granite-block fort was designed to prevent enemy warships from steaming up the Kennebec River to attack Bath. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

A day before draft riots erupted in New York City, some well-connected Maine residents took a cruise on the Kennebec River to see the latest War Department infrastructure being built on the coast. If anyone discussed Gettysburg and its aftermath that pleasant day, a newspaper correspondent invited along for the voyage didn’t mention it.

Writing under the pseudonym “Helion,” the newspaper correspondent “had the pleasure of visiting Fort Popham” on Friday, July 3. He, Adjutant Gen. John L. Hodsdon, and “several employees of the State and quite a number of the prominent citizens of Bath boarded the steamer Ella Morse for “a reconnaissance” to “the mouth of the Kennebec river.”

Busy with “several pressing engagements,” Gov. Abner Coburn declined to join the expedition, “and some other officials and gentlemen of respectability would have gone but for the ‘Great Three-in-one Combined Circus,’” playing in Augusta “for one day only” come sunshine or rain, that Friday, Helion reported.

The excursion came soon after the first serious Confederate attack on the Maine coast. Early on Saturday, June 27, Confederate sailors led by Lt. Charles W. Read had captured the Revenue Service cutter Caleb Cushing in Portland Harbor and had then sailed into Casco Bay. Two pursuing steamers caught up with Read, whose crew set fire to the Cushing and took to the cutter’s boats. The Confederates were soon captured.

The daring attack frightened coastal residents, who could identify on no fingers of either hand just how many American warships guarded Maine waters. People feared a follow-up Confederate raid somewhere along the coast. At Bath, Collector of the Port Roland Fisher notified Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that Bath and the Kennebec River were “entirely defenseless.”

The 126-foot Ella Morse was a new, 200-ton tugboat built at the J. Parker Morse shipyard in Bath. “The best method of providing a speedy means of defense is to charter or purchase” the tug, Fisher said. “Very fast and stanch,” the tug “is considered by competent judges to be just what we want” to defend Bath and “the Kennebec River against the depredations of rebel privateers.”

On a beautiful summer morning — “the weather was excellent,” Helion noted — the Ella Morse slipped its hawsers and stood down the Kennebec for Fort Popham. “The Bath people took their ‘hospitalities’ along, and did the agreeable to all in that urbane style for which they are so justly celebrated. If any person is fortunate enough to be catered to by the citizens of Bath[,] he is sure to have a good time.”

The words suggest that alcohol accompanied the downriver reconnaissance.

Passengers went ashore after The Ella Morse reached Fort Popham around 9 a.m. Sited on Hunnewell Point in Phippsburg, the Third System fort was designed to prevent enemy warships from steaming up the Kennebec River to attack Bath and the river towns beyond. Construction began in 1861.

Granite quarried at Dix and Fox islands was transported to the site. “The granite … is of very superior quality,” and “both steam and hand derricks are in use for hoisting the stone,” Helion noted.

He observed, “We found blocks of granite of various sizes and stages lying all about, while the sound of the hammer and chisel, the puff of the steam engine and the voices of the workmen, all betokened that the work of erection was steadily going on.” Some 100 men “are now employed at the fort,” but the project’s superintendent claimed “that help is very scarce and he would be glad to engage fifty or sixty additional masons, stone-cutters and laborers.”

Fort Popham was shaped like a crescent, and its exterior wall “is 798 feet” in length, Helion reported. “The facade is oval shaped and divided into three fronts,” two of them each 112 feet in length and the third 181 feet long. “The bastion fronts are 132 feet,” he noted.

The fort will be 53 feet high and will be mounted with two two tiers of casemate guns and one tier of barbette guns, some of which will be 100 pounders and some larger,” Helion reported. “There are already 100-pounder rifled Parrott guns mounted, for temporary use, at every embrasure sufficiently finished to admit it.” The Parrott rifles “face the ocean” and are “capable of defending the navigation of the river for the present.”

Another source indicated that Popham, “classified as a closed lunette,” would “mount 36 10- and 12-inch guns in two tiers for use against shipping and six smaller guns to protect the beaches against landing parties.” Although garrisoned by Maine soldiers later in the war, Popham was never finished; the fort is now owned by the state.

Soon after the July 10 reconnaissance from Bath, the Ella Morse was sold to New York buyers and, “armed with two 100-pound Parrott guns,” went into naval service. The steamer left Bath for good on August 3.

Sources: William A. Baker, A Maritime History of Bath, Maine and the Kennebec River Region, Volume 1, pp. 480-482; Portland Daily Press, Tuesday, July 14, 1863

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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.