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Israel Washburn Coastal Defense Transcript
The undersigned, governor of Maine, acknowledges the receipt of the official note of the Secretary of State, under the date of the 14th instant, inviting the attention of the executive of this State to the important matter of the public defence of its coast, in view of the possibility of an interruption of the present friendly relations of the government of the United States with those of foreign powers, Fully sensible of the watchfulness and fidelity of the President, and of those in charge of the various departments of the government, in guarding against any possible danger, whether arising from domestic insurrection of foreign invasion, the authorities and people of Maine cannot have failed to feel the deepest solicitude in reference to the subject –matter of that communication, from the very extent of her undefended sea-coast, and the remembrance of the sufferings of the people of this State in former wars; and in her behalf I desire to tender my most cordial thanks for this wise and thoughtful recognition by the general government of what her position and circumstances demand.
Without recounting the facts of the early history of that portion of the continent now included within the limits of the present State of Maine, the contests between France and England for its possession, and the Indian cruelties that follow in the train of war, by which its villages and towns were devastated, I need only remind your excellency of the events of the wars of the revolution, and of 1812 with England, to impress on the government the vast importance of Maine in the military and naval point of view as a means of power and strength to the national government.
Its shores are indented with many excellent harbors, and its geographical position for military, naval, and commercial purposes commands the finest portion of the continent of North America.
The failure of the French to hold the shores of the Atlantic ocean between Piscataqua and Sagadahoc, and maintain the communication between Montreal and the sea, lost to them the noblest colonial empire the world has ever seen.
Though settled by the French as early as 1604, and by the English in 1608, under separate grants covering the entire territory – the from the French king dated in 1603, and that from the British crown in 1606 – it was not until the conquest of Canada, by the capture of Quebec in 1759, that Maine enjoyed peace and repose under the dominion of Great Britain. During the war of the revolution the bulk of her territory was in possession of the English, and the war of 1812 found her coast defenseless, and all her eastern harbors, from Castine to the St. Croix river, occupied by the enemy.
Should war again occur with any leading European power, Maine must fall at once into the hands of the enemy, unless means of defense are provided.
From the state line at Kittery to West Quoddy Head, in a coast line of three hundred miles, there are over one hundred good harbors at which ships are built and manned, with an actual shore line of more than three thousand miles, following the line of tide water into navigable bays, inlets, and deep river estuaries. Not one harbor is properly defended, and in only three have attempts at defence been made.
A slight breastwork battery at Eastport, called Fort Sullivan, Fort Knox, partially constructed at Bucksport Narrows on the Penobscot, and the forts at Portland harbor, are all the fortifications on the coast of Maine.
Castine, the British naval station on the Atlantic ocean in the war of 1812, could again be occupied in the same way, for all the defenses of former times have fallen to ruin and decay. Belfast, Rockland, George’s river, Wiscassett, and the Kennebec river, are all without any sign of defense. The important shipping port of Bath, the city of Augusta, the State capital, and the larger towns on the Kennebec, are all at the mercy of a single sloop of war.
The highest military authorities would undoubtedly concur in the opinion that Portland should be made the great naval depot of the United States on the Atlantic ocean. Its geographical position commands Canada on the north, and the lower provinces on the east, if properly fortified, as lines of railway, completed or in the process of construction, radiate from it to Quebec and Montreal, and to St. John and Halifax.
The harbor is one of the finest on the Atlantic ocean, or in the world, and can easily be so fortified as to be as impregnable as Gibraltar, and far stronger than Quebec, Sebastopol, or Cherbourg.
Halifax harbor, the great British naval depot on the American continent, now occupied by the combined fleets of England and France, closes the outlet of the great gulf lying between Cape Cod and Cape Sable, and unless Portland is defended the whole peninsula east of Lake Champlain is easily subjected to foreign control.
If Great Britain held the harbor of Portland and the line of railway to Montreal and Quebec, she would drive American commerce from the ocean and the great lakes.
The strategic importance of Portland is shown by reference to any general map of the whole country, and its capabilities for defense are exhibited by the charts of the United States coast survey of 1859.
Portland harbor is an arm of the sea formed by five outlying islands, that shut out the swell of the ocean.
The main or great ship channel is only one hundred and seventy rods in width, carrying from eight to ten fathoms at low water, inside Bangs island.
This island is the natural fortress that defends the approach to the harbor; its outside shore line, extending over one mile in a nearly straight line, rises about eighty feet above the level of the sea.
The distance from this outer shore wall of the island is less than three miles from the densely populated portion of the peninsula on which the city is built.
Behind this natural fortress, ships of war may lie in deep water and shell the city, entirely protected from the guns of Fort Preble, Fort Scammel, or Fort Gorges.
In point of fact, the present forts are of very little, if any, value in defending the city from guns of long range used in modern warfare.
Bangs island contains two hundred and twenty acres. By fortifying this island all possible approach to Portland by water with large ships is cut off.
In that event, no holding ground or place of anchorage can be found where gunboats can reach the city without coming within range of the guns of its fort, or those of Fort Gorges.
By making Bangs island a fortress, Fort Gorges may be advantageously changed into a water-battery, with only one tier of guns, and the expense of the proposed casemate battery saved, and thereby Portland would become impregnable by water.
The town itself is situated on a high peninsula, once an island two and a half miles in length and averaging three-fourths of a mile in width, around which still sweep the tide-waters of Casco bay, approaching within a few rods of the opposite sides.
A ditch of a few rods length will change this peninsula into an island, and secure a flow of the tide completely around the city. The land rises more or less abruptly on all sides from the water, reaching an elevation of 176 feet at the western end. And 161 feet at the eastern end of the peninsula, so that a redoubt at each end of the city overlooking this moat or ditch, and commanding the approaches by land, or across Back bay, will prevent all approach to the city. No land rises so high as that of the peninsula of Portland, within ten miles. One-tenth of the expense of fortifying Sebastopol or Cherbourg would make Portland one of the strongest fortresses in the world.
As a harbor of refuge that of Portland is unrivaled, and the approach of a storm is foreshadowed be a movement of vessels in that direction.
Between five and six hundred sail have been known to enter Portland harbor for shelter in a single night, and six hundred sail can often be counted, on a clear morning, standing out to sea after an easterly storm.
The first intimation of trouble with any leading foreign power would be the entrance of a hostile fleet into Portland harbor.
The embarkation of the Prince of Wales, on the 20th October, 1860, illustrated the facility with which five men-of-war, some of them ships of the largest size, may enter or depart from this secure anchorage. The whole British navy can lie as easily in Portland harbor as in a dock at Woolwich.
An enemy in possession of Portland would find it to be the terminus of the longest line of railroad in the world. The Grand Trunk railway of Canada embraces a line of 1,131 miles, of which 1,096 miles are in actual operation.
It extends from the Atlantic ocean at Portland to Lake Huron, a distance of 794 miles, with a branch to Detroit of 59 miles, a branch to Quebec of 96 miles, and to the River du Loup of 118 miles; making, with all its branches, 1,096 miles.
This line has the capacity to move 10,000 troops between Portland and Quebec or Toronto and Detroit in a single day.
At Portland commences the line of the European and North American railway, to extend through the cities of Bangor and Saint John to Halifax, a distance of 576 miles, of which 300 miles are in actual operation, with 63 ½ miles more of branch lines, viz.: In Maine, 138 miles; in branches, 26 ½ miles; in New Brunswick, 101 miles; in branches 7 miles; in Nova Scotia, 61; in branches 30.
Arrangements, it is understood, can now be made by which this railway may be opened to Halifax at an early day. Without it the complete defense of our coast would be impossible, for the British fleet, holding command of the ocean, would prevent any attack on the lower provinces by water. Holding Halifax, the line to Quebec, by the St. John valley, would be kept open, and an overwhelming force could be thrown into New Brunswick, Canada, or Maine at any moment.
Navy yards, dock yards, repair shops, and naval schools, should be located inside of defensible harbors. By the proposed fortification of Portland, making Bangs island a fortress, the most ample space is afforded for all possible naval purposes, on the main land, or on the other islands of the harbor, without interfering with the legitimate business of the city.
Maine other places in Maine, among which may be mentioned the navy yard at Kittery, the moth of the Saco river, Mount Desert harbor, and Machias, will deserve the attention of the agents of the government who maybe appointed to superintend and conduct the prosecution of the defences of this State.
Before making the expenditures proposed, to put “put ports and harbors in a condition of complete defence,” I shall wait the instructions your excellency may be pleased to give; and for the purposes of that conference with the federal government which the letter of the Secretary of State suggests, I have appointed Hannibal Hamlin, Ruel Williams, and John A. Poor, distinguished citizens of this State, whose intimate knowledge of the matters in question will entitle their opinions to great weight with the Executive, commissioners to confer, on the part of the State, with the authorities at Washington, in respect to the system of defence to be adopted and the manner of its execution.
I have the honor to be, with the highest respect, your excellency’s obedient servant,
ISRAEL WASHBURN, Jr.
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