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Forgotten hero of Maine’s famed sea fight finally gets a headstone

Flags, flowers and other mementos adorn headstones in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, May 27, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser)

The romantic tale still looms large over any retelling of the city’s history.

On Sept. 5, 1813, during the War of 1812, American Capt. William Burrows, 28, and British Capt. Samuel Blyth, 29, led their respective ships into battle against one another in Muscongus Bay off Pemaquid Point. Burrows’ USS Enterprise defeated Blyth’s HMS Boxer that day, but both youthful commanders died in the action.

They were laid to rest side by side in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery. Hometown poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century’s best-read English language poet, later wrote about the “sea fight far away” in his poem “My Lost Youth.”

Today, Blyth and Burrows have a swanky Old Port craft cocktail bar named after them. Tourists still flock to their graves, snapping pictures and listening to guides recount the tragic tale.

Nobody visits Samuel Drinkwater’s grave, even though he lies just a few dozen yards from the captains. He also played an important role in the Enterprise’s victory, piloting the warship through Maine’s treacherous waters. That’s partially because Drinkwater’s stone went missing years ago and has stood unmarked for almost half a century.

Not anymore.

City cemetery workers installed a new, gleaming white marble stone inscribed with Drinkwater’s name on Wednesday. Officials will dedicate it on Saturday at 11 a.m. and the public is invited to come and pay its overdue respects.

Drinkwater’s stone is the fifth marker Larry Glatz has helped secure for long-dead soldiers and sailors at the Eastern Cemetery. He has done it with unending determination and help from a dedicated team of local historians and volunteers from Spirits Alive, the organization which looks after the historic burial ground.

It took Glatz and company about four years of wading through red tape to get to Saturday’s ceremony.

First they had to prove Drinkwater, who was about 70 years old at the time of the battle and was not officially in the Navy, was entitled to a veteran’s stone. They then had to prove he was buried in the Eastern Cemetery, next to his wife Rhoda. Finally, they had to satisfy government officials that Drinkwater’s original stone was gone for good.

“If you think the future is complicated, try figuring out the past,” Glatz said.

The team’s efforts uncovered a lot about Drinkwater’s life.

Drinkwater was born into a maritime family somewhere near present-day Yarmouth in 1743, according to research by Portland historian Ron Romano. In 1770, he married Rhoda Bradford of Cumberland. They had a dozen children together. A 1771 property valuation record noted Drinkwater owned an 18-ton sailing vessel. Census records indicate Drinkwater moved to Portland by 1810 and lived there the rest of his life.

In his mid-30s, Drinkwater served in the Massachusetts militia during the Revolutionary War, using his ship, the Sparrow, to transport military cargo and troops for the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition in 1779. His name may have been on government rolls somewhere when the War of 1812 broke out over issues of free trade and the Royal Navy’s custom of forcing American sailors into service against their will.

Whatever the reason, the elderly but experienced mariner Drinkwater found himself aboard the Enterprise on that celebrated battle day in 1813, helping Burrows, who was more than 40 years his junior, pilot the ship into history. After Burrows’ death, Drinkwater likely piloted the Enterprise into Portland Harbor, with the leaking, defeated Boxer in tow.

Drinkwater survived the battle, but he lost much or perhaps all of his hearing due to the roaring cannons. After the war, in 1825, he applied for a military pension. He was denied because deafness was not considered to be a war wound and he was deemed a contractor, Glatz said.

With the help of the influential U.S. Rep. John Anderson of Maine, Drinkwater eventually got his pension in an act of Congress. Anderson chaired the House naval affairs committee during his eight years in Congress from 1825 to 1833. It is said that President James K. Polk later offered him the job of Navy secretary, but Anderson declined the appointment, Romano said.

The pension office paper trail helped Glatz convince the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that Drinkwater was a genuine disabled veteran. Romano then dug up a newspaper obituary for Drinkwater saying he died July 30, 1834, at age 92. He matched it to a now-missing grave marker recorded in a 1970s headstone survey of the cemetery.

With all the complicated paperwork now out of the way, Drinkwater’s new marker in the ground and a fitting dedication ceremony planned, Glatz is already looking forward to his next veteran’s stone. This time it will be for Maine’s first West Point graduate, Asa Bradford, who died in New York during the War of 1812.

His remains were never recovered, so there is more red tape, Glatz said. VA rules say they need a descendant to request the stone. So he found a fourth cousin eight times removed in Portland.

“But we’ll have to do a lot of official genealogy research to make the VA happy,” Glatz said.


(c) 2023 the Bangor Daily News

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