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Battle of Portland Harbor

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Title: Battle of Portland Harbor  
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Subject: Maine in the American Civil War, Naval battles of the American Civil War, United States Coast Guard Research & Development Center, Gary P. Weeden, Portland, Maine
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Battle of Portland Harbor

Battle of Portland Harbor
Part of the American Civil War

Caleb Cushing burning during the Battle of Portland Harbor.
Date June 27, 1863 (1863-06-27)
Location off Portland, Maine
Result United States victory
United States (Union) CSA (Confederacy)
Commanders and leaders
Jacob McLellan Charles Read
Units involved
USRC Caleb Cushing
1 cutter
2 steamers
1 schooner
Casualties and losses
1 cutter scuttled
2 steamers damaged
25 captured
1 schooner captured

  • The Union revenue cutter USRC Caleb Cushing was captured and scuttled by the Confederates during the battle.

The Battle of Portland Harbor was an incident during the American Civil War, in June 1863, in the waters off Portland, Maine. Two civilian ships engaged two vessels under Confederate States Navy employment.


Around June 24, a Confederate raider named the Tacony, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Read, CSN, was being pursued by the Union Navy. To thwart their pursuers, at about 2 AM on the 25th, the Confederates captured the Archer, a Maine fishing schooner out of Southport. After transferring their supplies and cargo onto Archer, the Confederates set fire to Tacony, hoping the Union Navy would believe the ship was destroyed.

On June 26, a raiding party entered the harbor at Portland, sailing past Portland Head Light. The rebels disguised themselves as fishermen and entered into Portland Harbor late in the evening. They planned to slip back out of the harbor and try to destroy the area's commercial shipping capability.


When the raiders left the port area on June 27, they proceeded to the federal wharf. Having the advantage of surprise, the crew seized a cutter belonging to the Revenue Service, the USRC Caleb Cushing, whose namesake was a Massachusetts congressman, United States Attorney General and Minister to Spain. Their original intent was to seize a steamer called the sidewheel steamer Chesapeake, but its boilers were cold. Too much time would be needed to get the steam up in her, so they abandoned it for Cushing. They made their escape and fled out to sea.

News spread of the Confederate actions and the Army garrison at Fort Preble in nearby South Portland was informed of the rebel intrusion. They had been observed by several persons while taking over the cutter, and public fury was fanned by the incident. Along with 30 soldiers from Fort Preble went a six-pound field piece and a 12-pound howitzer. The soldiers, accompanied by about 100 civilian volunteers, commandeered the steamer Forest City, a sidewheel excursion ship, and the Chesapeake, whose steam was finally up. All of the civilians on board were issued muskets to defend against the Confederates. Forest City, a faster boat, caught up to Cushing and Archer first.

Cushing opened fire upon Forest City when it was within the 2 mi (3.2 km) range of Cushing. The captain of Forest City was afraid to pursue any further. Cushing, being a revenue cutter, had two secret compartments hidden in the captain's stateroom. Lieutenant Read had not discovered the cache of powder and ammunition that were stored there. If he had, the outcome could have been very different. Chesapeake, which had left port sometime after Forest City with Portland's Mayor Jacob McLellan in command, finally caught up and continued on toward Cushing. The wind was beginning to blow against the Confederate sailors and the steamers soon caught sight of Cushing. Read ordered Cushing torched so the munitions were destroyed by exploding in the cutter after it was abandoned by her twenty-four crewmen escaped in lifeboats. They surrendered to Mayor McLellan and were held as prisoners of war at Fort Preble. Archer was also soon captured and all the rebels were returned to Portland.


It was discovered that the Confederates were in possession of over $100,000 in bonds. These were to be paid after a treaty for peace was ratified between the North and the South.

Fort Warren in 1861.

Public anger against the Southerners was high, and additional troops to safeguard the prisoners were requested. They had to be spirited out of Portland during the night to prevent a riot from breaking in July, when they were removed to Boston Harbor, where they were then held at Fort Warren.


  • Eliot Morison, Samuel, The Oxford History of the American People: Troubled Waters, (1965) pg. 664
  • Maine Bureau of Corporations, Elections, and Commissions
  • Harper's Weekly, July 11, 1863
  • Confederate Navy Research Center, Mobile, Alabama
  • New York Times. June 28, 1863.

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