What was the Vice-President of the United States doing as a cook at Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine in the summer of 1864? The short answer is that Hannibal Hamlin’s Coast Guard Unit had been called up for duty and, as a member of Company A, he felt obliged to report.
Hamlin had enlisted when the Civil War began. Although Company Commander Llewellyn J. Morse told him that he could have a purely honorary position, Hamlin insisted on active service. “I am the Vice-President of the United States but I am also a private citizen, and as an enlisted member of your company, I am bound to do my duty.”
In 1647, Kittery was the first town established in Maine, then a province of Massachusetts. In the early 18th century, intense economic competition had arisen between Kittery and the colony of New Hampshire, across the Piscataqua River. Customs officials from that colony ordered all ships coming into the harbor to pay a customs duty, which upset Kittery merchants. In 1690 they petitioned the Massachusetts General Assembly to build a fort.
The result was Fort William, which was constructed early in the 18th century to protect Kittery merchants from “the unreasonable duties imposed by New Hampshire.” The directive from the province of Massachusetts further declared, “that six guns with shot and carriages be ordered to the town of Kittery upon their erecting a Breast Work and platform.”
The coming of the American Revolution caused considerable anxiety among the citizens of both Kittery and their neighbor across the river, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. British warships were plundering towns on the Maine coast and it was feared that the Kittery area would soon be next. Fort William was armed and garrisoned in preparation for an anticipated British attack.
As it turned out, the fortifications so bristled with cannons that Kittery and Portsmouth were never assaulted during the Revolution.
In 1808 Fort McClary was built on the ruins of Fort William. It was named in honor of Major Andrew McClary, a New Hampshire militia leader, who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the War of 1812 the fort was garrisoned against a possible British threat to the new federal shipyard across the river in Portsmouth. Fort McClary and Portsmouth were never attacked because of the difficulty of sailing up the winding Piscataqua River channel.
Because of worsening relations with Great Britain, the next period of McClary’s expansion occurred from 1844 to 1846. This was when the core of the fort, the hexagonal blockhouse, was built. Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederacy) visited Fort McClary when he was Secretary of War and declared that it was “the best-located fort on the Atlantic Coast for defense.”
When the Civil War broke out the fort was again garrisoned and the blockhouse rebuilt. In addition, a barracks, a cookhouse with a mess hall, a chapel, a hospital, a guardhouse and a magazine, all made of brick, were constructed. A substantial wharf was also built. Derricks were installed to lift granite blocks from incoming ships and a rail system to move the stones from the harbor area was constructed.
And so we return to the culinary career of Corporal Hannibal Hamlin. As a distinguished senator from Maine, Hamlin had become an important voice in national politics. As Vice-President, however, he soon found that his job was largely ceremonial. Indeed, by the summer of 1864 Hamlin was not only “bored to tears,” he was a lame duck Vice-President, since Abraham Lincoln had chosen Andrew Johnson to be his next running mate.
Hamlin and his fellow troopers arrived at Kittery on July 7, 1864 and the Vice-President immediately plunged into the routine of camp life. The only concession the Vice-President asked for was to be housed with the officers. “We are comfortably situated. The whole company is quartered in the barracks. The duties will not be hard and our sixty days will soon pass off,” he wrote to his wife Ellen.
After pulling guard duty for three nights, Corporal Hamlin was given the job of company cook. He took the place of an African-American named Daniels who had become sick.
There were no stoves in the kitchen building. Hamlin worked over an open fire in a pit. The Vice-President apparently loved his job. All the produce was local, with meat, eggs and fish readily available. “Having excellent salt water fishing here,” he wrote to his son Charles. “I catch cod, haddock, hake, cunners and mackerel in abundance.”
Otherwise, Hamlin’s life was anything but that of an ordinary soldier: “I am quartered with the officers in the block house attached to the fort and we get along quite comfortably, but it is becoming somewhat dull,” he complained to his wife. “If you and the children could be here, we certainly would have a nice time. My health is excellent. They all say I am growing fat. That ought to be an inducement for you to come”.
Although he campaigned for the Republican ticket in the fall elections, Hannibal Hamlin spent little time in Washington after his stint at Fort McClary. Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson appointed him collector of customs for the port of Boston. In 1868 Hamlin was once again elected to the Senate where he served two more terms until he retired in 1880.
Looking at Fort McClary today, we see a federal-government project that was never completed. Rebuilding was ongoing during the Civil War, but it was discontinued when the war ended. During the Spanish American War in 1898, the fort was briefly occupied against a possible attack by a Spanish fleet and during the First and Second World Wars it was used as an observation post.
When the federal government abandoned the property, nearby residents began to cannibalize the area. They called it “recycling.” To avoid further desecration of the site, the State of Maine purchased Fort McClary from the War Department in 1924 for $31,000.
Fort McClary is open to the public from May to Columbus Day.
Harry Gratwick’s latest book Mainers in the Civil War was released this spring. For more information, visit www.harrygratwick.com.