A Triple Grave
Eastern Cemetery
Portland, Maine

Triple Grave

In downtown Portland, Maine there sits a cemetery that is part of the city’s oldest historic landscape.  On its six acres are buried some 4,000 of the city’s oldest and most famous residents as well as the commoners, neer-do-well’s and unknowns.  A walk through the cemetery reveals a treasure trove of funerary art and monuments as well as an unusual side by side triple grave with three monuments that signal a unique story waiting to be told.  Located on the Mountfort Road side of the cemetery, the graves mark the final resting places of both a U.S. Navy and Royal Navy ship captain and a young U.S. Navy midshipman who were casualties of a brief sea battle between the USS Enterprise and the HMS Boxer in September 1813 during the War of 1812.

During the summer of 1813 the 14 gun Enterprise had been ordered to Portland to assist in the protection of all coastal waters in the neighborhood.  Of particular concern was the presence of several British warships that both harassed coastal communities and provided escorts for smugglers of British goods.  The Enterprise made its way northward, flying the ensign of a new commander, 28 year old William Burrows of Philadelphia.  Inexperienced in command but long of service dating back to the Barbary Wars, young Burrows was both anxious to achieve glory and prove himself in his new command.

His opportunity was not long in coming.  On the morning of September 1, the Enterprise had sailed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire in pursuit of a schooner suspected of being a British privateer.  Following her into Portland on the 3rd, the Enterprise again weighed anchor the next day to investigate a report of an American merchantman being fired upon at the entrance to the Kennebec River.  While approaching Pemaquid Point on the 5th, Burrows discovered a ship lying at anchor in a nearby bay that he supposed to be a British man-o-war.  Seeing the approaching Enterprise, the commander of the anchored ship nailed his ensign to a mast and ran up sail in an effort to come out and meet this threat to his own safety.  It was indeed a British man-o-war, the HMS Boxer, a 12 gun brig, under command of 29 year old Lt. Samuel Blyth.

On the Enterprise, Burrows accepted the challenge, cleared his ship for action and pushed farther off-shore in an effort to find ample maneuvering room for the coming battle.  The wind was light and there was little sea, but both commanders soon brought their ships into range and opened with a destructive cannonading.  In the initial broadside the Boxer’s main mast was blown away and Blyth fell within minutes.  Almost cut in half by a solid cannon ball he died instantly.  Shortly after Blyth’s death, Burrows fell himself from wounds caused by exploding canister.  Unable to continue command Burrows deferred to his second in command, a Lt. Edward McCall, who effectively swung the Enterprise across the bow of the Boxer raking her with close-in fire.  With the Boxer’s mast shot away maneuver was next to impossible and the American ship soon had the upper hand.  The fight lasted but a few minutes longer when Blyth’s second in command was sighted signaling his intention to surrender.  The wounded Burrows, determined to have his day of glory, refused efforts to carry him below deck propping himself up until he could accept the sword of the now surrendered British officer.  Upon being presented the sword, Burrows grasped it eagerly and said “Now I am satisfied; I die contented.”  His death came just eight hours later.

In a naval action that had lasted perhaps thirty minutes the fighting had claimed the lives of the two commanding officers, six sailors aboard the Boxer and three sailors aboard the Enterprise.  The wounded included six British and ten American sailors.  It was later learned that four additional British sailors had also deserted their posts at the height of the fighting.  As for the ships, the Enterprise had its share of damage especially to the spars and rigging but the Boxer had fared worse with her main mast, rigging and sails shot away and her hull repeatedly holed by the close-in American cannon fire. 

Lt. McCall brought the damaged Enterprise and Boxer into Portland’s harbor two days later.  The following morning a funeral was planned for Lts. Blyth and Burrows.  The City of Portland responded with an unusual and slightly over-the-top show of honor and respect for the opposing captains.  Black draped barges brought identical coffins containing the remains of each captain from their ships to Union Wharf.  The two brigs fired their guns in salute as did the harbor’s fort.  The barges were rowed in one-minute strokes, guns being fired at each stroke.  Eventually the barges made it to land where a funeral procession using the city’s only hearse and a wagon made to resemble a hearse headed a procession first to a nearby church and then to the city’s Eastern Cemetery.  The longest route possible was taken to give all of Portland’s citizenry a chance to observe the proceedings.  The funeral procession included politicians from local, state and national levels, military personnel, general citizens and both ship’s crews.  After the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery nearby church bells rang, salutes were fired and appropriate military honors were rendered before the two opposing commanders were then interred side-by-side.

Two years later a third grave was opened and a teenaged midshipman who had been one of the Enterprise’s ten wounded was buried next to his commander.  His name was Kervin Waters and following the battle he had remained in Portland too critically injured to continue his naval service.   Never to recover, he suffered in considerable distress for two years before succumbing to his wounds.

It was revealed later that the Boxer wasn’t just on a wartime patrol the day of its encounter with the Enterprise.  In fact, the Boxer was escorting an American brig thinly disguised as a neutral Swedish ship, the Margaretta, smuggling goods to Maine’s interior on the Kennebec.  It was an illegal act by a man-o-war, but not uncommon in the War of 1812.  Interestingly to the story, as the disguised brig made the mouth of the Kennebec, the Boxer was to give the appearance of a chase by firing a few rounds off the smuggler’s stern.  It was this report of naval gunfire that brought the Enterprise out of Portland to investigate.

No burial space in Eastern Cemetery remains in the present day with Eastern Cemetery now just part of the historical heritage of the city.  The triple graves of Lts. Blyth and Burrows and Mid’n Waters remain just as seen in my old postcard view.