A person can easily bump along through life never realizing that the land around them has a history. It shouldn’t surprise us but it often does, that the land we live on was fought over, oftentimes more than once. We’re not talking about your uncle Stanley decking his brother-in-law over the old homestead. No, this is about guns, battles and politics.

Unlike my sister who lives near Gettysburg, I had never lived in an area that had an actual war history — or so I thought. There was Detroit, Michigan. I grew up there but was never aware that Detroit was attacked by Native Americans in 1706 and again in 1710, ceded to the British in 1760, sieged by the Ottawa Tribe in 1763 and fell to the British in 1812, but that’s easily overlooked when you deal with the constant form of urban warfare present since Detroit’s economy collapsed.

Now I am surprised to find that a naval battle took place exactly 204 years ago (September 3, 1814) at the small town of Hampden, Maine, not far from where I live. Hampden is the town you drive through when you are going to bigger towns on your way to important places like Pets-R-Us. It’s hard to imagine that a naval battle took place there during the War of 1812, especially since Hampden is about 30 miles inland — but it’s right on the Penobscot River, giving the British Navy access.

At the time, England was trying to turn the part of Maine north of the Penobscot River into New Ireland. They already had a New England and a New Scotland (Nova Scotia) so why not go all the way and establish a New Ireland. After all, it did turn out to be a perfect place for growing potatoes.

The New Ireland parcel was ostensibly important to the British to “open the line of communications between Halifax, New Scotland and Quebec.” That sounds exactly like the double talk we get even today from politicians pushing for war. But really, England was having a time with their new Canadian colony. Quebec was filling up with English Loyalists who wanted to speak English but were only starting to learn that you can push English in but you can never pull the French out of Quebec. They needed more than a line of communication to Halifax; they needed diplomacy and compromise, but that’s hard, while war and conquest are easy, so they went for Hampden.

There is nothing in Hampden that grabs your attention when you pass through to say, “This is where the Americans stood up to the British Navy in 1814.” That’s probably because they didn’t stand up very well. The British came in with five ships and 750 well-trained troops. While the Americans had one frigate they were forced to scuttle and a good deal of untrained militia men who decided a quick walk to Bangor would be better that a bayonet from a British Red Coat. That left the town of Hampden in the hands of the British, who rampaged through the terrified town taking anything that could be eaten and destroying much of the rest before moving on.

Technically, it was a small encounter leaving three dead and 19 wounded — about the same as a major rock concert. Still, a terrible waste.

The battle took place a few months before the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812. Unlike the famous Battle of New Orleans, that celebrated American victory, which took place because word that the war was over had not yet made its way to New Orleans.

This whole business of imposing one group’s will on another group through force, fear and intimidation is really barbaric, wasteful and, frankly, stupid. Too bad it works. It’s a shame we’re too lazy to find a more civilized solution to reconciling our differences.

So, how many of us can say what the War of 1812 was all about? Robert Southey may have said it best in his poem “The Battle of Blenheim” where Kaspar the old farmer explains to his grandson Peterkin about the battle:

“And everybody praised the Duke
    Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
    Asked little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
    “But ’twas a famous victory.”