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Fort Preble

Fort Preble
Jul 24, 2017

Fort Preble was an active military garrison from 1776 until 1950; it was heavily used during the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Generations and generations of Irish and Irish-American soldiers were stationed at this fort.

In 1776 a fort was constructed at Spring Point in what is now South Portland and named Fort Hancock, after Massachusetts governor John Hancock. It was fortified with cannon and ammunition and served as a strategic lookout point for enemies (especially the British) and as a protective garrison for privateers leaving Portland Harbor until the Embargo Act of 1808. In that year the fort was revamped and renamed Fort Preble, after Portland's famous son Commodore Edward Preble, hero of the Barbary Wars who had died the previous year. War with Great Britain was growing ever more imminent with each year.

During and after the War of 1812, many Irish-born soldiers were stationed at Fort Preble, including Owen Quinn and Timothy McMahon. Quinn was a 5'11, blue-eyed, light haired, light complexioned Irish weaver when he enlisted in the U. S. Army at Thomaston in September 1814. He was soon transferred to Fort Preble, where he married local girl Hannah Brazier (or Breazeen) in April 1816. McMahon, a native of Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, was a twenty-seven year-old farmer when he enlisted at the fort in August 1823. County West Meath native James McCormick enlisted at the fort at about the same time. A year later McMahon married Mrs. Deborah Jordan of Cape Elizabeth and was discharged in 1825. We find him in New York in 1827, where he reenlisted and served with the 2nd US Artillery until he was discharged at Fort Pike in 1832 (see US Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914, Ancestry.com). Stories like this can be found for Irishmen at Fort Preble for the next one hundred years or more.

Although the official records are scanty and scattered, we can learn the names of a large number of Irish-born soldiers stationed at Fort Preble in the 1840s-1850s, as an official log book of the fort's guard can be found among the collections of the Maine Historical Society. In this period, five or six soldiers would be assigned duty to guard the prisoners at the fort, usually an equal number of soldiers who had broken the rules. A soldier could be placed in the brig for several days for any number of reasons, usually for absence without leave, but also for "unsoldierlike conduct," quarrelling and fighting, leaving post without permission, and overstaying a pass. In a twist of irony, you could be guarding a prisoner one day, and be a prisoner yourself the next day. Irish surnames abound for both guard and prisoner, including Quinn, Holleran, Dinneen, McCann, Dooley, Sheridan, Dealey, Hanley, Fleming, Mahany, Crowley, Murphy, Glackin, Cluskey, O'Brien, Sweeney, Curran, Brady, O'Neil, Trainer, and Dugan. Many of these soldiers eventually settled down in the area, including Andrew Dooley, who opened a grocery store in Portland and was a recruiting officer here during the Civil War.

During the Civil War, Fort Preble was directly involved in one of the most dramatic events to occur in Maine during that bitter conflict. On June 26, 1863 Confederate raiders entered Portland Harbor aboard a captured local fishing vessel the Archer and sailed directly in front of Fort Preble unbeknownst to the fort's soldiers. The rebels then captured a US revenue cutter, the Caleb Cushing, the next day and attempted to escape the harbor. Several local ships pursued her, including the Forest City, a side-wheeler steamer manned by men (loaded with ammunition) from Fort Preble. The rebels soon realized that they would be boarded and set fire to the cutter, with the cutter's crew still on board. The rebels were finally captured and jailed at Fort Preble, while the cutter's crew were saved, but secured in the Cumberland County Jail for two days to be kept for "safekeeping" as witnesses to the entire affair (they were also presumably to be cleared for any wrongdoing). Among the twenty crew members, five were Portland Irishmen: Hugh Finnegan, George McCarty, Peter Warner, John Collins, and Edward Mahoney. The Confederates at Fort Preble were soon released to Fort Warren (Boston), as the Cape citizens complained that they did not want "rebel scum" in their town.

During the Spanish-American War (1898-99), soldiers of the 1st Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers were sent to man Fort Preble. A Civil War monitor, the Montauk, was relayed to Portland to guard the harbor. This area did not experience any actual military engagements during the war.

From 1905 until 1911, Catholic priests of the Portland Diocese celebrated Mass at Fort Preble, as well as at Fort Williams. In 1911, Father John Sekenger became the pastor of a new parish that would eventually become Holy Cross Church near Broadway in South Portland.

Fort Preble saw active service during the two world wars, but was decommissioned in 1950. The beautiful location, which had included a parade ground, hospital, barracks, and blacksmith shop, is now a part of the campus of the celebrated Southern Maine Community College, the former Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute. The photo above shows Spring Point Lighthouse, built in 1897, with a breakwater that was added in 1951. Every July the Irish-American Club of Portland hosts an Irish picnic with live music, ceili dancing, animals, games, and various local vendors on the grounds of the college.

Related sites: Portland Head Light, Fort Williams, Portland Waterfront

Author Matt Barker
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