Civil War Chronicle of the Ogunquit built brig “Betsey Ames”

A Confederate Ruse Thwarted
A Confederate Ruse Thwarted

Barak Maxwell was the richest, most influential man in Ogunquit.  Before the American Civil War he was heavily invested in shipbuilding and the rum/molasses trade with Cuba.  In 1855 Maxwell had a 265 ton brig built at his Ogunquit shipyard and named her the “Betsey Ames” in honor of his beloved wife.  Captain Richard C. Bartlett owned a 1/8 share of the Ogunquit brig and furnished her captain’s quarters comfortably enough to entice his wife Hannah to accompany him on many voyages.

Hannah Bartlett was aboard her husband’s vessel on October 17, 1861, when the commissioned Confederate privateer schooner “Sallie” fired 12 pound canon shot in her direction.  The Betsey Ames was carrying a cargo of machinery, apples, onions, cabbages and corn meal from New York to Cardenas, Cuba in spite of the military threat to all merchant vessels during the Civil War.  She also had several passengers onboard including a young Scotsman and his American bride.  The Scotsman recorded the attack for posterity.

He wrote, “About 9 am she fired at us, her shot falling short about a quarter of a mile.  Captain Bartlett then ordered all sail to be made, but the breeze shortly after died away, and the now suspicious schooner made upon us and fired another shot which also fell a little short of our vessel.”  The fourth shot passed alarmingly close to the side of the “Betsey Ames”.  Captain Bartlett realized he could not outrun his opponent and ordered the sails taken in. Henry Lebby, the privateer’s captain, boarded the Ogunquit brig around noon with a motley 7 man prize crew to sail her to Charleston.

They made the South Carolina coast in 6 days but spent another 4 days tacking in circles trying to locate Charleston Harbor.  Finally another crew was sent from Charleston to pilot the prize brig in.  The lady prisoners were detained at a local boarding house and men spent a few hours locked up at the Charleston city jail before being released.

Brig “Betsey Ames” was condemned and sold to John Frazer & Co, a Charleston commercial enterprise.  She was renamed the “Mary Wright” and Henry Lebby was appointed as her master.  On the following March 2, she successfully ran the Union blockade made for Liverpool England, arriving at Liverpool April 2.  Through some covert arrangement with Bushby & Co. of Liverpool the “Betsey Ames”/”Mary Wright” was registered as the British brig “Lilla” on April 24, 1862.

Great Britain was officially neutral in the American Civil War but it was well known to the Union that she secretly supplied the Confederacy through the port of Nassau in the Bahamas, without regard to their blockade.

U. S. gunboat, steamer Quaker City captured the brig “Lilla” off the Bahamas on July 3 1862 and sent her into Boston for investigation.  She was bound for the City of Nassau, loaded with a cargo of saltpeter, copper and 37 packages of medicine.  An Englishman presented himself as her captain but it was later revealed that Henry Lebby of Charleston, SC had acted as her master until the gunboat came into view.

Convoluted paperwork found onboard the Brig “Lilla” was composed to obscure the fact that Charleston parties actually still owned her.  Representatives of the British Busby & Co. could not or would not show evidence that they had ever paid for the vessel and the “Lilla’s” first mate testified in court that the crew’s wages had been paid in advance by Fraser & Co. of Charleston.

The First Circuit Court of the United States finally ruled that Bushby & Co. of Liverpool had tried to deceive the court.  The “Lilla” and her cargo were condemned as a legitimate prize of war.  Claim for the vessel, her tackle, apparel, and furniture was filed July 30, 1862 by Barak Maxwell of Ogunquit on behalf of his interest, that of Richard C Bartlett and the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Company.  The brig “Lilla” was sold by the U. S. Marshalls to a Samuel Knight for $9275.  Proceeds were restored to the Ogunquit parties after the deduction of a salvage fee to be paid to the crew of the gunboat “Quaker City.”

Business at Barak Maxwell’s ship yard had already declined by the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1855, the Betsy Ames was built for about $34/ton.  By 1860 the same size vessel cost more than $65 /ton to build.  Business did not improve after the war and in 1880 Barak Maxwell dismantled his steam saw mill and sold it to James Buffum.  Tourism became the principal industry in Ogunquit as it did in many of the shipbuilding towns on the Maine coast.

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