Hiram Smith, hero of the war that wasn't

Once again the good Frenchmen who live in Madawaska will pay no attention to Bastille Day (July 14). Madawaska is as French as any commune in France, but the people there never heard of the Bastille any more than the folks in France ever heard of Madawaska, which is the northernmost township in Maine.

I am suggesting for the first time that Madawaska observe July l4th as Hiram Smith Day, to give the folks something to do on the great French holiday. Forbears of the folks in Madawaska were in America long before the Bastille was stormed. Madawaska was settled by displaced Acadians driven from Nova Scotia by the British in the grand dispersal that sent Evangeline Bellefontaine and Gabriel Lajeunesse to Louisiana.

Madawaska was an Indian word for a region rather than a community, and it was on the upper St. John River, much closer to Grand Pre than was New Orleans. In the peace settlement after our successful severance from England, Madawaska was included in Maine, but England insisted that because it was settled by "British subjects" it belonged to her.

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This contention found little support among Madawaskans, whose ancestors had been dispossessed by the British. They wanted no part of England.

Neither was the contention popular among Mainers, whose seafaring prosperity had lately been abused by Mother England and the War of 1812. Things bristled, and the governor of New Brunswick "invaded" Maine to establish the Crown's rights.

The governor of Maine promptly raised the militia to protect his sovereignty. He said the governor of New Brunswick was a despoiler of decency and a blot on the escutcheon of honor. The governor of New Brunswick said the governor of Maine would confer a favor on his constituency if he'd bathe from time to time. In this way, international ire was brought to a frenzy. War was inevitable.

The fervor was not local. Congress paid attention. Not only were resolutions of support passed, but money was appropriated to reimburse the State of Maine for militia expenses. The people of Madawaska elected a member to the Maine legislature, and the governor of New Brunswick sent a sheriff by horse and pung to arrest the legislator. He was lodged in the pokey at Fredericton for treason and was treated just simply awful.

Hopeful of a peaceful resolution, their crown and our Senate asked King William of the Netherlands to arbitrate, but he was no help. Congress raised more money, the militia was expanded, and a military road was started from Molunkus to Houlton to support the army about to appear.

General headquarters were in a suite at the fashionable Augusta House in Maine's capital city, and invitations were sent for the coming social season. It is not uncommon to have temperatures of 45 below zero F. in Aroostook County, so warm uniforms were designed for the troops, a jaunty pattern in pea-green.

At that time, Madawaska was rich in timber, and several times the size of present Rhode Island. The prize was not peanuts, to coin a phrase. The troops were ready to march.

The Aroostook war never materialized. No soldiers ever went into battle; no confrontations ever occurred, and no battles were ever scheduled. In Maine it is known as the Bloodless Aroostook War, for nobody was wounded and nobody was killed. The exception was Pvt. Hiram T. Smith of Company F, whose grave may be seen in our town of Haynesville, on the edge of the Military Road to Houlton, a forlorn and remote wilderness place for a war hero.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to Private Smith, but there he lies, waiting to be celebrated as the only casualty of the Aroostook War. It would be wholly proper to celebrate a Hiram Smith day in Madawaska for want of a Bastille connection.

When my father first told me about Hiram Smith, he said the poor fellow was run over by an army commissary wagon. But research since July 1828, when Smith was buried, offers other answers. That he fell through the ice in Lake St. Clair may be ignored, since even Aroostook County is thawed by July, and there is no Lake St. Clair in Maine and no lake by any name close to his gravesite.

That he was a deserter is unlikely by his very presence, but one story says he might have been. The mere march up the military road, no conflict in sight, is hardly enough to suspect desertion. Another yarn has it he got stepped on while watering the horses.

In l930, the Daughters of the American Revolution of Houlton put a wooden marker on Smith's grave, accepting it as a fact, and later replaced it with the granite stone seen today. Why this group of ladies did so is a fair question, as the Aroostook War had no reasonable connection with the American Revolution. The best answer is that nobody else was about to.

But, the D.A.R. did lend its prestige to the Hiram Smith story, and since 1930 he has been accepted as the only casualty of a war that was never fought. And if it is ever celebrated, then Madawaska is the place to do it.

Madawaska was the whole reason for that war, and Hiram Smith is the only proof we have that nothing happened. And Bastille Day is not so much in Madawaska.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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