The Penobscot Expedition during the American Revolution was the worst naval disaster in American history until Pearl Harbor. That a huge force of men, ships and guns failed to take a small British fort in Maine has been largely forgotten.
The failed military maneuver also damaged Paul Revere‘s reputation. On Sept. 6, 1779, Lt. Col. Revere was placed under house arrest. He was charged with ‘unsoldierlike behavior … which tends to cowardice’ during the Penobscot Expedition.
In 1779, British warships and troop transports sailed into Bagaduce (now Castine, Maine), on the Penobscot Bay. Seven hundred British troops built a fort to defend Canada, deny timber to the rebels and interrupt their privateering. Ultimately they intended to settle the outpost as a haven for Loyalists. The British planned to call it New Ireland.
Maine then belonged to Massachusetts, and the colony’s leaders soon got word of the British presence on its soil. Civilian officeholders of the commonwealth decided to force them out. They called up the militia and commandeered ships from the Massachusetts Navy, the Continental Navy and the fleet of privateers.
The Penobscot Expedition included 40 vessels, nearly 2,000 seamen and marines, 100 artillerymen, 870 militia and 350 guns.
Civilians planned the operation with little military input, and badly trained part-time soldiers carried it out. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall and Brigadier General Solomon Lovell had joint command of the expedition. Saltonstall was timid and indecisive, while Lovell had little field experience.
Paul Revere took charge of the artillery train. He didn’t have much military training, but he had repaired the guns damaged when the British evacuated Boston.
When the massive flotilla left Boston Harbor, everyone expected it to capture the garrison – even the British. They hadn’t taken into account the expedition’s shortcomings.
The Penobscot Expedition on July 25, 1779 sailed into the harbor outside of Bagaduce. There stood an earthworks fort protected by three sloops in the harbor. Though the Americans seemed to have a decisive advantage, the British had more military experience. They also had a favorable geographic position and better coordination between land and sea forces.
The Americans took control of a small battery on an island off the coast. Then a force of 600 militiamen advanced along a steep bluff. Suddenly they found themselves within a few hundred yards of Fort George.
Revere wanted to storm the fort, but Lovell ordered a siege. Saltonstall refused to clear the harbor of the three British ships. For two weeks the militiamen sat outside the fort. Lovell wouldn’t attack the fort until Saltonstall attacked the fleet, but Saltonstall wouldn’t attack the fleet until Lovell attacked the fort.
Meanwhile, the dithering allowed the British to build up the earthen walls of the fort and request reinforcements.
On Aug. 13, a British relief fleet arrived and Saltonstall ordered a retreat – up the Penobscot River.
“…[A]n attempt to give a description of this terrible Day is out of my Power,” Lovell later wrote.
During the panic that followed, Adjutant Gen. Peleg Wadsworth gave Revere an order. Revere was to send his brig carrying artillery to help evacuate a schooner drifting toward the British fleet. Revere initially refused, then followed Wadsworth’s orders.
As the British bore down, the Americans burned and sank their own ships, then disappeared into the woods. Revere and the others made their way back to Massachusetts.
In the end, Americans lost all their ships but one, which the British captured. The Americans lost 470 men; the British only 13.
Commenting on the later exploits of John Paul Jones and the Ranger, Abigail Adams wrote on Dec. 13, 1779, “Unhappy for us that we had not such a commander at the Penobscot expedition.”
Recrimination followed the disaster. Dudley Saltonstall was court martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy. He then turned to privateering.
A Massachusetts committee of inquiry investigated Paul Revere. Wadsworth charged him with disobeying his orders. Lengthy testimony also showed Revere’s arrogance had earned him enemies.
Though the committee didn’t rule one way or the other on his actions, the charges sullied Revere’s reputation. He tried to clear his name and demanded a full court martial. More than two years later, a military panel exonerated him.
If you enjoyed this story about the Penobscot Expedition, you might like to read about Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec here. This story was updated in 2023.
Images: Fort George By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34096704
The story is well-known to readers of Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort.
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