The History Of The Penobscot Expedition

In June 1779, while most of the Revolutionary War was focused in the southern United States, a small British fleet landed two regiments of 700 soldiers on the Castine Peninsula, in the upper reaches of Penobscot Bay, Maine.  Intent on establishing a base from which they could operate more effectively against American privateers, ensure the extraction of valuable naval stores, and develop a refuge for displaced Loyalists, the British enlisted local support and began the construction of Fort George.  Word reached Boston quickly (Maine was a district of Massachusetts until 1820), and over the ensuing month the largest American naval force of the Revolutionary War, known as the Penobscot Expedition, was assembled.

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An amphibious operation, the expedition consisted of 40 vessels, nearly 2,000 seamen and marines, 100 artillerymen, and 870 militia.  Mounting 350 guns, the sizable fleet included 3 Continental Navy vessels, 3 Massachusetts State vessels, 1 New Hampshire State vessel, 11 Massachusetts privateers, and 22 transports.   The expedition was not, however, easily brought to fruition.  Several vessels and their requisite crews were pressed into service, and although 1,500 militiamen from three Maine counties were expected to carry out the assault, only 870 unorganized, inexperienced, and ill-equipped troops actually turned out.  General Solomon Lovell and Commodore Dudley Saltonstall shared joint-command, the former lacking extensive field experience and the latter indecisive and obstinate.   Exceedingly confident of the operation’s success, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts underwrote the entire campaign and failed to consult any significant military authority.  Nonetheless, despite being planned by civilians and carried out by part time soldiers, the expedition’s various inadequacies escaped serious contemporary criticism, and the flotilla departed Boston Harbor amidst high expectations.

Penobscot Bay
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Reaching Castine (then called Bagaduce) on 25 July, the Americans found only a modest earthworks situated in the peninsula’s center, a couple of outlying redoubts, and the water approach to Castine Harbor defended only by three armed sloops.  Ultimately, the apparent mismatch proved deceiving, however, for the British enjoyed advantages of geography, experience, and efficient cooperation between land and naval forces.  Over the next two days, the Americans captured a British battery on a small island at the harbor's entrance and began a series of ineffective attempts to dislodge the three sloops of war from their anchorage across the approach to the harbor.  Shortly thereafter, a difficult landing was effected under a formidable precipice on the southwestern shore of the peninsula known as Dyce's Head. Within hours, General Lovell and nearly 600 militiamen, doubtless stunned by their initial success, found themselves only a few hundred yards from the British fort.

Bagaduce Peninsula The Americans' substantial momentum deteriorated quickly, however.  Unable to convince Saltonstall to engage the vastly inferior enemy fleet and clear the way for the land forces to storm the garrison, Lovell and his inexperienced troops initiated a lengthy siege.  Conversely, Commodore Saltonstall refused to attack the enemy fleet with any vigor, until Lovell had taken the bastion and one battery that overlooked the harbor.  Only a waist-high earthworks when the rebel flotilla arrived, Fort George was unsuccessfully besieged by the American land and naval forces for over two weeks.

By 13 August, the poorly coordinated siege of Fort George reached an end when the Americans found themselves pinned within Penobscot Bay by a newly arrived British relief fleet. Led by Sir George Collier and his 64-gun flagship Raisonable, the fleet carried approximately 204 guns, arguably inferior to the Americans' collective armament, but clearly superior in individual strength, experience, and fighting ability. The following day, despite having re-embarked the troops with reasonable efficiency, Commodore Saltonstall initiated a bizarre retreat as his 32-gun flagship Warren overtook the transports and headed up river.

Of the utter confusion that followed, general Lovell admitted that " attempt to give a description of this terrible Day is out of my Power." Coordinating an effective stand grew increasingly difficult over the ensuing days, as crews burned their vessels and took to the woods.  A handful of vain attempts were made to gather troops and make a stand, but eventually, as Colonel Jonathan Mitchell of Maine revealed, all the participants made off for home "...without any leave from a superior officer."  Ultimately, all American armed ships and transports, save for at least one captured by the British, were destroyed along various portions of the river and upper bay, resulting in the greatest American naval disaster prior to Pearl Harbor. 

The expedition’s transport vessels, slower sailing merchant sloops and schooners, met a particularly ignominious end after being left unprotected by the fleeing American warships.   With wind and tide against them, most failed to ascend the river and were landed and burned by their crews to prevent capture.  Through maps, journals, and official depositions, several expedition eyewitnesses described the transports’ retreat and indicated the contingent’s final general location.  Historic documents indicate that nearly all of the expedition’s twenty-two transport vessels were destroyed along the west bank of the Penobscot River, just below its narrow entrance at Sandy Point.

The campaign, whose demise began in the earliest stages of its design, had ended in a spectacularly embarrassing turn of events for the state of Massachusetts.   Ironically, British General Francis McLean was prepared from the outset for the fort to be taken, as the American forces before him and his naval counterpart Captain Henry Mowat appeared overwhelming. To an American spy within Fort George McLean divulged that he expected the fort to be overrun and "...only meant to give them one or two guns, as not to be called a coward."  As the siege progressed, however, he considered every passing day (with the Americans' continued inactivity), "as good as another thousand men."  With only two regiments of 700 soldiers McLean defended the fort successfully, while, with three sloops of war mounting only 50 guns, Captain Mowat stymied Saltonstall's larger fleet .

Calef map
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In the aftermath, the Massachusetts General Assembly established a Committee of Enquiry and heard testimony from several high ranking officers.  Commodore Saltonstall refused to testify before the Massachusetts inquiry by virtue of his position in the Continental Navy.  Consequently, he escaped official discipline from the state of Massachusetts; the Continental Navy was less forgiving.  After a court-martial held aboard the Continental frigate Deane, on 25 October 1779, he was dismissed from the service and later pursued the fortunes of privatering.  Artillery Train Commander Paul Revere also suffered a blow to his reputation.  His perceived arrogance during the campaign led to the collective scorn of his fellow officers and was the subject of lengthy depositions, but resulted in no official reprimand.  Interestingly, after his character had been sufficiently impugned by those with whom he served, Revere requested his own court-martial in an attempt to clear his name.  His request was not granted

Paul Revere
Paul Revere as depicted by John Singleton Copley.

It is apparent that the failure of the Penobscot Expedition began well before the American fleet first sighted the British garrison at Bagaduce. Despite the region’s considerable resources and strategic value, the state of Massachusetts failed to develop a plan for protecting the Penobscot until the advent of the British, and moreover, severely overestimated their ability to expel the Britons once they had arrived.  Additionally, the difficulties in obtaining supplies, vessels, and manpower, were further exasperated by the inexperience of the ground troops, and, to some degree, that of General Lovell himself.  Moreover, the lack of homogeneity among the vessels of the fleet doubtless led to problems of command.   Captains of the privateering vessels employed for the operation were clearly unaccustomed to the realities of coordinated fleet actions, and were doubtless unwilling to risk needlessly their most valuable asset, the vessel themselves.

Finally, despite orders from the Massachusetts Council to “…at all times Study and promote the Greatest Harmony…between land and sea Forces,” the joint-command shared by Lovell and Saltonstall was sorely ineffective and due chiefly to the obstinacy of Commodore Saltonstall. His unwillingness to use decisively the superior  American

fleet, imperiled the expedition from the moment Bagaduce was within sight, and ultimately consummated the failure of the poorly executed operation.  Indeed, while enamored over the recent exploits of John Paul Jones and the Ranger, Abigail Adams was not mistaken when she wrote on 13 December 1779, “Unhappy for us that we had not such a commander at the Penobscot expedition.”  Arguably, such a man, admired for his decisiveness and courage, would have made a considerable difference.