Maine

The Penobscot Expedition, America’s Forgotten Military Disaster

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.

Penobscot Expedition by John Thomas Serres

Penobscot Expedition by John Thomas Serres

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, which 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.

The operation was planned by civilians with little military input and carried out by badly trained part-time soldiers. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall and Brigadier General Solomon Lovell were put in joint command of the expedition. Saltonstall was timid and indecisive, while Lovell latter 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 take the garrison – even the British. They hadn't taken into account the expedition's shortcomings.

Arrival

The Penobscot Expedition sailed into the harbor outside of Bagaduce on July 25, 1779. They found an earthworks fort protected by three sloops in the harbor. Though the Americans seemed to have a decisive advantage, the British had more experience, a favorable geographic position and better coordination between land and sea forces.

penobscot expedition map

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 militamen 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.

Terrible Day

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.

Would phone spying have identified Paul Revere?

Paul Revere

During the panic that followed, Adjutant Gen. Peleg Wadsworth ordered Revere to deliver his ordnance brig 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 and disappeared into the wood. 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.”

Court Martial

Recrimination followed the disaster. Dudley Saltonstall was court martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy. He turned to privateering.

A Massachusetts committee of inquiry investigated Paul Revere. Wadsworth charged him with disobeying his orders, and lengthy depositions 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, he was exonerated by a military panel.

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 2018. 

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