Disaster on the Eastern Frontier

Part Two
For Part One, click here.

The British and loyalists would not have to wait long. Word of the landing reached the Massachusetts government within a matter of days, and preparations for a counterattack began almost immediately. There was such a hurry to respond that the General Assembly voted to carry out the operation with state forces rather than wait for Continental assistance.[1] Despite the initial rush it still took a month to assemble a force of over 1,000 militiamen, as well as the food, arms, and other supplies to sustain them. All of these troops and their supplies would be transported by a fleet of 21 transports, accompanied by nearly twenty state and Continental navy vessels and privateers. Among the warships the largest was the Frigate Warren of 32 guns which served as the flagship of Commodore Dudley Saltonstall. The Connecticut born officer was given overall command of the naval forces – no small task given the lack of experience with large scale fleet actions among his subordinates. Command of the land forces was given to Massachusetts Brigadier Solomon Lovell. Lovell has seen experience early in the war outside of Boston, but was also relatively untested in battle. The inexperience and poor communication between Saltonstall and Lovell was to have a decisive impact on the coming expedition. Notable among the other officers in the expedition was Paul Revere, who commanded the Massachusetts artillery. The expedition was also joined by a band of the local Penobscot Indians allied to the Continental Congress.

The New England fleet entered the Penobscot Bay on July 25th and immediately attempted a landing. Clearly outnumbered and with their works incomplete, General McLean and his men were determined to resist the Americans, but expected the worst. Saltonstall’s fleet sailed in close to the shore and exchanged cannon fire with both the British defences and the three remaining Royal warships, now under the command of Captain Henry Mowatt. In the confusion and smoke the Americans lowered seven launches full of marines and militiamen, but as they neared the shore they were met by a hail of musket fire[2]. At least one of the attackers – a Native American – was killed and the boats returned to the safety of the fleet. It was an inauspicious start to the battle for the New Englanders and already the relationship between the two commanding officers was becoming strained. General Lovell knew little about sailing or naval operations. He questioned the Commodore as to why he couldn’t just sail his fleet into the harbor and blast the British to pieces while his troops landed under their covering fire. The Connecticut seaman replied curtly, exclaiming “You seem to be damn knowing about the whole matter! I am not going to risk my shipping in that damned hole!”[3]

On the 26th a second militia landing on the peninsula was repulsed after the lead boat carrying militia Major Daniel Littlefield was swamped by British chain shot, drowning the Major and two privates.That same day, however, the Americans scored a small victory when a force of 200 Continental marines and artillerymen landed on Nautilus Island and captured the small British battery there[4]. More artillerymen were landed and soon the Americans had a battery from which they could harass the British shipping. With the Americans making some headway Captain Mowatt withdrew the remaining British ships deeper into the harbor, creating a defensive line across the Bagaduce River.

Castine harbor, looking out roughly where Captain Mowatt anchored the British transports and warships (Author_s photo)

Castine Harbor, looking out roughly where Captain Mowatt anchored the British transports and warships (Author’s photo)

After two failed assaults a third attempt to land was made early on the morning of July 28th. The militia and Continental marines divided into three divisions and prepared to land at Dyce’s Head, on the peninsula’s steep and wooded western slope. Shortly after 3:00 A.M. the pre-dawn silence was broken by a barrage as the Tyrannicide, Hunter, and Sky Rocket raked the woods. The marines hit the beach first, taking the woodline as musketry rained down from the British pickets on the bluff above. Because of the steep terrain General McLean had assumed the Americans wouldn’t attempt a landing on the western shore, and had left it lightly defended. Among the few pickets that resisted the assault was Lieutenant John Moore, who would later go on to become a hero fighting in the Peninsular War against the French. This was the first real taste of combat for both Moore and for many of the men under his command. The inexperienced British troops fell back slowly, losing six of the 20 men in Moore’s command.[5] The marines also took casualties, losing Captain John Welsh, commander of the Warren’s marine contingent. The militia followed the marines ashore, and within twenty minutes they had made their way up the slope and established themselves firmly before the British fort.

Looking south towards Dyce Head, where the Americans landed on the morning of July 28th. The area remains steep and heavily wooded to this day. (Author’s photo).jpg

Map showing the actions at Castine during the summer of 1779. Fort George, the British outer works, Nautilus Island, and the British and American fleets are all clearly labled (Northeast

Map showing the actions at Castine during the summer of 1779. Fort George, the British outer works, Nautilus Island, and the British and American fleets are all clearly labeled (Northeast Auctions)

 

As the sun rose on July 28th the American forces had all of the momentum and overwhelming numbers, but they stopped and spent several days regrouping and digging in. Finally, in an effort to take the incomplete British fort a combined force of militia, marines, and Native Americans attacked an outlying British battery early on the morning of August 1st. As the British sailors and marines defending the work opened fire the Massachusetts militia broke and ran, leaving their comrades to carry the works. Reinforced from Fort George, the British soon retook the battery later in the day.[6] The failure to follow up on their initial success would soon haunt the American commanders.

The remains of the American siege lines can just barely be seen in the woods today. (Author’s photo).jpg

 

The two forces settled into a prolonged siege, and the fury of the morning assault gave way to desultory skirmishing and the occasional artillery barrage. Steady rains and the slow trickle of casualties eroded the morale of the Massachusetts men. Major Samuel Sawyer of the militia was killed in a skirmish on the 1st; the next day an American artilleryman was killed when a cannon ball deflected off a tree and struck his neck.[7] Several militiamen deserted over the following week, and the Penobscot Indians lost men captured and killed. Indecision gripped the American high command. General Lovell was afraid to move his men against Fort George as long as they were subject to the raking fire of the British warships in the harbor, while Commodore Saltonstall refused to move his fleet within range of the British guns.[8] McLean took advantage of the American indecision, using every hour to strengthen the partially completed fort and its outer works.

The siege continued with little progress until August 13th. An American sortie had succeeded in dislodging the British from a key position near the harbor, opening the way for the fleet to finally close on the British warships and destroy them. Just when it seemed that victory was in their grasp the squabbling American commanders were alerted to the presence of sails on the horizon. A British relief force from New York was bearing down on Majabigwaduce, led by Sir George Collier in the 64 gun ship of the line Raisonable, accompanied by five frigates. The Americans loaded what artillery and stores they could recover with all possible haste and slipped anchor in a desperate attempt to escape, but the wind and tide were against them.[9] With no other options available the New England fleet sailed north, further up the Penobscot River.

Over the next two days Collier’s squadron pursued the fleeing Americans up the river. Unable the sail past the falls (the location of modern Bangor) the Americans were trapped. Of the 30-odd warships and transports that had set sail from Boston in June every single vessel was taken or destroyed by the British.[10] Two ships were captured, while others were driven ashore by their terrified crews. Many were set to the torch, exploding and showering the river with splinters and debris. The debacle was complete. In terms of ships lost it was the worst American naval disaster until the attack on Pearl Harbor, 162 years later.

Penobscot River and Bay, with the operations of the English fleet, under Sir George Collyer. The map shows the pursuit of the American fleet up the Penobscot towards the falls and their

Penobscot River and Bay, with the operations of the English fleet, under Sir George Collyer. The map shows the pursuit of the American fleet up the Penobscot towards the falls and their final destruction (Library of Congress)

Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay by Dominic Serres (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay by Dominic Serres (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

For the stunned American survivors the ordeal was just beginning. They now had to march south through a deserted wilderness with limited provisions. It would take weeks for many of the men to return to civilization, and they trickled back to their homes hungry, weary, and in rags. The political recriminations for the disaster began almost immediately. The bulk of the blame fell on Commodore Saltonstall. As a Connecticut-born officer he was ostracized by his Massachusetts counterparts. A court martial convened and unanimously blamed the “want of proper Spirit and Energy on the part of the Commodore.”[11] Stripped of his Navy commission, Saltonstall turned to a successful career as a privateer. General Lovell escaped the worst of the blame due to his standing among his fellow Bay-Staters. Even Paul Revere, hero of the Midnight Ride, was not above reproach as he faced a court martial.

For the British the repulse of the Penobscot Expedition was a small bright spot in an otherwise dismal year. New Ireland had survived, and would be held by the British until 1784. Their dreams for a permanent loyalist colony at Majabigwaduce were dashed by the Treaty of Paris, but it wouldn’t be the last time the British occupied the town. In 1814 they would return and rebuild Fort George, and again it would be an important base for both the Royal Navy and privateers.

 

 

Visiting Today

             Castine is located about an hour south of Bangor. It’s an almost stereotypically picturesque coastal village full of Federal period houses, quaint inns, and a harbor full of lobster boats. One can easily just wander the town and take in the numerous historical signs that seem to be located everywhere you look. Although there are a few mistakes, these signs do give a good overview of the history beginning with the original French settlement up to the War of 1812.

History abounds in Castine (Author_s photo)

History abounds in Castine (Author’s photo)

Site of a War of 1812 Hospital (Author_s photo)

Site of a War of 1812 Hospital (Author’s photo)

A better place to start is the Castine Historical Society, located on the town green. The museum has a great exhibit on the 1779 battle, and also houses the local archives.

Castine Historical Society (Author_s photo)

Castine Historical Society (Author’s photo)

The most visible remains of the Penobscot Expedition are the ruins of Fort George, located on Battle Avenue immediately north of the Maine Maritime Academy. The town park is located within the walls, which are fairly intact – having been rebuilt during the War of 1812.

Looking south from the northeast bastion of Fort George (Author_s photo)

Looking south from the northeast bastion of Fort George (Author’s photo)

Looking east along the northern wall of the fort (Author_s photo)

Looking east along the northern wall of the fort (Author’s photo)

Looking west along the north wall. This is looking towards the direction of the American attack (Author_s photo)

Looking west along the north wall. This is looking towards the direction of the American attack (Author’s photo)

 

Just west of the fort is the Witherle Woods park. This nature preserve covers much of the western portion of the peninsula and is criss-crossed by easy walking trails. Taking the trails will lead you past the American siege lines, the site of the American landing, and some fortifications from the War of 1812.

Witherle Woods Trail Map (Maine Coast Heritage Trust)

Witherle Woods Trail Map (Maine Coast Heritage Trust)

Looking out over Penobscot Bay from Blockhouse Point. The American fleet fled roughly left to right past the point in their desperate attempt to escape the British (Author_s photo)

Looking out over Penobscot Bay from Blockhouse Point. The American fleet fled roughly left to right past the point in their desperate attempt to escape the British (Author’s photo)

 

 

 

*Sources*

[1] Leamon, James. Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine. University of Massachusetts Press. 1995. pg. 109.

[2] William Moody’s Journal, as reprinted in Goold, Nathan. Bagaduce Expedition, 1779: Collections of the Maine Historical Society, Series 2, Vol.10, 1899. pg. 144

[3] Buker, pg. 38

[4] Ibid pg. 39-40

[5] Ibid pg. 44

[6] Journal of the Attack of the Rebels on His Majesty’s Ships and Troops, Under Command of Brig. Gen. McLean and Capt. Henry Mowatt…Communicated by Joseph Williamson, Esq. Reprinted in Collections of the Maine Historical Society Series 1, Vol. 7 1876. pg. 125

[7] William Moody’s Journal, pg. 146

[8] Leamon, pg. 111-112

[9] Williamson’s Journal, pg. 126; Moody’s Journal, pg.146-147

[10] Leamon, pg. 115-117

[11] Nash, Gilbert. The Original Journal of General Solomon Lovell, Kept During the Penobscot Expedition, 1779. Weymouth Historical Society. 1881. pg. 80

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This entry was posted in Armies, Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, British Leadership, Campaigns, Civilian, Common Soldier, Continental Leadership, Emerging Revolutionary War, Militia (Loyalist) Leadership, Militia (Patriot) Leadership, Monuments, Northern Theater, Photography, Revolutionary War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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