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)

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