American Revolutionary War Battles

The Penobscot Expedition

July 24 - August 12, 1779 at Penobscot Bay, Maine

Battle Summary

The Penobscot Expedition was a 44-ship American naval task force mounted by the Provincial Congress of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The flotilla of 19 warships and 25 smaller support vessels sailed from Boston on July 19, for the upper Penobscot Bay in the District of Maine carrying a ground expeditionary force of more than 1,000 colonial Marines and militiamen.

Also included was a 100-man artillery detachment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere. The Expedition's goal was to reclaim control of what is now mid-coast Maine from the British who had seized it a month earlier and renamed it New Ireland.

It was the largest American naval expedition of the war. The fighting took place both on land and at sea in and around the mouth of the Penobscot and Bagaduce Rivers at what is today Castine, Maine over a period of three weeks in July and August of 1779. One of its greatest victories of the war for the British, the Expedition was also the United States' worst naval defeat until Pearl Harbor in 1941.

On June 17, British Army forces under the command of Major General Francis McLean landed and began to establish a series of fortifications centered on Fort George, on the Majabigwaduce Peninsula in the upper Penobscot Bay, with the goals of establishing a military presence on that part of the coast and establishing the colony of New Ireland. In response, the Province of Massachusetts, with some support from the Continental Congress, raised an expedition to drive the British out.

In late July, the Americans landed troops and attempted to establish a siege of Fort George in a series of actions that were seriously hampered by disagreements over control of the expedition between land forces commander Brigadier General Solomon Lovell and the expedition's overall commander, Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, who was later dismissed from the Navy for ineptness and failure to effectively prosecute the mission.

For almost three weeks, McLean held off the assault until a British relief fleet under the command of Vice Admiral George Collier arrived from New York on August 13, driving the American fleet to total self-destruction up the Penobscot River. The survivors of the American expedition were forced to make an overland journey back to more populated parts of Massachusetts with minimal food and armament.

Facts about the Penobscot Expedition

  • Armies - American Forces was commanded by General Solomon Lovell, Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth & Lt. Colonel Paul Revere and consisted of about 1,000 Marines and militiamen. British Forces was commanded by Gen. William Howe and consisted of about 600 Sailors and Soldiers.
  • Casualties - American casualties were estimated to be 474 killed/wounded/missing/captured. British casualties was approximately 25 killed, 35 wounded, and 26 captured.
  • Outcome - The result of the expedition was a British victory.┬áThe expedition was part of the Northern Theater 1778-82.

Battle Begins

Commodore Saltonstall's orders directed him to completely eliminate the British presence in the Penobscot. To do so, his superiors emphasized, he would have to "preserve the greatest harmony with the commander of the land forces, that the navy and army may cooperate and assist each other." It was guidance that the commodore would discount, to the detriment of the entire mission.

After delays in loading the transports - caused in part by reluctance among the privateer captains to partake in such an unremunerative operation - the task force sailed from Boston on July 19. It first proceeded to the area of modern Boothbay to pick up reinforcements that never materialized.

On July 25, the American warships entered Penobscot Bay. By this time, British naval commanders had good intelligence of the American force's composition and destination, and were preparing to find and destroy it.

When the Saltonstall's expedition first arrived in Penobscot Bay, British forces had only partially completed a dirt fortification, named Fort George, on the heights of the Majabagaduce peninsula. However, the three Royal Navy sloops, each mounting 18 guns, remained anchored in the bay nearby. A small party of British troops also had established a minor fortification on Nautilus Island just to the south of Majabagaduce peninsula.

Hence, British gunners on land and on board the warships were able to engage in a desultory two-hour duel with the American expeditionary task force as it entered the bay, which inflicted little or no damage on either side. Initially, things went well for the revolutionary forces.

On July 26, Lovell sent a force of Continental Marines to capture the British battery on Nautilus Island (also known as Banks Island), while the militia were to land at Bagaduce. The marines achieved their objective but the militia turned back when British shot overturned the leading boat, drowning Major Daniel Littlefield and two of his men. Meanwhile, 750 men under Lovell landed and began construction of siege works under constant fire.

On July 27, the American artillery bombarded the British fleet for three hours.

On July 28, an American landing force stormed ashore on the southwest end of the Majabagaduce peninsula after 2 privateers had shelled the heavily wooded area above the landing beach. The initial echelon landed in 3 divisions, with approximately 200 militiamen on the left and in the center and 200 Continental Marines on the right.

The Marines faced stiff resistance from several companies of British troops atop a steep bluff overlooking their landing point. Nevertheless, they cleared the bluff in less than 20 minutes, suffering 30-35 killed and wounded in the assault. Ensconced ashore, the American troops moved their artillery to a position only 600 feet from Fort George.

At this point, the American force began to move more cautiously, taking time to first build its own fortifications. Militia and marines next launched a night attack, conceived by Saltonstall, to seize a part of the British breastworks closest to the bay where the Royal Navy frigates had taken shelter. This would, the commodore believed, cut Fort George's garrison off from communication with their naval support, allowing the Americans to finish off each force individually. The assault on the breastworks succeeded initially, but the British men-of-war eventually opened fire on the position, causing the American forces to retreat to their own fortifications.

The results of the night-time action reinforced Lovell's reluctance to commit his mostly green troops to an attack on Fort George while they remained exposed to potentially heavy land- and sea-based cannon fire. He urged Saltonstall to attack the sloops, which his fleet outgunned, and thus remove that threat. Once this had been accomplished, the fleets guns could be used to suppress artillery fire from the fort during a subsequent American ground attack. Saltonstall, however, insisted that this course of action was too risky, continuing the pattern of ultra-cautious behavior that he had exhibited since the start of the operation.

In the ensuing days, Lovell and his militia commanders pleaded with the commodore to attack the British sloops, but to no avail. Reports that a British naval force had sailed from New York to relieve the Pensobscot defenders, and that Fort George was becoming stronger by the day, still could not persuade the timid commodore. The continuing impasse poisoned interservice relations between the land and sea forces, all the way down to the unit level.

Meanwhile, Lovell and his men had been sending messages back to Boston on board fast ships - something the Saltonstall saw no need to do. The latter's superiors on the Navy Board of the Eastern District eventually supported Lovell's position and ordered Saltonstall to attack the British sloops and complete the operation before the Royal Navy relief force could arrive in his area. Reluctantly, Saltonstall made plans to take some sort of action on August 13. But by then, it was too late.

On August 13, two American warships acting as pickets spotted a task force under the command of Collier approaching the bay. Collier's force consisted of 6 warships, including a 64-gun ship-of-the-line and 4 frigates. Saltonstall's warships still outnumbered the British and carried more guns, but the armament on board the Royal Navy ships outranged that of the Americans and their gun crews were far superior to their American counterparts.

Nevertheless, Saltonstall still had the opportunity to engage the British, damage some of their ships, and perhaps allow part of his own force to escape. At first, that appeared to be what he might try to do, as the American forces formed a defensive crescent across the bay. However, as the British moved closer, Saltonstall and his captains concluded that they could not overcome the enemy force. The entire American fleet turned tail and fled up the Penobscot River. Most crews ran their ships aground and set them afire.

Lovell's men fared little better. At word of Collier's approach, they evacuated their positions and reembarked their transports. These vessels ultimately joined their warship counterparts on the banks of the Penobscot. What was left of the American expedition - soldiers and sailors - had to travel overland through the dense wilderness to make their way back to Boston.

In all, the Americans lost 43 ships and approximately 500 men. Massachusetts, which incurred a heavy debt outfitting the expedition, also suffered a major financial blow.

Aftermath

A committee of inquiry blamed the American failure on poor coordination between land and sea forces and on Saltonstall's failure to engage the British naval forces.

On September 7, a Warrant for Court Martial was issued by the Navy Board, Eastern Department, against Saltonstall. Upon trial, he was declared to be primarily responsible for the debacle, found guilty, and dismissed from military service. Paul Revere, who commanded the artillery in the expedition, was accused of disobedience and cowardice. This resulted in his dismissal from the militia, even though he was later cleared of the charges. Peleg Wadsworth, who mitigated the damage by organizing a retreat, was not charged in the court martial.

A year later, the British Cabinet formally approved the New Ireland project on August 10, 1780, and King George III gave his assent the following day to the proposal to separate "the country lying to the northeast of the Piscataway [Piscataqua] River" from the province of Massachusetts Bay in order to establish "so much of it as lies between the Sawkno [Saco] River and the St. Croix, which is the southeast [sic] boundary of Nova Scotia into a new province, which from its situation between the New England province and Nova Scotia, may with great propriety be called New Ireland".

Pursuant to the terms of the 1783 Peace of Paris, all British forces then evacuated Fort George (followed by some 600 Loyalists who removed from the area to St. Andrews on Passamaquoddy Bay) and abandoned their attempts to establish New Ireland.