The Penobscot Fiasco

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“When the British came I was at Fox Island, with my uncle—where we went fishing in an open boat. We had news of their coming, and when the fleet came in sight, uncle said, ‘there comes the devils.’ We started for home and when the fleet followed us up we knew it was them.”

Thus did William Hutchings, a young fisherman trolling in the waters of Penobscot Bay, describe the first sighting of the British fleet. It was June, 1779, the Down East weather mild if moist, and the rebellion merely a distant stir. But the sudden appearance of those big ships, dim in the morning haze, signalled the coming of the Revolution to Maine and the beginning of a full-scale battle that American troops would wage with an equal mixture of fierce courage and almost unbelievable bungling.

Hutchings and his uncle paddled back to their hometown of Castine as the British ships rounded into the bay. The “devils” proceeded cautiously, aware that the region’s allegiance to the Crown was doubtful. They had been sent from Halifax with orders to establish an antiprivateering base and to support the local Tories, no easy job in an area where most of the natives were hostile or, at best, indifferent. The fleet—made up of troop transports and armed vessels, including three trim sloops of war—drew abreast of the steep promontory of Castine and fired a gun for pilots.

The rocky headland was a historic landfall, having been spotted by three pioneers of early North American exploration—Samuel de Champlain, John Smith, and James Rosier. The peninsula came into French hands in 1613 but changed flags at least five times in the course of the next hundred and fifty years, once even belonging briefly to their High Mightinesses—so the phrase went—the States-General of Holland.

But to the newly arrived British the peninsula still looked uncivilized, reconciled neither to man nor to his works. Their first landing appeared timorous enough to the townspeople who watched them disembark on the beach. Hatchings wrote that “the British … seemed as frightened as a flock of sheep, and kept looking around them as if they expected to be fired on by an enemy hid behind the trees.” They weren’t, but they nonetheless returned almost immediately to their ships and waited until the next day to establish a land garrison.

Brigadier General Francis McLean, in command of His Majesty’s forces—about seven hundred troops detached from the 74th and Sand infantry regiments—was not one to irritate the natives. He was urbane, just, decisive, and sufficiently aware of local folkways to know that those townsmen would behave themselves best who could profit most. If he were to win over the inhabitants of the town, the best way to start, it seemed, was to do something about their poverty. Despite its eventful seventeenth-century history Castine had been colonized for only eighteen years immediately preceding the arrival of the British, and few of the farmers and fishermen there had much put by. While there were Tory refugees like Dr. John Calef from Boston who lived better than their less fortunate neighbors, there was no spirited leadership to ignite native resentment into rebellion. Taking this into account, McLean issued a call for volunteers to work on a fort, emphasizing that the laborers would be paid and stressing the point that one purpose of the British presence was to protect the business of the “coast-fishing craft.”

The Tory Dr. Calef noted happily in his journal that some hundred townspeople turned out to work. Laboring alongside the British soldiers, they began to put together a square fort with a bastion in each corner. Work went slowly in the summer weather, and Hutchings noted that “the old General didn’t go about much, but the other officers used to. They went to Orland, to see old Vyle’s daughters.” By the end of July the fort consisted of a northern wall four feet high, low stone walls on the east and west sides, and no wall at all in the rear. It was so feeble a bastion that one soldier said he could “jump [over the walls] with a musket in each hand.” As yet no artillery had been mounted.

So the fort appeared to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere of the Continental Army as his transport headed toward Castine on the twenty-fifth of July. Through his telescope he could see most of the promontory and the primitive fort on the ridge above the town. It did not look particularly formidable.

The American force that Revere accompanied as chief artillerist was, on the other hand, impressive. News that the Penobscot expedition (as it came to be called) had left Boston had reached Castine a week before. British observers must have been aghast at the size of the force. There were nineteen armed vessels and twenty-four transports mounting among them 344 guns—the greatest exclusively American armada that would be gathered during the Revolution. The fleet, parading like so many cruising yachts into the bay, looked invincible.