- Historic Sites
The Penobscot Fiasco
It hardly seemed possible that a British garrison of seven hundred men could withstand a siege by the greatest American armada of the Revolution. But luck was not with the Americans that summer
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
The flotilla was commanded by Commodore Dudley Saltonstall of the Continental Navy, a man who had been in action at sea but had acquired no great naval reputation. His disposition, considered to be overbearing, prickly, and suspicious, was not improved by his knowledge that he had been the second choice for the job. The Massachusetts State Board of War, which had pulled together the expedition, had done well with the equipment (Saltonstall’s flagship, the frigate Warren , for example, had thirty-two guns—12- and 18-pounders); but in terms of men and organization things were not so good in the fourth year of an exhausting war. Four of the better-gunned ships were privateers, owned and commanded by gentlemen more interested in preserving their property than in obeying orders. And although the Massachusetts and Maine countryside had been scoured in an effort to meet the War Board’s call for fifteen hundred men, less than a thousand soldiers and marines ultimately sailed with the expedition.
Against this American armada the British had but three fighting ships- the sloops Nautilus , Albany , and North —and these they ranged across the mouth of the harbor. They had been retained from other duties by General McLean’s naval counterpart, Captain Henry Mowatt.
After surveying the situation from a distance Saltonstall raised flags and called the first of several conferences of his captains aboard the Warren . There was a strong wind blowing, and he seemed reluctant to attack. But eventually there was nothing for it: by 3:00 the wind had not diminished; if the deed was to be done that day, it must be then.
The battle began at the mouth of the harbor. Saltonstall sent in nine of his armed ships in squadrons of three, guns blazing. Under cover of their escorts’ fire the American transports were brought close inshore where the cliffs at the harbor entrance leave off and the shore rises more gradually.
But a combination of poor shiphandling and British gunfire thwarted the attack. According to Revere’s terse account of the action, “A number of men attmpt to land under Brigar Wadsworth; they approach, orders are given for them to return; the enemy fired upon them, and kill one Indian.”
Militia Colonel Josiah Brewer, a friendly observer of this frustrated assault, had a brother with the Penobscot expedition. He met with him that night, and early the next day the two men went aboard the commander’s flagship. Colonel Brewer gave a full and precise description of the British fort, with discouraging results. “I then told the Commodore that being all the force he would have to meet, I thought that as the wind breezed up he might go in with his shipping, silence the two vessels [ sic ] and the six-gun battery, and land the troops under the cover of his own guns, and in half an hour make everything his own. In reply to which he hove up his long chin, and said, ‘You seem to be d—n knowing about the matter! I am not going to risk my shipping in that d—n hole!’” And so the day wore on with the same luckless landing attempts as the day before.
The leaders of the army forces, however, were not so cautious as SaItonstall. Brigadier General Solomon Lovell was a man of undaunted courage, although he had never commanded troops under fire. Most of his men were similarly untried, so rawly pressed into service that they had paraded together only once. His second-in-command, General Peleg Wadsworth, was a tested and imaginative soldier.
That night, the night of July 26, Wadsworth succeeded in throwing ashore two hundred men, twenty marines, and four 4-pounders on Nautilus Island, across the harbor from the town. The Americans took a small British force there and, despite foul weather, managed by late evening to get some heavier guns ashore. They hauled them up to high ground, where their presence forced the British sloops to move upriver. The night following this minor victory Wadsworth and Lovell planned an audacious assault that deserves to be remembered as one of the Revolution’s most gallant actions.
At three o’clock on the morning of July 28 a combined force of two hundred marines and two hundred militia prepared to move in toward the heights on the western or bay side of the peninsula. The brigs Hazard and Sally and the majestically named Tyrannicide laid down a barrage, firing round after round at the foggy shore. The men piled into their small boats and rowed desperately through the noise and smoke. Even before they saw the foaming beach, they heard the sound of musketry from the high, black pines that loomed out of the crags. The bullets pelted down around the boats as they drew up, slick with salt spray, on the cold, kelp-hung rocks. The men scrambled for what scant cover they could find and peered up at the heights they would have to scale.