- 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
Officers ran back and forth through the ranks shouting orders, rallied the nervous men, and split them into three parties. The party in the center stayed where it was in order to keep up a covering fire on the British in hopes of taking some pressure off the two flanking parties. As they began to load and fire up the noisy slopes the flanking parties blundered off along the natural wall that edged the beach.
On the right a squad or two of frightened, exhausted militiamen made their way up steep, rocky ground in the teeth of stiff musketry and came at last to a British battery. They routed the astonished defenders and seized the guns intact. On the left marines had to contend with an almost sheer rock face some forty feet high. Gasping and cursing, they made their way up to the crest, where they found steep but passable ground and galling gunfire. Facing them were troops under a seventeen-year-old lieutenant named John Moore, who would become famous as a general in the peninsula campaign of 1806. But luck was not with Moore that morning, and he was forced to draw back his troops in the face of the onslaught of Americans.
Now the Americans had pushed the British back all along the line. They had paid a high price for it; Lovell reported losing fifty men in the halfhour action. Four hundred colonials had overcome a seemingly unassailable position defended by a nearly equal number of seasoned British troops. Yet the glory of that brief fight would not save the expedition.
Immediately the few hundred Americans who had gained the heights came under the guns of the British fort, where seven hundred enemy soldiers were waiting for them. These men, however, were by no means confident. The walls of the fort were about waist-high and seemed from the inside to offer little protection against a determined assault. In fact General McLean, remarking that he had won nineteen battles but expected to lose the twentieth, stood with the pennant halyard in his hands, ready to strike the colors as soon as the attack came on. Later he scoffed at his adversaries: “I believe the [American] commanders were a pack of cowards or they would have taken me. I was in no situation to defend myself, I only meant to give them one or two guns, so as not to be called a coward, and then have struck my colors … as I did not wish to throw away the lives of my men for nothing.”
But the fort seemed far more potent to those on the outside. Paul Revere wrote of it: “I had a fair view of the Enemy’s Fort with a good Glass; I could see that it was as high as a man’s chin; that it was built of squared logs; was Abbeteed; that they had begun to Fraise it round the rampart; that they had two guns mounted which they fired in Barbet.”
There is no record of the Americans’ battle plan after the assault on the heights. But after a conference on the twenty-ninth a report was dispatched to Boston stating that the peninsula could not be taken unless more men were immediately forthcoming. This urgent message was sent by whaleboat, perhaps the slowest and least secure means available. The Americans then settled down to wait, failing to understand that time was not on their side; each day the British made the fort stronger.
The expedition’s leaders also made a few haphazard efforts to get control of Castine Harbor, which they correctly viewed as the key to the whole operation. Their reasoning went thus: if the guns of Mowatt’s ships could be silenced, and if Commodore Saltonstall could be persuaded that it was safe to enter, then the American fleet with its superior firepower could finally be put in a position where it could do some good.
Thus, as the weather turned benign, the Americans busied themselves erecting batteries on the periphery of the British position. They moved cautiously among the islands and bits of mainland that form the eastern shore of the harbor, floating their cannon on gondolas; they found a particularly good location for a battery on the mainland that forms the harbor’s northern shore. And all the while the men on the heights moved their zigzag line of entrenchments in closer to the fort—until they were only seven hundred yards away.
There was reason to believe the plan of encirclement might work. Captain Mowatt had been sufficiently bothered by the American battery on Nautilus Island to withdraw his ships to where they were within range of the new mainland battery. Young Hutchings considered the bombardment of the British ships from that position hugely successful. His father was one of the few militant patriots then living near Castine who had risked everything to support the expedition, and the boy himself was assigned to help build and arm the new battery. His recollections show that he took particular delight in the summertime war: “We kept up a hot fire on the ships, and drove the men ashore and below. There were three frigates [ sic ]—the Albany , North and Nautilus . We could hear our shots go— thud —into them. We cut away an anchor hanging at the bows of one of them. I marked where it fell, as I thought some time or other I might want to get it up.”