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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
But Commodore Saltonstall refused to be convinced that the harbor was secure enough for him to come in. He preferred to conduct impressive-looking naval exercises in the bay with the many guns of his vessels eloquently silent. Was he a coward? Had he taken British gold? The questions would be asked later at his court-martial.
His fear of the British cannon in the fort and on Mowatt’s ships—if indeed that is what held him back—was not justifiable. Three years later, when the British were even more firmly in possession of Castine and the fort better armed, a single American demonstrated what a good sailor could do in that harbor. The man was Captain George Little of the sloop of war Winthrop , who had originally been offered command of the Penobscot expedition. Some time in the year 1782 Little found himself pursuing a large British brig along the coast. He was unable to bring her to an engagement, and eventually the enemy ship eluded him. From another ship overtaken in the bay he then learned the brig’s location: in the middle of Castine’s welldefended harbor. Knowing that a daytime attack would be folly, Little planned to enter at night and dressed his men in white to distinguish friend from foe. He glided into the harbor with the wind behind him after sunset on the turn of the tide.
The brig’s officers apparently felt secure beneath the guns of the fort. They assumed that the swiftly oncoming sloop was a prize sent in by a British squadron. “You will run aboard,” they ordered. Little, taking his cue well, answered, “I am coming aboard,” and dispatched a platoon of men under Lieutenant Edward Preble, the same Preble who is known for his later service with Decatur in the Barbary States. Preble sprang aboard the brig with fourteen men, but the rest missed their chance as the sloop sped past. Little called after him, “Will you have more men?” The undaunted Preble replied, “No! We have more than we want, we stand in each other’s way.”
Most of the British crew leaped overboard, and Preble captured the remainder without difficulty. He raised sail on the brig as fast as possible to follow Little in the sloop out of the harbor, whose shores were lined with curious townsfolk. On his way out he had to make three tacks and came under heavy fire from the fort. But he made it—though later reports said that he and Little (both of whom reached Boston safely) could pick spent bullets off their decks by the bucketful.
But Commodore Saltonstall was no Little. In the two weeks following the attack on the heights his fleet had accomplished nothing, and the attempts to strangle the British by getting command of the harbor had also failed. The expedition’s army officers sent a deputation to the commodore requesting more effective action; even his fellow naval officers called for more decisive measures. Then, as if to set him an example, on the afternoon of August 11 two hundred of General Lovell’s men staged a fierce attack on the fort that was broken off only after severe losses.
That same day a strong letter from General Lovell arrived aboard the flagship. It began, “Sir: In this alarming posture of affairs, I am once more obliged to request the most speedy service in your department.” The letter went on to describe the army’s straitened position and to repeat an ominous rumor: a British fleet was on its way. Lovell continued: “My situation is confined; and while the Enemy’s ships are safe, the operations of the army cannot possibly be extended an inch beyond the present limits; the alternative now remains, to destroy the ships, or raise the siege … not a moment is to be lost; we must determine instantly, or it may be productive of disgrace, loss of ships and men; as to the troops, their retreat is secure, although I would die to save the necessity of it.”
The letter concluded with words that might have been written as the expedition’s epitaph: “I feel for the honor of America, in an expedition which a nobler exertion had long before this crowned with success. …”
Even with the urgency of Lovell’s letter the Americans still needed two days to achieve a coordinated plan for the final land and sea effort. After a last-minute army council on the foggy morning of August 13 (when the vote on whether the siege should be abandoned was a close ten for withdrawing, fourteen for staying) General Lovell set out from his line with another battalion of two hundred men. If his attack had any plan, it was apparently the desperate one of drawing the British out from the fort and overcoming them. Then Saltonstall might deign to come in.
As expected, the British gunners opened up with grapeshot and stayed behind the fort’s ramparts. They were convinced that this was the full enemy attack, and they were ready for it. Paul Revere, scurrying to bring his artillery to Lovell’s assistance, advanced with the rest of the little battalion through the thinning fog. They reached the town and kept up the hill toward the British, severing the vital line between Mowatt’s ships and the fort.