- 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
How close to the fort they came and how near they were to carrying the day is not known. But we do have Revere’s report. Standing high up on the peninsula’s slope as the sun went down on the other side, he strained through the smoke and haze to see what their efforts had won. “The Enemy fire grape at him [Lovell], but do not come out. Our Ships get under sail, we supposing they were coming in, when to our great mortification, (the Fog clearing away) we see five sail of ships in the Bay.” There was no doubt whose ships they were; the only question was how many more British sail were yet to come. Revere and Lovell saw their situation for what it was: hopeless. “It being near sundown & a shower coming on, the General led off his men.”
Sir George Collier and his British relief squadron had indeed arrived in Penobscot Bay and were now clearly visible from Castine. The ships numbered seven, rather than five, with a promise of more over the horizon. Their firepower and complements were awesome—a total of 204 guns and 1,530 men—even without counting the Nautilus , Albany , and North . The American fleet, for all its armed might (a total of 344 guns), was nothing but a state navy with highly independent ancillaries, the whole under a weak Continental command.
The next morning, most of the shore guns and troops having been removed to their ships during the night, Saltonstall’s fleet of warships and transports moved to the mouth of the harbor. The Americans, surging slowly in the swell, formed a crescent as best they could—the fighting ships placed to meet the enemy first in hopes that the transports might slip past to freedom.
The British, with their taller spars and greater sail, seemed to have no difficulty maneuvering. Undeterred by the rebel crescent, they came on, sailing directly at the center of the American force. Then, turning his ships in passing, Collier fired successive broadsides. The Americans, without a council and without a signal being raised, unanimously determined on flight.
There was perhaps as much prudence as cowardice in the decision. By fleeing up the Penobscot with reliable native pilots the Americans had, at any rate, a chance to debark their troops and get other supplies off before destroying their ships—most of which had been regarded by their owner-skippers as too valuable to risk in the preceding days’ combat. If they had chosen to fight or to run to sea, they might have saved nothing.
As it was, the fleeing ships presented a panorama of disaster. Lovell wrote in his journal: “It would be a fit subject for some masterly hand to describe it in its true colors;—to see four [in fact seven] ships pursuing seventeen sail of armed vessels, nine of which were stout ships—transports on fire—men of war [having wrecked themselves] blowing up … every kind of stores on shore … throwing about, and as much confusion as can possibly be conceived.”
The Penobscot expedition, despite the incidents of American heroism, ended as a crushing British victory, one in which a superb army and navy defeated at every level the efforts of local forces to oppose them. Three sloops of war and a small body of troops had withstood a twenty-oneday siege against a fleet and army six times their strength. The Massachusetts state navy was obliterated; the Continental Navy itself, deprived of vital support, was eclipsed for the remainder of the war. Massachusetts’ indebtedness was so great that she was unable thenceforth to raise a levy or equip a sizable body of fighting men.
Lovell’s proud army, now split into bands of starving fugitives, fled south and west through the Maine forest. A few hundred survivors of the expedition trudged wearily across the causeway into Boston two months later, at harvest time; the debacle had claimed over five hundred American lives.
The first item of business for those who returned was to fix the blame for the expedition’s failure. A brawling public battle of recrimination began that did further damage to the Continental Navy and Army. Among other expedition leaders Paul Revere was court-martialled. “Disappointment as usual wrought injustice,” he wrote, “and censure undeserved fell on many who did all that under the circumstances could have been expected.” But his convincingly detailed story of how he had made do with the few guns at his disposal brought him an eventual acquittal. The records of Commodore Saltonstall’s court-martial have, unfortunately, been lost. But the rumor that he had been bribed was apparently snuffed. All that remained was the certainty that to win the long, far-ranging rebellion that stretched on ahead of them Americans would need better men and less vainglorious strategies.
Castine stayed in British hands until long after the official end of the war, but eventually Dr. Calef and his Tory friends had to withdraw to Halifax, the last of so many Maine summers having come to an end.