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This Day in History: The Penobscot Expedition

On this day in 1779, a fleet of American ships sails north from Boston towards Maine. The so-called Penobscot Expedition would end in disaster—and a court-martial of none other than Paul Revere.

The British were then working to establish a fort at the mouth of the Penobscot River, in Maine. Well, at least, the British were trying to establish a new fort. They soon discovered that they’d have to contend with a fleet of ships from Massachusetts. About 40 vessels, including three Continental Navy ships under the command of Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, had been dispatched to put a stop to the British effort.

Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779, by Dominic Serres

The fleet arrived in the area on July 25. General Solomon Lovell was in overall command of the land troops, but Lt. Colonel Paul Revere was leading the artillery regiment.

Things were going relatively well at first. Nautilus Island and its four cannon were seized on July 26. The island was quickly fortified, forcing the few British ships in the area to pull back from the mouth of the harbor. Two days later, the militia successfully stormed the heights near the new Fort George, even as they were being fired upon. The British general later wrote that he fully expected to be beaten. “I was in no position to defend myself,” he wrote.

But then the American expedition came to an abrupt (and somewhat inexplicable) halt. Instead of continuing on to attack the fort, Lovell decided to lay in for a siege.

Revere could not understand why Lovell stopped. The successful landing and ascent should have been followed with an immediate attack on Fort George. “[T]hey not knowing our strength, and we being flushed with victory,” Revere wrote, “I have no doubt they would have lain down their arms.”

But Lovell had decided that Saltonstall should launch a naval attack before the land attack was attempted. Unfortunately, Saltonstall thought that Lovell’s forces should go first. The two American officers simply couldn’t agree! Lovell’s second-in-command wrote to his wife that the expedition was taking “longer than was represented to us.” “Harmony between the Fleet & Army,” he noted understatedly, “is not a perfect Unison.”

Believe it or not, this went on for two weeks. On August 13, the decision was effectively taken out of the hands of the Americans. A new fleet of British warships had arrived to reinforce Fort George.

Things turned chaotic as Americans began to flee. The armed Patriot warships tried to leave without staying behind to assist the transport ships. Revere notes that the “Transports found that the Armed Vessels all went ahead of them, they ran on shore and landed their men, in the utmost confusion.” Americans set fire to their own transport ships to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Then they fled through the woods.

Lovell’s journal records the scene: “To attempt to give a description of this terrible Day is out of my Power . . . . Transports on fire. Men of war blowing up . . . and as much confusion as can possibly be conceived.”

In the end, hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded. Every ship was lost.

Saltonstall and Revere were later court-martialed for their actions. Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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