Penobscot Expedition, Maine

views updated

Penobscot Expedition, Maine

PENOBSCOT EXPEDITION, MAINE. May-August 1779. In February 1779 General Henry Clinton in New York informed Brigadier Francis McLean in Halifax that the king wished to have a fort and settlement established on the Penobscot River and that he, Clinton, had decided to conduct the operation from Halifax rather than New York. After carrying on further discussions and allowing time for making preparations, Clinton on 13 April ordered McLean to proceed. The task force left Halifax on 30 May with 440 men from the Seventy-fourth Foot and 200 from McLean's own Eighty-second Foot, a slightly larger garrison than Clinton had contemplated. McLean explained that he intended to use the extra men as an amphibious raiding party once the fort was completed. A frigate and four sloops of war escorted the transports, which arrived at Magebeguiduce (near modern Castine, Maine) on the Penobscot River on 12 June and landed four days later. Actual construction of the four-bastioned square fort began only at the start of July. On the 21st of that month, when McLean learned that an American force had left Boston, only two of the bastions had low walls; the ditch was not finished; and the only guns mounted were four twelve-pounders in a detached battery guarding the anchorage, which held three sloops of war.

As soon as they learned of the invasion of their "Downeast" territory, Massachusetts organized an expedition to eliminate the threat. Generals Solomon Lovell and Peleg Wadsworth commanded the one thousand militia and state troops that were quickly assembled at Boston. Continental navy Captain Dudley Saltonstall led the two-thousand-man naval element composed of three ships of the Continental navy (the thirty-two-gun frigate Warren served as his flagship), three brigs from the Massachusetts state navy, one New Hampshire state navy vessel, a dozen hired privateers, and about twenty transports. The task force sailed from Boston on 19 July and arrived in Penobscot Bay on the 25th. After some inconsequential skirmishing, the Americans finally started landing on 28 July, the same day that a British rescue force from New York City dropped down to Sandy Hook.

The Americans remained unaware of their danger, and Lovell proceeded in a deliberate manner. Saltonstall had urged a more aggressive course, but the authority for land operations lay with Lovell. Siege batteries opened fire on the 30th. Commodore Sir George Collier arrived on 11 August from Sandy Hook with ten vessels, including the sixty-four-gun ship of the line Raisonable, five frigates, a sloop of war, and sixteen hundred troops. They found the American squadron drawn up at the mouth of the river and promptly bottled up the inferior force. Much to Collier's surprise, the Americans promptly fled upstream. The British pursued but were only able to capture one ship; the American crews destroyed the rest of their squadron to prevent its capture. On the land side, the American force abandoned its positions during the night of 13-14 August and joined the ships' crews in an arduous retreat through the wilderness. The British maintained a strong post at Penobscot for the rest of the war.

Recriminations abounded and several American officers were court-martialed for misconduct. Paul Revere, who commanded the artillery, was acquitted. Lovell and Wadsworth were praised by the Massachusetts authorities. The state authorities blamed Saltonstall, and on 7 October 1779, Congress dismissed him from the service.


The Americans lost 474 men, several cannon, and all of the ships on the expedition. British casualties were 18 men killed; 2 officers and 38 enlisted men wounded (5 of whom died soon after); and 11 men missing.


The affair had little impact outside of Maine and aside from the dissension caused in the American ranks. British possession of the area did not survive the peace treaty.


Buker, George E. The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

Cayford, John E. The Penobscot Expedition: Being an Account of the Largest American Naval Engagement of the Revolutionary War. Orrington, Maine.: C&H, 1976.

Kevitt, Chester B., comp. General Solomon Lovell and the Penobscot Expedition, 1779. Weymouth, Mass.: Weymouth Historical Commission, 1976.

Leamon, James S. Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

                              revised by Robert K. Wright Jr.