The Penobscot Expedition: The US Navy’s worst defeat before Pearl Harbor?

Penobscot Expedition, Explained: Paul Revere Court Martial? Say it’s not! But it was. Last Tuesday marked the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, fought on April 19, 1775. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Revere’s Midnight Ride to warn militia commanders that some 800 British soldiers had left Boston to seize contraband armaments hidden in Concord. A motley line of militiamen clashed with the redcoats on Lexington Green before the shot heard ’round the world sounded during a clash between minutemen and regulars at the North Bridge in Concord.

Thus began the American Revolutionary War.

Fast forward to the summer of 1779 on the coast of Maine, a pleasant land where I had the privilege of spending a week teaching at the Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Maine earlier this month. In June, a British force landed on the Penobscot Peninsula, now home to the village of Castine, and built a fort on the heights dominating the east side of the peninsula. (It is now directly across from the Maine Maritime campus.) The Castine Historical Society attributes several reasons for the Penobscot Expedition: they wanted Fort George to serve “as a possible loyalist refuge, a source of timber for the king’s navy and a strategic naval base and coastal trading post”.

Building a permanent fortification on your enemy’s territory is an age-old spoilsport strategy, dating all the way back to Peloponnesian War and probably long before. At the time, Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Alarmed by the news that the Redcoats had settled in Penobscot Bay, the Massachusetts General Assembly ordered that an expeditionary force be equipped to expel them from Fort George. Nineteen warships and 24 transports, some borrowed from the Continental Navy, ferried a force of over 1,000 troops to Maine on 25 July. The assembly gave Commodore Dudley Saltonstall overall command of the expedition, while Brigadier General Solomon Lovell led the ground contingent. . Lt. Col. Paul Revere oversaw the force’s ammunition train.

Against the Massachusetts Armada – the largest American naval expedition assembled during the Revolutionary War – were deployed three Royal Navy warships, ideally placed to eclipse the confined waters below the fort. In other words, the balance of firepower unbalancedly favored the Americans despite the excellent British tactical position.

On July 27, 1779, Saltonstall’s fleet deposit 227 Continental and Massachusetts marines, 850 militia, and 80 gunners from Revere on the rugged west coast of the Penobscot Peninsula. The landing force scaled a steep cliff, split into three groups, and moved against the fort along three different axes. Despite some ground combat success in the days that followed, the attackers failed to dislodge the British garrison from Fort George. Lovell pleaded with Saltonstall to attack the Royal Navy flotilla to prevent it from bombarding his landing force. But the commodore hesitated rather than fought.

The delay allowed time for word of the siege to reach the British high command in New York, which quickly dispatched a fleet of seven ships to Penobscot Bay. On 13 August the relief force stood in the bay under the command of Sir George Collier. On sighting the British, Lovell abandoned his positions and retreated to the Penobscot River in anticipation of a naval battle. The next morning, however, Saltonstall, who was still outgunned by the enemy and had the British fleet under his broadside, ordered his ships – to the astonishment of Collier and Lovell – to flee up the river, and his crews from scuttling or burning their ships. Sailors and troops rushed into the woods and returned to Boston overland.

Fittingly, Dudley Saltonstall was removed from service for botching the Penobscot Expedition. Paul Revere also faced a court martial. Although Revere was acquitted, his reputation never recovered from the mishap, which a sign outside Fort George today – apparently proudly – touts as ‘the worst defeat in naval history American until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941″. (Don’t you have to fight to be defeated?) I guess you take your historical notoriety where you find it when you’re a small coastal town in Maine.

What to remember from this profile in ignominy? First, choose the right leadership. Naval commanders have been branded the planet’s last absolute despots, and there’s some truth to that. A compact unit like a ship tends to take on the personality of its captain, much like a naval task force takes on its admiral. Saltonstall was clearly not the right man for the times and the situation, afraid to risk his expeditionary force – and perhaps his own skin – in an action against an inferior enemy. Had he struck early and hard, suppressing Royal Navy fire and isolating Fort George, the Americans would likely have prevailed.

Second, know the terrain. The west coast of the Penobscot Peninsula is miserable terrain for an amphibious landing. It’s steep and rocky. If the redcoats had opposed the landing from the top of the cliffs, pouring fire on Lovell’s troops, a bloodbath might have ensued. As dismal as the outcome of the expedition was, its human cost could have been far worse. In fact, it should have been. A small net valuation goes a long way in martial undertakings.

A map from 1785 illustrating this action. The map is not to scale and marks the Bagaduce as the Penobscot River. Long Island, as shown on this map, was later renamed Isleboro.

And third, remember your defeats as well as your triumphs. I had never heard of the Penobscot Expedition until wandering around Fort George this month. This is mainly because the center of gravity of the revolutionary war had meandered south when Saltonstall, Lovell and Revere set sail. The British southern campaign set the stage for the effective end of the war at Yorktown, Virginia in the fall of 1781. This theater dominates the history books. But you have to think that the assault on Fort George wouldn’t be lost sight of if it was a tale of heroic feats of arms rather than a disgrace. It is natural to celebrate the deeds of a Nathanael Greene, who led the redcoats of Lord Cornwallis in tatters in the South; but you can learn just as much, though in a negative sense, by studying the misdeeds of a Dudley Saltonstall.

And humility and introspection are invaluable.

A collaborating editor from 1945, Dr. James Holmes is the JC Wylie Professor of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to angrily fire the big guns from a battleship, in the first Gulf War in 1991. He won the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate of his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a staple on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis considers it “annoying”. The opinions expressed here are his own.