The first colonial resolution for creating a naval force came from Rhode Island on 12 June 1775. One old saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Not that a navy was a new idea, but rather the realization that if the colonies intended to make good on their declaration of independence, they would need freedom of navigation and stout defense of the colony’s long coastline to do it. Rhode Island took this initiative because the Royal Navy’s harassment costs to that colony’s shipping were high. Two months later, Rhode Island proposed a single Continental Fleet (funded by all thirteen colonies, of course).
In October 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy. It would take something more than a piece of paper to build an adequate navy, of course, and the fact is that the Continental Navy had a somewhat rough beginning. But by the early part of 1779, America’s naval effort against British shipping had a favorable impact. Privateers, particularly those working the Atlantic between New York and Nova Scotia, had become exceptionally proficient in intercepting and assaulting British cargo vessels — so well, in fact, that by the spring, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys of cargo ships to North America.
The downside of the British convoy system was that it siphoned off Royal Navy ships from other tasks. Moreover, the activities of American privateers forced the British to develop the strategy of taking shelter in protected anchorages near active sea lanes — places from which they could dispatch patrols against American raiders. The coast of Maine was especially useful in this regard because of its many estuaries, because the region contained a large number of British loyalists, and because the forested areas in Maine were a primary source of timber for American shipbuilding.
General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the colonies, instructed the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Brigadier General Francis McLean, to establish a fortification on the Penobscot River — one capable of housing 400-500 men, with a magazine. Beyond the construction of a fortification, Clinton also instructed McLean to offer land grants to local inhabitants in exchange for their oath of loyalty to the British Crown. McLean’s regiment would consist of 400 men from the 74th Regiment of Foot (Argyle Highlanders) and another 100 men from the King’s Orange Rangers (a loyalist regiment in New Jersey).
In May 1779, General McLean decided to enlarge his force to 640 men. Four-hundred forty of these would come from the 74th Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, and, since the King’s Orange Rangers could not provide an additional 100 men, McLean decided to excuse the rangers from service and replace them with 200 men from his own regiment, the 82nd.
General McLean’s convoy departed Halifax on 30 May escorted by HMS Blonde, HMS North, HMS Nautilus, HMS Albany, and HMS Hope. Pathfinders reconnoitered the banks of the Penobscot River in mid-June to find a suitable site for the fort. McLean decided on a peninsula that extends into the bay from the eastern shore known as Bagaduce. At the time of McLean’s arrival at Bagaduce, the land was covered by an evergreen forest of fir and pine. A protected bay opened to the South. For his building site, the General chose an elevated plateau near the middle of the peninsula. From that position, McLean’s cannon could command access to the bay. A thick forest obscured the river (western side) of the arm.
Once General McLean’s force and supplies had been off-loaded, he anticipated that Captain Andrew Barkley, commanding the flotilla, would leave several ships at anchor in the bay. Barkley, however, intended to withdraw all his ships except HMS Albany (under Captain Henry Mowat). An argument ensued between Barkley and McLean, which was only resolved when Barkley became aware that several American frigates operated off the coast of Halifax. Without Barkley’s flotilla, Halifax was virtually at the mercy of the American navy. Eventually, Captain Barkley permitted HMS Albany, HMS North, and HMS Nautilus to remain behind at Bagaduce along with McLean’s transport ships.
American rebels quickly learned of McLean’s landing. One rumor warned that General McLean commanded 1,500 men. Brigadier General Charles Cushing of the Massachusetts militia suggested that several county militias might be required to disengage McLean. Rebel spies kept the Council of Massachusetts regularly informed of McLean’s activities. With so much reliance upon the sea for its economic welfare, it would only be a matter of time before the Americans challenged the British in Nova Scotia.
The alarmed Council of Massachusetts wasted no time in making an appeal to the Congressional Navy Board for their assistance in removing the British threat. The Navy Board advised its Marine Committee of these circumstances and tendered its recommendation that Congress order its ships to address this new British threat.
Money was tight in 1779. Even before the Marine Committee could formulate its reply, the Navy Board sent a letter back to the Massachusetts Council informing them that the Navy Board concurred with any “proper measures” Massachusetts may undertake to dislodge the enemy from Penobscot. Apparently, without saying as much, the Continental Congress thought it would be great if Massachusetts paid for the operation. Congress did offer them the services of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and four Continental Navy ships to achieve the ouster of the British garrison at Penobscot, however.
As a senior Continental Navy officer, Saltonstall would serve as commodore of Continental and Massachusetts ships. Preparation for the sea began aboard the sloops Warren, Providence, and Brige. Taking a ship to sea in 1779 was difficult because recruiting experienced crews was nearly impossible. Experienced sailors preferred to serve aboard privateers where the pay was better and sea passages much safer.
On 29 June 1779, the Council of Massachusetts formed a small committee whose task was to direct the province of New Hampshire to raise a militia. The Council of New Hampshire agreed to send a 20-gun privateer, the Hampden. Hampden was armed with six and 9-pound cannon and carried a complement of 130 men. In addition to Hampden and the four Continental ships, the American flotilla would include three vessels of the Massachusetts Navy, twelve privateers paid for by Massachusetts, and several merchant ships hired to carry supplies from Boston and militia from York Lincoln, and Cumberland counties.
In addition to Continental Marines serving aboard Captain Saltonstall’s ships, the plan for the Penobscot Expedition included 1,500 militia recruited from Maine’s three southern-most counties. Unfortunately, it was no easier to recruit soldiers than it was sailors and Maine recruiters fell short of their quota by around six hundred men.
The solution to Maine’s shortage of volunteers was conscription, which netted mostly young boys, invalids, and elderly men. Without waiting for a second draft effort, Maine’s Adjutant General marched his 433 men to a rendezvous at Townsend (present-day Boothbay Harbor). The number of men drafted from York and Lincoln was also disappointing. At Townsend, militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, the designated commander of land forces, could only muster 873 men.
There was no time to train these men. The Council of Massachusetts wanted to assault Bagaduce before the British could complete the construction of their fort. General Lovell opted to take his small force ahead to Bagaduce while a call for more men went out to adjacent colonies. If mustered, these additional men would proceed to Bagaduce as soon as possible; if not, then Lovell would have to make do with what he had.
Small groups of transport ships and privateers rendezvoused in Nantasket Roads during mid-July. Given the primitive communications of the day, one wonders how long a ship’s captain would wait around for something to happen before losing interest. Still, by 23 July, all naval units were anchored off Townsend, and militia began boarding their transports.
Captain Saltonstall’s flotilla set sail on 24 July. He had earlier sent Tyrannicide and Hazard ahead to scout for British ships. A short distance into the Bay, Captain Williams of the Hazard dispatched Marine Second Lieutenant William Cunningham ashore to find local inhabitants who might provide valuable intelligence about enemy activities. We do not know the details of Cunningham’s scouting party; we only know that he returned with three men.
After Saltonstall arrived in Penobscot Bay on 25 July, Captain Williams dispatched Cunningham and his men to the flagship Warren to brief Commodore Saltonstall on what they’d learned. Meanwhile, through other sources, Saltonstall learned of the presence in nearby Camden of Mr. James Mills Mitchell, a man reputedly familiar with the area where the British fort was under construction. We know Saltonstall conferred with Mitchell; we simply do not know what they discussed.
After that, Captain Saltonstall ordered Lieutenant Brown, commanding Diligent, to reconnoiter the riverbank near Bagaduce. While performing this mission, Brown observed three men waving from shore to gain his attention. One of the three men reported that he had observed British activities and estimated the number of soldiers between 450-500. He said that the fort was not quite half-completed. Brown sent these men along to Warren, where they made their report to Captain Saltonstall. Lieutenant Brown had no personal knowledge of McLean’s dispositions or activities, but that didn’t prevent him from advising Saltonstall to prepare for an immediate attack. In Brown’s opinion, the fort could be “easily taken.”
Commodore Saltonstall was not easily persuaded. He remarked to Brown, “Only a madman would go in before they had reconnoitered, and it would be the height of madness even to attempt it.” Saltonstall was wisely prudent because nothing of what had been reported to him had any basis in fact. Saltonstall, for example, was told that the fort’s walls were barely three feet high when the fortification was much further along.
General McLean had either co-opted local inhabitants or pressed them into labor parties to strengthen the fort. He had mounted his cannon to support his infantry, the defensive lines had been closed, and his construction included chevaux-de-frise defensive works. His shore battery firing positions had been raised to allow for firing in barbette. McLean had also stripped the cannon from the starboard side of British vessels (they were arranged in line with the port side outward), placing these cannons at various sites ashore.
In preparation for the American assault, General Lovell directed Marines and militia to probe the British line. Undercover of naval artillery from Hazard, Tyrannicide, and Sally, Lovell ordered the landing force ashore on Sunday, 25 July (the first day of hostilities). Seven American boats were able to approach the shore, but strong winds produced a severe chop in bay waters, preventing most boats from reaching shore. Seven boats did approach the beach, but intense British fire turned them back. Irregular cannonades were exchanged with minor damage to either side. Lovell canceled the attack.
The sporadic naval fire was again exchanged throughout the day on 26 July, with minor damage to either side. Still, the action did cause the British to re-position their ships further up into the harbor to tighten their defensive line.
At 18:00 on Monday, Captain Saltonstall dispatched Marine Captain John Walsh to Banks Island, where the British had established several cannon positions. Walsh secured his objective, but with no further orders, he set up defensive positions on the island and ordered his Marines to begin constructing field cannon positions from which the Americans might fire on British ships and land positions. Walsh’s landing forced the British ships to once again re-position themselves.
While Walsh led his Marines to Banks Island, Major Daniel Littlefield, commanding militia, led an assault force to seize a British position near the entrance to the Bagaduce River. While approaching the shore, a shot from British cannon landed in Littlefield’s boat, killing him and three others. General Lovell detailed a third force of men to go ashore and begin constructing a siege position. The Americans were under constant British fire throughout their effort to develop a foothold.
On Tuesday evening, a substantial disagreement developed between General Lovell, his deputy, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth, Captain Saltonstall, and a few more senior naval commanders. Militia officers favored a vigorous naval assault against the British vessels in the harbor. If these ships could be destroyed, they argued, the land campaign would be more easily started and more likely of success on the harbor side of the peninsula. Navy officers, including Saltonstall, argued that the army and Marines should first land and overrun the fort; this would allow the American fleet to “safely destroy the British vessels.” Overrunning the fort would be easier said than done given the precipitous cliffs fronting the fort. Further complicating the discord between the naval and land commanders, several privateer captains grew impatient and circulated a petition urging Saltonstall to proceed with this operation without further delay.
At this council of war, which was held aboard Warren, the Americans decided to proceed with their assault on Bagaduce. The landing force consisted of around 850 militia and 227 Marines. Eighty cannoneers served under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.
Saltonstall directed that preparations for the assault begin at midnight, which achieved little more than deprive the men of sleep. His plan divided the landing force into three sections. As the senior Marine officer, Captain John Walsh would lead his men ashore on the American right. Colonel McCobb’s Lincoln County militia and LtCol Revere’s artillerists would serve in reserve. Colonel Jonathon Mitchell’s Cumberland County militia would go ashore on the American left. Once ashore, Brigadier General Wadsworth would exercise overall command of the land forces.
Loading flat bottomed boats with so many armed men was a time-consuming effort, and the men were left standing in the boats for most of the night. American naval fire began at 03:00. At first light, the landing boats began their movement to shore under the cover of a dense fog, which made the movement to shore dangerously confusing. Marines and militia began their landing at around 05:00; they were met by heavy British musket fire. Moving in small groups, the men started their climb up the precipice essentially one-handed while holding their weapons on their non-dominant hand.
Mitchell’s force encountered McLean’s 82nd Regiment. For the most part, the 82nd was composed of inexperienced soldiers, which allowed the militia to overrun them without much difficulty. On the right, Walsh confronted McLean’s more experienced men, then serving under Lieutenant John Moore. While the Marines advanced with deadly resolve, Lieutenant Moore, with only twenty soldiers remaining alive, was equally tenacious in holding the line. Captain Walsh was killed, his second in command, First Lieutenant William Hamilton was severely wounded, yet the Marines continued their assault. Moore, in danger of being encircled, finally withdrew to the fort.
As the Marines regrouped, they counted their losses of 34 men, including Welsh and Hamilton. Marine First Lieutenant William Downe assumed command on the right and continued his assault. According to Downe, it looked as if General McLean was ready to concede the fort — and might have done so were it not for the fact that the Marines did not receive the naval artillery support they expected from Saltonstall. Saltonstall’s failure to support the Marines and murderous fire from the British forced Downe to assume defensive positions.
By the end of the day, the Americans had established a 180° defense and proceeded to move their artillery ashore. McLean, however, was firmly in control of Fort George. Concentrated artillery fire forced the Americans to entrench. Sleep-deprived, the militia were becoming unruly and not simply a little displeased with the navy’s lack of artillery support.
Sometime during the morning of 29 July, Commodore Saltonstall decided that it might be a good idea to construct a fortification facing the British. Captain Salter of Hampden and Captain Thomas of Vengeance would supervise the work of sixteen engineers to build the American fort. Now, if Saltonstall believed the militiamen were rowdy on 29th July, the attitude of the troops on 5 August was positively murderous. They were tired of “dicking around.”
General Lovell, commanding ground forces, sent a note to Saltonstall asking whether his ships would enter the harbor to support the land force. Everyone ashore wanted to know the answer, but Saltonstall felt it necessary to convene another series of war councils before answering. Saltonstall decided, finally, that Lovell would receive no naval support until after he had taken Fort George. At a subsequent meeting of militia officers, it was unanimously decided that if those were Saltonstall’s terms, he could bloody well take the fort himself.
For his part, General Lovell was steadfast in keeping the Massachusetts Council apprised of the progress of the Penobscot Expedition; the Council had heard nothing at all from Saltonstall. When the Council finally understood how dire the situation was at Penobscot, they requested immediate reinforcements from General Horatio Gates, who was then at Providence. Gates had no opportunity to respond to this emergency — it would have taken him far too long to recruit adequate reinforcements. In any case, by that time, the Penobscot Expedition had already fallen apart.
By 13 August, General McLean had nearly completed his fort and a British fleet, having heard of the assault on 28 July, was en route to Penobscot under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier. Lovell and his officers, no longer participating in expedition planning with the naval force, developed their own plan for assaulting the British fort. Before the operation could be implemented, however, a heavy fog set in. When it lifted, Collier’s flotilla was observed entering the lower bay with ten warships. Although fewer in number than the Americans, the British fleet was experienced, proven in warfare, and more heavily armed. Saltonstall was lucky that a rain squall appeared, followed by more fog and then darkness — but the American’s luck didn’t hold.
At first light, the British began their approach. The American ships broke and ran from the fight and headed upstream, hoping to find small inlets where they could hide. By nightfall, most American ships, including transports, had either been captured by the British or destroyed by their own crews. Most of the landing force fled through the Maine wilderness, leaving behind them on the shores of the Penobscot River the smoldering remains of the American fleet. The expedition’s survivors began filtering into Boston during the first week in September.
News of the Penobscot disaster shocked and demoralized the colony of Massachusetts. Except for the three Continental ships and one ship from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts colony agreed to indemnify the owners of its ships for any damages or losses. Including the cost of the expedition, Massachusetts added more than £4-million to its debt. Worse, Massachusetts had lost its entire navy. Someone would have to account.
Courts-martial exonerated Generals Lovell and Wadsworth of ineptitude. Commodore Saltonstall, on the other hand, was tried and found guilty of gross incompetence. A navy board determined that Saltonstall was wholly unfit to command a navy ship and stripped him of his commission.
As for the Continental Marines, their numbers being relatively small, they were never able to influence the events of the Penobscot River Expedition. They performed admirably when called upon, as evidenced by the seizure of Banks Island, and seizing the heights at Bagaduce. Still, this valor was insufficient to compensate for the navy’s failed leadership.
There are as many lessons in failure as there are from success. Despite achieving a near-victory, the Americans guaranteed their own defeat — first by failing to maintain unity of command, second by failing to develop a communications plan, third by poor operational planning, the employment of an untrained militia, and worst of all, timid senior commanders.
The cost of Penobscot was high. From a strength of around 700 soldiers and ten warships, McLean held off an American force of 3,000 (navy and militia), 19 warships, and 25 support vessels. McLean lost 86 men, killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The Americans gave up 474 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, 19 warships destroyed, and 25 support ships sunk, destroyed, or captured. General McLean retained his small settlement in Maine until the British force was withdrawn of their own accord. General McLean passed away from an illness in 1781.
The United States did not seriously consider another large-scale amphibious operation until the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
- Bicheno, H. Redcoats, and Rebels: The American Revolutionary War. London: Harper Collins, 2003.
- Buker, G. E. The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
- Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
 Maine was then known as the Eastern Provinces of Massachusetts Bay. Some historians believe that Maine might have been looked upon as a location for a new British colony — one set aside for British loyalists in American. It would be called New Ireland, and it would be located between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.
 Roughly one-third of the residents of New Jersey remained loyal to the British crown.
 Boston had become a center for privateering activities; McLean’s presence in Maine threatened the privateers, who were heavily invested in ships and crews.
 Saltonstall (1738-1796) was a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall and John Winthrop, who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century. Politically well-connected in the colonies, Dudley received his commission in the Continental Navy upon the recommendations of his brother-in-law, Silas Deane, who served on Connecticut’s Naval Committee. He first commanded the flag ship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, Alfred and was responsible for hiring John Paul Jones as First Lieutenant. In 1779, Saltonstall was the senior Continental Navy officer based in Boston.
 The chevaux-de-frise was an anti-cavalry defense work consisting of a portable frame covered with several to many long-iron projections, spikes, or spears.
 Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) served as a general officer in the Massachusetts militia, district of Maine, as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, and as second in command to Brigadier Solomon Lovell during the Penobscot Expedition. He later served as a congressman from Massachusetts. He was the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
 Thirty-two naval officers from 11 ships signed the petition.
 Later, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761-1809), also known as Moore of Corunna, was known for his tenacity in combat. During the Peninsular War, Moore repulsed the army of Marshal Soult at Corunna, giving up his life in a valiant contest of martial will.
 A fictionalized account of the Penobscot Expedition was the subject of Bernard Cornwall’s book entitled The Fort (published 2010).