On July 17th, 1779, a 44-ship flotilla sailed out of Boston carrying 1,000 militiamen. Destination – Penobscot Bay. The fleet was a mix of 14 privateers, merchant ships converted to frigates, and Warren, 32 guns, built from the keel up as a warship.
Earlier in the year, the British had seized the area and renamed it New Ireland. To protect their turf, the British built Fort George on a finger of land (now known as Castine, ME, and the home of the Maine Military Academy) that jutted into Penobscot Bay just south of the entrance to the Penobscot River. The facility was garrisoned with approximately 700 men.
The objective of the American expedition was to capture Fort George, re-assert American control, and re-take the area around the bay and the entrance to the Penobscot River, which leads to modern-day Bangor, Maine.
Leading the expedition was well-connected Dudley Saltonstall, who had been the captain of Alfred, 30 guns, during a 1775 expedition to the Bahamas. There, along with Esek Hopkins the commander of the squadron of five ships, Saltonstall did not perform well on several occasions, and both he and Hopkins were relieved when they returned home. (See 6/22/22 post – Marines First Raid – https://marcliebman.com/marines-first-raid/ ).
For the attack on Fort George, Saltonstall was on the small frigate Monmouth, 24 guns. The force caught the British by surprise, and there were only three small sloops of war in the bay which should have been quickly captured by the Continentals. They weren’t.
Saltonstall and his subordinates argued about what to do. One of whom was Paul Revere, who commanded his artillery when the militiamen were landed.
Under the command of Solomon Lovell, the Massachusetts militiamen captured Banks Island, just south of Castine, after a fierce fight. Lovell then landed about 450 men near Fort George and managed to advance within 100 yards of the fort. Unfortunately, roughly one out of every four of Lovell’s men was either killed or wounded in the attack.
To secure his position, Lovell started building a parapet to bombard Fort George and asked Saltonstall to land the remaining men and artillery and bombard the fort so they could continue the attack. Saltonstall refused despite being told Warren’s 18-pounders and the 12-pounders on his larger ships were powerful enough to pummel Fort George into submission.
Instead, for nine days, Saltonstall sailed back and forth well out of range of the fort and ignored Lovell’s repeated requests for reinforcements or artillery support. Meanwhile, the British soldiers used the time to reinforce their breastworks.
On August 9th, a British task force with the H.M.S. Raisonable, 64 guns, and six frigates, all with 20 guns or more, plus four smaller ships, arrived off Penobscot Bay. Saltonstall panicked and the American ships sailed up the Penobscot River, where they were trapped. They all had to be burned and scuttled to avoid capture. By the time the fight was over was over, the Continentals lost 474 men killed, wounded, or captured, 19 of Saltonstall’s warships, and 25 of his support ships.
When he managed to return to Boston, Saltonstall was dismissed from the Continental Navy after a court-martial rightfully blamed him for the expeditions’ failure. Paul Revere was also court-martialed for cowardice and failure to obey orders. He, too, was dismissed, although later, his conviction was overturned.
The lesson here is that in war and in business, leadership counts. Strong leaders intuitively know when to be aggressive and when to change tactics. Saltonstall’s indecision and failure to build upon the initiative he had when he surprised the British or use his overwhelming firepower from his ships to capture Fort George led to his defeat. Had he done so, cannon firing hot shot would have greeted the arrival of H.M.S. Raisonable’s and the British squadron. For 162 years, the Battle of Penobscot Bay stood as the U.S. Navy’s worst defeat until Pearl Harbor, another military disaster caused by a failure of leadership.
Image is a 1785 British map depicting the actions of the Battle of Penobscot Bay. While accurate in its depiction, the land is actually a mirror image of the actual terrain.