Monday, May 16, 2022

Catastrophe on the Penobscot, 1779


I am currently reading “Revolution Downeast, the War for American Independence in Maine” by James Leamon. I spend a lot of time in Maine.  A while back I read “Valour Fore and Aft” by Hope S. Rider, a book about the Continental sloop Providence, formerly the sloop Katy of the Rhode Island Navy. It was the first account I had read of the fiasco on the Penobscot in 1779. That ship had a lucky career, taking prizes and raiding Caribbean islands until it took part in the doomed Penobscot expedition.

Maine, then a sub-colony of Massachusetts, had avoided much more than naval raids from the British until mid-June, 1779. Five Royal Navy warships escorted transports carrying 700 regulars, who landed on the east side of Penobscot Bay and began building Fort George. Massachusetts called for a fleet and an army to seize the fort. To increase participation it agreed to insure any privateer ships taking part. Continental Navy ships, led by the 32-gun frigate Warren, and two smaller ships including the Providence, were the core of the flotilla. Some small ships from the Massachusetts Navy and many privateers, anticipating a windfall, joined in. The flotilla had 19 warships in all, plus 24 transports. 1,500 militia were called for, though less than 1,000 showed up. Those that did were the ones the local militia commanders had the least use for; very young, very old or otherwise less than stellar recruits.


The flotilla was commanded by Commodore Dudley Saltonstall of the Warren. He was a brave ship captain but would prove sadly lacking in higher command. The militia force was led by militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, with limited experience and none in independent command. He was a genial sort; the Commodore was not. It was an unfortunate pairing.


The American flotilla dropped anchor within sight of the fort on July 25. The fort was still under construction. A mere three British sloops of war anchored to protect the fort in a strong position. Attacking ships would have to navigate a narrow channel to close. Many naval officers in the flotilla cried for an immediate attack. The Commodore demurred, passing the buck to the General, who also balked. On July 28, 400 militia and Marines landed within striking distance of the fort, scaled a cliff and drove the redcoat detachment back in confusion. The British were demoralized; the fort incomplete, the commanding officer considering surrender. But no further attack came. The attacking force was disorganized by their success and they were not reinforced. The Commodore and the General each tried to get the other to make a move first. British morale recovered as the fort walls grew higher each day. American morale sagged as the two commanders argued, doing little else for weeks. The militia were loath to work and even less inclined to assault the growing enemy works. The two leaders finally decided on a concerted attack on land and afloat, set for August 13.


That day a Royal Navy squadron with a 64-gun ship of the line, 4 frigates, a sloop and a brig arrived, joining the 3 sloops guarding the fort. The privateers fled in terror, joined soon by the state ships. Then the outgunned Continental ships joined the rout up the Penobscot, firing nary a shot. Ship after ship was run aground and burned as the crews and militia fled. The chase continued until nightfall; most ships burned, the rest taken. Crews and militia alike fled through the woods, taking most of a week to escape. Losses were somewhere between 100-500. I suspect the lower number, but the British losses were tiny. Much of this I learned from “Valour Fore and Aft”. That book is a good read, and for ship modelers, a good source for building a replica of the Providence. Ken loaned it to me after using it to build his model.

                                                    Ken's 1/48 model of the Providence.

Edit: re-reading the section about the rout, the Commodore ordered a retreat that degenerated into the rout. I found a British map that contains lots of info, including British losses: Royal Navy, 15 killed and wounded, Army, 70 killed and wounded.

Found another map, not nearly as pretty but makes much mores sense when reading about the action.

“Revolution Downeast”, my current reading, throws further light on this. An inquiry into the causes of this debacle put all blame on the Commodore since he was a Connecticut man and a Continental officer, with no backing in Massachusetts. Massachusetts, nearly bankrupted by the loss of the expedition, was trying to get the Continental Congress to pay the promised insurance bills for all those scuttled privateers. The Commodore was certainly culpable, as was the General. But the General was a Massachusetts politician. His indecision during the siege and desertion during the rout was ignored, as was the generally poor performance by the militia.


I’ve not yet finished the current book. It covers the war in Maine in great detail, possibly too much for some. A close look reveals a good number of people, loyalist and patriots alike, whose political stands and chance for profit were intertwined, rather than the altruism usually cited. Many people preferred staying out of harm’s way to bravery. The book also details the hard effect of the British naval blockade on the economy, the worst burden falling on the poorest, who were reduced to scrabbling for basic needs.


The disaster on the Penobscot is an example of how incompetent leadership of poorly trained forces can waste a huge numerical advantage.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Book Review: A History of Warfare


I recently finished reading this book, published in 1993. Keegan was a very popular military historian. I loved his first book but the glow wore off on his later works. More on that later, but first on to reviewing the book at hand.

  Karl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831

The book has two main thrusts; one, to dethrone Clausewitz, who preached what he considered the eternal truth about warfare - war is politics by other means. Second, war can be about culture rather than politics and there are other modes of war than the western way. Most interesting but Keegan sometimes shoe-horned facts to fit his thesis. For example, he said the chariot warriors were the nomadic precursors of the horse-archer armies (Huns, Turks, Mongols, etc.). He then said that Darius III’s army was chariot based. I find that quite a stretch. The Persians tried to use scythed chariots once, at Arbela/Gaugemela, an experiment that failed signally. Their army at this time seems to have been based on a mix of heavy cavalry, Greek mercenary heavy infantry and anyone else they could get, aside from the ceremonial chariot Darius was perched upon.


Later, in the part about the decline of the later Persian Empire, it seems the Parthian dynasty took power and then was overrun by the Muslim Arabs. No mention of the intervening centuries of Sassanid rule. Minor nitpicking that may be, but every now and then such omissions and/or oversights occur.


His analysis of the Muslim theology/politics struck me as less than convincing. I don’t have a theory of how or why so many Muslim dynasties used slave soldiers (Mamelukes, Janissaries, etc.) but I’m not sold on his; that it was a way for Muslims to get around the ban on fighting other believers, since the slave soldiers were all converts.


That said, the book is quite interesting. Disagreeing with some of his views didn't mean it was all problematic. It has a lot of tidbits that history geeks (like me) will find intriguing. Clausewitz was nearly unknown until von Moltke the Elder (victor of the 1866 and 1870 wars) cited his work. Berthier’s Neuchatel Battalion (I have one in miniature) was taken into Prussian service after Napoleon was deposed and in time morphed into the Prussian Guard Schuetzen Battalion. There are all sorts of these little gems.


Keegan points out that the worship of Clausewitz led western general staffs down the road to the disasters of World Wars I and II. Not all the blame is laid at the foot of that Prussian officer/author, but enough adheres. After the carnage of the world wars, the western way of war has led us to the current dilemma of mutually assured destruction via our arsenals of nuclear weapons. I do agree with Keegan that the cheap weapons saturating the poor nations are the industrial world’s most shameful product. 

If you can find a copy of this book (mine was free), it is worth a read. I don’t take it as gospel.

                                                                 John Keegan 1934-2012

Keegan’s first book, The Face of Battle, was a revelation, like a meditation on violence. I waited breathlessly for his next work, purchasing them as they were published. Each failed to reach the heights of his first. He could always produce an interesting turn of phrase, but the whole book never cohered quite as the first did. In time my worship of him waned. I do find that often the best writing in each book is the introduction, where Keegan revealed more about his personal life. In the first he revealed he’d never been in battle. Later he reported his physical handicap, and growing up in England when the Allied armies were forming up for D-Day. I would pay for a collection of his introductions. Shelf space in my apartment being at a premium, some of his works have been sold to a used book store.