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.


Morgan said...

So you guys rent a Manhattan apartment just for gaming?

vtsaogames said...

I live in the apartment. The game table folds away when the coumputer/game room/library needs to host an overnight guest. There is a club that rents a basement in Brooklyn for gaming.

vtsaogames said...

That does give me an idea: if I hit the lottery, I'll rent an apartment just for gaming.

Mark Nichipor said...

Thank you for the review. I had read Revolution Down east and enjoyed it. Now I will have to look up Valour for and aft. Sounds interesting.

We too go up to Maine a lot and perhaps will bumb into you sometime. Last year visited the Penobscot area and Fort George. Great time.