The Battle of Penobscot Bay - 1779

Martin and Elizabeth Bevan
Sun 17 Jul 2011 22:00

To avoid finally killing off any remaining enthusiasm for my blogging by filling a daily entry with details of the Battle that took place at Castine in July and August 1779 I have included this summary as a separate diary entry.


In brief, Castine had great strategic importance as a secure harbour controlling Penobscot Bay and its inland trading routes and as source of masts and timber for the Navy.  The British towards the end of the War of Independence wished to create a settlement to protect its interests and provide a secure area for persecuted loyalists so they sent a relatively small force of soldiers from the 74th of Foot, The Duke of Hamilton’s, some artillery and three armed sloops mounting a total about 50 guns.  The State of Massachusetts did not like this as an idea so sent a large force consisting of 1,500 militia, weak and not particularly willing, 240 US Marines, professional and highly capable soldiers and 100 artillerymen poorly and unprofessionally lead by the famous Paul Revere.  They were transported in no less than 24 transports guarded by 19 warships carrying a total of 344 guns.


The three British ships were anchored bow to stern across and blocking the harbour.  The British Commander had started to construct an earthen work fort, named Fort George but had not got the walls up to more than waist height and was definitely work in progress when the US forces appeared.  The US Naval commander started as he went on by not getting stuck in for fear of losing his ships.  The Marines with Militia assistance stormed and took Dyce Head in their one successful action of the campaign and the British Commander prepared for an assault on Fort George upon which he was determined to surrender to prevent wholesale and unnecessary slaughter.  The attack never came and time elapsed allowing Fort George to be completed.  Meanwhile the US land and sea commanders bickered and vacillated for long enough to allow a reinforcements in the shape of a British fleet to arrive from New York.  This put the whole lot to flight and chased them up the Penobscot River where the US ships were either burned by their crews or destroyed or captured by the British.  The battle was won but we of course lost the war.  The end result was:


10 out of 10 for the British commander Brig Gen Francis MacLean, a veteran of some 20 victorious campaigns; this made the score 21 not out.

10 out of 10 to Captain Henry Mowatt RN commander of the three Royal Navy ships

10 out of 10 to a young British subaltern facing his first action, one Lieutenant John Moore, later Lt Gen Sir John Moore the creator of the Light Infantry and hero of the Peninsula War who died and is buried at La Coruna

1 out of 10 to the US Commander of the Land Forces Brig Gen Solomon Lovell, a man with no warfare experience

7 out of 10 to the US Second in Command Brig Gen Peleg Wadsworth – the only senior bright spark amongst the senior US commanders and the grandfather of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who a hundred years after the event wrote his poem about the ride of Paul Revere, conveniently forgetting his part in the Penobscot fiasco.

0 out of 10 to Commander Dudley Saltonstall whose intransigence and refusal to engage the enemy ships was a major contribution to the outcome and who was subsequently court-martialled and dismissed the service.

0 out of 10 to Lt Col Paul Revere an effete officer more concerned with his personal comfort than the conduct of a battle and whose reputation owes far more to the poem by Longfellow than to historical accuracy.  He was court-martialled but for political and PR reasons was effectively exonerated.


A fictional account of the battle is given in the book ‘The Fort’ by Bernard Cornwell.  It matches well with the accounts available from the Castine Bookshop.