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A Naval Disaster: The Penobscot Expedition

This Exhibit Contains 16 Items
1
Henry Clinton letter on Penobscot River fort, 1779

Henry Clinton letter on Penobscot River fort, 1779

Item 7475 info
Maine Historical Society

In 1779, much of the action of the American Revolution had moved south.



But, the British saw an opportunity on the Downeast coast of Maine to establish a strategic naval position to challenge American privateers, set up a loyalist community, access needed timber resources, and establish a coastal trading post.



British General Henry Clinton wrote a letter concerning construction of a fort on the Penobscot River and activities of troops there "to defend themselves against any Attempt the Rebels in those parts may be able to make ..."




2
Copy of letter from Francis McLean to Henry Clinton, 1779

Copy of letter from Francis McLean to Henry Clinton, 1779

Item 7477 info
Maine Historical Society

Brig. Gen. Francis McLean, then in Halifax, Nova Scotia, wrote back to Clinton, telling him that 500 men were ready to leave for Penobscot Bay and begin building a fort.



He commented that the British might need more naval power than the Albany, commanded by Capt. Henry Mowat.



McLean's troops arrived June 12 and soon occupied Majabigwaduce (now Castine), between the mouth of the Bagaduce River and a finger of the bay leading to the Penobscot River.



On the rise above the town the British forces built a small network of fortifications and redoubts known as Fort George, in honor of the King.



From there, McLean was to intercept privateer raiders headed for Nova Scotia harbors, and possibly establish a new Loyalist colony called New Ireland in eastern Maine.


3
William McLellan Sr., Portland, ca.1800

William McLellan Sr., Portland, ca.1800

Item 18426 info
Maine Historical Society

The General Court of Massachusetts responded on June 24 to the British occupation of Penobscot Bay without waiting for Continental Army assistance.



With promise of fair compensation for all losses, the Court requisitioned a fleet of privateers, merchant ships, and state warships, and with three Continental ships headed east.



Dudley Saltonstall of the Continental Navy assumed charge of the expedition, while ground forces and artillery were commanded by Brigadier-Generals Solomon Lovell and Peleg Wadsworth and Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Revere.



Capt. William McLellan Sr. (ca. 1735-1815) of Portland, was owner and master of the sloop Centurian, one of the ships that responded to the Massachusetts plea.



After the war, McLellan was a leading Portland merchant.


4
Peleg Wadsworth letter about Penobscot Expedition, July 31, 1779

Peleg Wadsworth letter about Penobscot Expedition, July 31, 1779

Item 9966 info
Maine Historical Society

The American fleet totaled 16 to 18 armed vessels, 24 transports, and around 1,500 troops, vastly outnumbering the British forces at Castine.



The fleet arrived off Bagaduce on July 25 to find Captain Mowat with three armed sloops in the small harbor.



The Americans launched an amphibious assault, but strong winds and tidal currents brought a quick retreat. Saltonstall anchored his ships out of cannon range, and aside from ineffective small land assaults refused to commit troops or ships.



Peleg Wadsworth wrote to his wife, Betsey, on July 31, describing the position of the American ships and forces and the strength of the British and the ineffectiveness of the early actions.



He noted that Americans had suffered more casualties than had the British.


5
Peleg Wadsworth letter on the Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Peleg Wadsworth letter on the Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Item 9965 info
Maine Historical Society

Since most of Saltonstall's armed vessels were square rigged, maneuvering in the confined harbor against wind and tide would have been difficult, and he mistrusted the sullen privateer captains, many of whom joined under threat of impressment.



Wadsworth wrote again on Aug. 13, 1779 to his wife, telling her that the "work" at Bagaduce likely would take longer than expected and that "the Harmony between the Fleet & Army is not perfect Unison."



Saltonstall was known to be difficult, while Gen. Lovell was generally pleasant and thought to be a good leader.


6
Silhouette of Peleg Wadsworth

Silhouette of Peleg Wadsworth

Item 136 info
Maine Historical Society

While it appeared that the Americans had a lot of naval power, the British were trained and had better armaments.



The American forces generally were young boys and old men as most of the more "fit" men already had been drafted into the Continental Army.



In August, British Admiral Sir George Collier arrived with a fleet from Halifax, further expanding the British forces.


7
Peleg Wadswort' letter about Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Peleg Wadswort' letter about Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Item 9964 info
Maine Historical Society

Wadsworth wrote to his wife on Aug. 14, 1779, commenting on the arrival of the new fleet.



"They are now proceeding up the Bay & our Fleet is waiting to meet them; our Army is on board the Transports & proceeding up the River in Case of a Superior Force, to be out of Danger..," Wadsworth wrote.



He added, "we were oblig'd to give up the ground that cost us so much Labour & so many brave men & officers."


8
Colliers victory in Penobscot Bay, 1779

Colliers victory in Penobscot Bay, 1779

Item 23347 info
Maine Historical Society

The Americans went upriver to be "out of danger," but unfavorable winds and tides trapped them there.



The Americans burned or scuttled their vessels and made their way home on overland trails.



Peleg Wadsworth was alone among the American commanders to attempt to rally the troops and save equipment.



He managed only to leave the area with five companies of militia.




9
Letter from Francis McLean to Henry Clinton, 1779

Letter from Francis McLean to Henry Clinton, 1779

Item 7472 info
Maine Historical Society

British Brig. Gen. McLean reported to Gen. Henry Clinton about the British victory at Bagaduce.



He wrote, "From the point we were observing the Confusion of the Enemys fleet which we were endeavouring to increase by bringing down two twelve pounders to play on them when we aw the appearance of His Majestys fleet under Commodore Sir George Collier..."



He added, referring to the American fleet, "I am happy to inform your Excellency that their destruction has been compleat not one having escaped being either taken or burnt."


10
Stephen Hall on Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Stephen Hall on Penobscot Expedition, 1779

Item 1323 info
Maine Historical Society

In a letter of a quite different tone, Stephen Hall of Falmouth wrote to Jeremiah Powell, a member of the Massachusetts Council and a resident of North Yarmouth, "It is needless for me, at this time, to mention to you ye disaster that has attended our Eastern Expedition."



He also refers to it as "that unhappy Event."



He offers to fill the position of procurer of provisions and notes that his service to that point had been at his own expense.


11
Receipt for Penobscot Expedition service, Falmouth, 1779

Receipt for Penobscot Expedition service, Falmouth, 1779

Item 25164 info
Maine Historical Society

Participants in the Penobscot Expedition were paid as evidenced by a receipt Capt. John Starbird signed for partial payment for Josiah Bayley's service.



The receipt is dated July 8, 1779.



But payments to shipowners and others were quite expensive.



Massachusetts convinced Congress to pay, but the defeat bankrupted the Massachusetts navy, decimated New England’s privateer fleet, and underscored Maine's military vulnerability.


12
Pay voucher for the expenses of the ship the Albany

Pay voucher for the expenses of the ship the Albany

Item 1329 info
Maine Historical Society

The British fared better.



Brig. Gen. McLean authorized the British naval paymaster to release 1,000 pounds sterling to Captain Henry Mowat for the expenses of the ship the Albany "for Contingencies and other Expenses attending His Majestys Fort at Majibigwaduce."


13
Charter for New Ireland, 1780

Charter for New Ireland, 1780

Item 6949 info
Maine Historical Society

Another sign of the spoils of victory is the charter for the loyalist colony of New Ireland.



The charter provides for the new province between "Sawhno River and the St. Croix" to have a governor and council, chief justice and other necessary civil officers -- and no local legislature until "circumstances of the Province will admit of it."



"It has been found by sad experience," the document notes, "that the Democratic power is predominant on all parts of the British America."


14
Peleg Wadsworth's Pistol

Peleg Wadsworth's Pistol

Item 11144 info
Maine Historical Society

For the rest of the war eastern Maine was an occupied territory and a rallying point for Loyalist refugees, who conducted plunder expeditions against coastal towns.



While most settlers of the area remained, their loyalty often was unclear.



The British offered amnesty to anyone who took an oath to the king. Many settlers probably were interested in protecting their land and livelihoods.




15
Peleg Wadsworth's Canteen

Peleg Wadsworth's Canteen

Item 11147 info
Maine Historical Society

Defense of the coast, such as it was, was given over to John Allan in the east and Peleg Wadsworth west of the Penobscot.



They urged settlers to help defend towns against British raids, but were unable to stop the British.



Wadsworth was captured by the British after a fierce standoff in Thomaston in 1781.



Imprisoned in Fort George, he later escaped.


16
Letter requesting aid for losses to British, 1783

Letter requesting aid for losses to British, 1783

Item 13412 info
Maine Historical Society

The American victory over the British ended the province of New Ireland.



Majabigwaduce, seeking to start anew, changed its name to Castine.



Some former residents who fled during British in 1779 sought reparations for the property they lost.


This Exhibit Contains 16 Items
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