Reflections On The Penobscot Expedition

Remember the Penobscot Expedition? Of course you don’t. Today’s history lesson has many aspects worth pondering, but I only recall some mention of the fiasco from growing up in Arlington, Massachusetts. It struck me now as notable thanks to valkygrrl’s Great Americans contest, still generating comments here. One commenter suggested Paul Revere: I wonder if this episode in his career was considered. I assume not.

On July 19, 1779, in the middle of the Revolutionary War, the would-be state of Massachusetts, on it own and without consulting either Continental political or military authorities, set out on  badly planned a 4,000-man naval expedition that ended up as the biggest naval disaster in U.S. history until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The commanders were Commodore Dudley Saltonstall,  Adjutant General Peleg Wadsworth, Brigadier General Solomon Lovell aaaaand Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.   19 warships, 24 transport ships and more than 1,000 militiamen set out  to capture a 750-man British garrison at Castine on the Penobscot Peninsula, then part of Massachusetts, but now known as “Maine.”

On July 25, the Massachusetts forces launched a series of disorganized land attacks, largely leaving their naval forces, which were mostly manned by untrained sailors,  out of the battle. This gave the British crucial time for reinforcements to arrive. General Lovell, the commander of the land assault,  saw Sir George Collier’s seven British warships arrive and retreated, expecting Commodore Saltonstall to oppose them. Instead, Saltonstall, quickly decided that resistance was futile and  surprised everybody by fleeing upriver and burning his own ships.

When the dust and blood had cleared in August, the original New England Patriots had all of their ships  captured, scuttled, or burned. The surviving Massachusetts sailors and soldiers had fled into the woods without food or supplies and had to endure a six-week march through the wilderness back to Boston. Total colonial losses included 16 warships burned and two captured, 13 transports burned and nine captured, and  474 American casualties. The British had about 70 casualties, including 14  deaths.

Their performances during the disaster caused Saltonstall and Paul Revere to face court martial tribunals.  Saltonstall was convicted and lost his commission.  Revere was relieved of command and placed under house arrest shortly after returning to Boston. General Peleg Wadsworth levied serious charges of misconduct against Revere, including “disobedience of orders and unsoldier-like behavior tending to cowardice.”  Revere, probably because of his reputation as an icon, was eventually acquitted after an appeal.  Wadsworth was the only one who came out of this stinker smelling like a rose: he had organized the retreat when the rout was certain, saving the rest of the army in the only well-executed aspect of the misbegotten mission.


  • Reminiscent of Clarence Darrow’s completely forgotten jury tampering trial, Paul Revere’s disgrace during the Penobscot Expedition vanished into historical amnesia, and hasn’t dented his fame at all. There are some accomplishments deemed so vital and virtuous that almost nothing can diminish  the regard in which their authors are held in perpetuity.

Unless they were slaveholders, of course.

  • The debacle didn’t hurt the Saltonstall family: Leverett A. Saltonstall (1892 – 1979), a direct descendant of the Commodore,  served three two-year terms as Governor of Massachusetts, was as a United States Senator from 1945 to 1967.

Saltonstall redeemed the family name further by becoming the only member of the Republican Senate leadership to vote for the censure of Joe McCarthy.

  • How’s this for irony?  The grandson of Peleg Wadsworth, who filed the cowardice accusation against Paul Revere, was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famed poet whose most well-known work—I memorized it in the third grade!—is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

4 thoughts on “Reflections On The Penobscot Expedition

  1. Thanks for posting this story. I’ve read about the Quebec expedition (thank you Kenneth Roberts), but this is a tale I’ve never heard.

    It might appear that leading an American expedition north from Massachusetts in those generations (unless you were Green Mountain boys) was a recipe for failure. Good thing Washington never tried it, eh? We might still be drinking tea…

  2. Actually, through little fault of my own, I do know this history because of a book I read in junior HS. :Redcoats at Castine by Arthur W. Patterson – First Edition – 1938 And no, I was not in Jr High in 1938.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.