Cover image for The Penobscot Expedition : Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779
The Penobscot Expedition : Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779
Buker, George E., 1923-
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Publication Information:
Annapolis : Naval Institute Press, [2002]

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204 pages : map ; 24 cm
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E235 .B85 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A compelling analysis of the cause for America's stunning defeat by the British at Penobscot Bay, and a defense of the man held responsible.

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Choice Review

The US attack on the British outpost at Penobscot, Maine, is one of the great fiascos in US military history. Though others have studied it, no author has delved as deeply into the campaign or the investigations that followed as has Buker. The retired naval officer's thorough study of all sources leads to his indictment of US army and navy commanders for not coordinating their actions, and for failing to consider that British reinforcements might arrive before the garrison on Bagaduce Peninsula could be compelled to surrender. The Massachusetts legislature blamed Commodore Dudley Saltonstall of the Continental Navy for the failure of the expedition and exonerated the army commanders, Solomon Lovell and Peleg Wadsworth. This patently unfair assessment resulted from acceptance of Lovell's biased reports and the desire for a scapegoat to both allay public opinion and shift blame from Massachusetts officers to one in the national service. Leaders hoped that this would lead the Continental Congress to assume responsibility for the expenses of the expedition. Buker is convincing in his assessments, and his book must be regarded as the standard treatment of the American defeat. All levels/collections. J. C. Bradford Texas A&M University



Chapter One Bagaduce THE FIRST TIME Paul Revere, of the midnight ride fame, and Dr. John Calef crossed paths was 1768. That year King George III of England demanded that the Massachusetts General Court rescind its circular letter to the other colonies supporting a boycott of the Townshend Acts. Seventeen members rescinded their actions, but ninety-two refused the king's request. Paul Revere publicized this event in his copperplate "A Warm Place--Hell." He depicted the seventeen rescinders driven by two devils into the maw of hell. Revere portrayed Dr. Calef with a calf's head, for that was the way the doctor pronounced his name.     Eleven years later the two crossed paths again. The second event took place on Massachusetts's sparsely settled Majabigwaduce Peninsula (called Bagaduce, now Castine) on the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay in the province of Maine. At that time, 1779, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere commanded Massachusetts's artillery train engaged in the United States' first major amphibious operation of the American Revolutionary War. Dr. John Calef, who may have taken up residence at Bagaduce the year before, volunteered his services as a surgeon to the recently arrived British occupying army.     Revere and Calef participated on opposite sides in Massachusetts's Penobscot Expedition to expel the British from their outpost in Maine. The expedition was a disastrous American naval loss. Some two score combatant and transport vessels were destroyed. The magnitude of the naval loss was not to be duplicated in American history until the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.     Victory or defeat seldom hinges on one factor. Yet there was a component of the Penobscot Expedition that, while overlooked by most, loomed large in the expedition's disaster. It was the lack of knowledge of the technological limitations of square-rigged ships in restricted waters. Ships, not in the generic sense, but in the specific sense of large, three-masted, square-rigged, sailing ships, were limited in their ability to maneuver on the Bagaduce River. Some of the expedition's naval and militia officers displayed a lack of knowledge of these constraints in the inland waters of the enemy's harbor. Those who did not understand the technological limits wondered why ten armed, square-rigged, American ships could not sail into "that damned hole" and destroy three small British sloops of war defending the harbor. Had the ground commander grasped the square-rigged ship's limitations and cooperated with the commodore's suggestion to either "Strike a bold Stroke, by storming the Enemys works, & going in with the Ships, or raise the Siege," the final result would have been different.     This out-of-the-way confrontation was brought about primarily through the efforts of Britain's undersecretary of state, William Knox, and two Massachusetts Loyalists, Dr. John Calef of Ipswich and John Nutting of Cambridge. William Knox, born in Ireland, had been appointed undersecretary of state in the American Department in 1770. Before his appointment Knox had served as provost marshal of Georgia (1757-61), as agent in London for Georgia (1761-68), and as agent for East Florida (1763-70).     Dr. Calef had served as a surgeon of a provincial ship of war during the reduction of Cape Breton in 1745. He was surgeon of the provincial hospital at Albany in the war of 1755 and later surgeon of a regiment at Louisbourg. For many years he served as a civil magistrate, field officer, and member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. He became interested in Maine's eastern region when Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts sent him to England in 1772 to represent Penobscot settlers wanting a royal grant to confirm their land claims. Calef presented their case and returned to Boston. At the time nothing happened to further Calef's proposal.     John Nutting, a commoner, was a successful housewright. In early life he served in the militia, participating in the unsuccessful 1758 campaign to reduce Canada. By 1768 he was a man of substance. Sailing in search of lumber sources, he became familiar with the Bay of Fundy and the coast of Maine. Nutting acquired considerable property around Bagaduce. He became prominent among the Loyalists in September 1774 when he moved his family to Boston to be under British protection. He helped build army barracks when the local tradesmen refused to work for the British, bringing in men and material from Maine for the task.     In January 1775, just three months before Lexington and Concord, Calef wrote to influential friends in England that the people of Penobscot still awaited land confirmation. Further, they now requested their own government for the region. Calef was among the first to propose the separation of the Penobscot region from Massachusetts shortly before the Revolution.     The shots fired at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775 began the Revolution. British troops, sent from Boston, were to collect colonial arms and ammunition gathered at Concord. The Massachusetts farmers, the famed minutemen, resisted the Redcoats and hostilities began. By the end of May, colonial militiamen surrounded Boston and Massachusetts General Artemas Ward took command of the American troops laying siege to Boston. General George Washington assumed command over the Continental Army on 3 July, less than a month after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Under the direction of Artemas Ward, who had been commissioned a major general and appointed by the Continental Congress as second in command, the Americans fortified Dorchester Heights and forced the British to evacuate Boston on 17 March 1776. (Boston has celebrated Evacuation Day as an official holiday ever since.) Several weeks before the British left Boston, John Nutting, along with his family and fourteen artificers, was sent to Halifax to build homes for the influx of refugees. Near the end of March General Ward, miffed that the Continental Congress had demoted him to second in command, resigned his commission.     With the outbreak of hostilities, the British Cabinet was at loggerheads. Prime Minister Lord Frederick North wanted to employ reconciliation efforts even after hostilities began. Lord George Germain, American secretary, wanted to prosecute the war with quick, decisive blows. Viscount William Barringtion, secretary of war, felt the army alone was not sufficient to conquer the Americans. He wanted a naval war. Lord James Sandwich, head of the admiralty, fearing France's naval power, did not want to send many ships to the other side of the Atlantic.     The first two years of the conflict were ambiguous endeavors for both sides. Beginning in August 1775 the American Northern Army engineered a two-pronged attack on Canada. One prong moved from Fort Ticonderoga to Montreal; the other went up the Kennebec River and through the Maine woods to Quebec. By July 1776 the repelled Northern Army was back where it started.     The British, after leaving Boston, moved to Halifax and regrouped. Believing there were more Loyalists in the southern colonies, the British navy attacked and was repelled from Charleston, South Carolina, on 28 June 1776; however, the next day, General William Howe arrived off Sandy Hook, New Jersey. By 15 September he landed on Manhattan Island, and for the remainder of the war New York City remained in British hands.     Lord Germain's strategy for 1777 was to sever New England from the rest of the colonies. It was an incredibly complex plan calling for three forces to leave Canada. One would follow the Richelieu River, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River to Albany, New York. A second would march eastward from Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario along the Mohawk River to Albany. While from Halifax, Nova Scotia, a raiding party would sail along the coast of eastern Massachusetts to terrorize the populace and keep New England's minutemen from aiding New York. Finally, a force from New York City would go up the Hudson to Albany.     The plan went awry. The first group suffered a loss at Bennington, Vermont. The second was halted at Oriskany. Even the feeble effort from Halifax was a disaster. General Eyre Massey said he had good guides for the troops rendezvoused on the St. John's River ready for the coastal raid. Unfortunately for his plans, "Sir George Collier stole out of Halifax, made a futile Attack at Machias, was most shamefully drove from thence ... which prevented the Eastern Coast of New England from being Alarm'd which was my orders ... which if they had been executed might have prevented the Misfortunes that attend'd Lt. Genl. Burgoynes army, for it was at that critical time." The force from New York City met opposition and returned to the city. By September 1777 General Burgoyne was surrounded at Saratoga. He capitulated on 17 October surrendering nearly six thousand men.     John Nutting, who piloted Commodore Sir George Collier on his ill-advised attack upon Machias, Maine, was later sent by Collier to England, but whether as a courier with the official report or as a witness is not clear. Nutting arrived in London when Lord Germain and William Knox were mapping out a strategy in the wake of the failure of the plan to sever New England from the rest of the colonies. William Knox had always felt the southern colonies provided a better environment for British arms. The army could operate all year long, and the navy could provide vital support through the south's ice-free ports and rivers. He believed that once a major campaign began, the south's Loyalists and Indians would provide considerable support.     As for the northern colonies, Knox proposed keeping bases in New York and Rhode Island. Philadelphia would remain under British control only if the Loyalists relieved regular troops for other operations. Yet another base was necessary in the north to protect Nova Scotia. Thus when Nutting reported to Knox, the two found a mutual interest in the role of Bagaduce for future British strategy. Knox, aided by Nutting, developed a plan to post a British force on the coast of Maine. From such a position the king's cruisers could cover the Bay of Fundy; protect Nova Scotia from harassment by New England privateers, and prevent a rebel land attack on that portion of Nova Scotia that later became New Brunswick. Finally, the region from the Penobscot River to the St. Croix River would provide a new province for the Loyalists driven from the rebelling colonies, which Knox suggested be called New Ireland.     The British defeat at Saratoga brought France into the war as an American ally, drastically changing the British strategy. Lord Germain, searching for a new strategy, accepted the Knox-Nutting proposal to establish posts along the coast where Loyalists were located. In May 1778, when General Clinton replaced General Howe, Germain gave Clinton instructions: "If he could not bring Washington to a decisive battle, he was to confine himself to raids against the coastal towns and to the destruction of American shipping." Then in September Germain ordered Clinton to provide "for loyalists by erecting a province between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers. Post to be taken on Penobscot River." Nutting, the messenger for these orders, carried further instructions "to be employed as overseer of carpenters who are to rebuild the Fort at Penobscot," meaning the former French Fort Pentagoet abandoned in 1704. Dr. Calef may have been among the early supporters wanting to separate eastern Maine from Massachusetts, but John Nutting brought Penobscot Bay to the direct attention of the British government.     Nutting embarked for the colonies on the mail packet Harriet . After two weeks at sea the American privateer Vengeance crossed the Harriet 's course, and a six-hour chase followed. Nutting sank his dispatches just before the Harriet struck its colors. The Vengeance took its captives to the closest prize port of Corunna, Spain. Six weeks later Nutting returned to England. The Penobscot project was on hold until the following year.     Nutting's second crossing, in January 1779, was aboard HMS Grampus to New York. Because Lord Germain sent his instructions by multiple messengers, General Clinton was aware of the plan and had already corresponded with General Francis McLean, then commander at Halifax. "Having received Orders of Governmt to Establish a Post on Penobscot River, I am therefore to desire you will make such a Detachment of Troops under your Command, as you shall judge proper and Sufficient to defend themselves." All that was necessary was to send John Nutting with the home government's detailed orders to Halifax.     General McLean, a sixty-two-year-old bachelor, had spent his life in the military. Having served in a regiment of Scots hired by the Dutch in 1746, he later entered the Black Watch and participated in nineteen major battles in Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean. Then for fifteen years he had aided Portugal, England's longtime ally, as military governor of fortified cities on the border fighting Spain and France. When the American colonies rebelled, the British ministry considered that his military leadership and his administrative skill with civilian populations made him an ideal choice for governor of Nova Scotia.     McLean's naval commander was Captain Henry Mowat. He joined the Royal Navy in 1752 and rose to lieutenant in 1758. Four years later he commanded HM Canceaux . Before the war he had spent several years patrolling for smugglers off New England and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Early in the revolution Mowat brought the Canceaux to Falmouth (Portland) to protect British interests. On 9 May 1775 the Sons of Liberty captured him while he walked along the shore outside the town. This act divided the town's citizens. The Sons of Liberty wanted to call out the minutemen to capture the Canceaux . The Tories wanted the town militia to free Mowat. Both sides agreed to release Mowat if he gave his word he would return the next day. Mowat, fearing an attack upon his vessel, reneged on his promise, and on 15 May he convoyed three British ships out of Falmouth. In retribution for Mowat's capture, the British sent him back on 18 October 1775 to bombard Falmouth. When gunfire did not destroy enough buildings, he sent ashore a party to torch the unscathed houses. Ultimately, two-thirds of Falmouth lay in ashes. Captain Mowat knew the locale well, and the people of Maine knew him.     Since colonial times Maine has been known as Downeast because the prevailing winds are from the west. Thus ships sailing from Boston to Maine sailed downwind, or down east. At the time of the Revolution, Maine, larger than all the rest of New England combined, consisted of York, Cumberland, and Lincoln counties. The eastern boundary of Lincoln County was the St. Croix River, which divided Massachusetts from Nova Scotia (New Brunswick). Historically the Penobscot River and Bay had been the dividing line between English settlement on the western shore and French settlement on the east. Only after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which concluded the French and Indian War, did the English hold claim to the eastern shores of the river and bay. People termed the less-developed land between the Penobscot and St. Croix Rivers "to the Eastward."     Penobscot Bay, midway down the Maine coast, reached inland forty miles from its outermost islands. Matinicus Rock on the west and the rugged Isle au Haut on the east were nearly thirty miles apart. Within the bay were more than two hundred islands ranging from the large Fox Islands (North Haven Island and Vinalhaven) to barren windswept offshore rocks facing the broad Atlantic. Old Man Ledge off Allen and Burnt Islands was the western boundary of Penobscot Bay. Roaring Bull Ledge offshore from Isle au Haut was the eastern boundary of the bay. There was also an eastern back door through Jerico Bay and the Eggemoggin Reach. Thus sailing Downeast the sailing marks were Monhegan Island then between Matinicus and the mainland up Two Bush Channel into West Penobscot Bay. When sailing for Bagaduce, one would take a course east of Long Island (Islesboro). The eastern entrance usually was by the back door via the Eggemoggin Reach. Yet getting to the Eggemoggin Reach generally required a pilot. Large vessels would pass between Isle au Haut and the Southern Fox Island (Vinalhaven) then hold Saddleback Ledge to port and head for Eagle Island. There were places on this route that could punch a hole in the bottom of a frigate. (Continues...) Excerpted from The Penobscot Expedition by George E. Buker. Copyright (c) 2002 by George E. Buker. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.