The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard OfIt may not be in your history books. But it ended with scores of sunken ships, hundreds of missing soldiers and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere facing charges of cowardice and incompetence. What went so wrong on the New England coast back in 1779?
The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard Of
The Penobscot Expedition may not be mentioned in your standard history book.
But when it ended back in 1779, scores of ships had been sunk, hundreds of soldiers were missing and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere was facing charges of cowardice and incompetence.
In his new book, The Fort, British historical novelist Bernard Cornwell tells the amazing story of the expedition.
It was supposed to be a routine ousting of a small British fleet that had dug in on the shore of Penobscot Bay, in what eventually would become Maine.
It turned out to be anything but.
The author first came across the story while doing some research on a solider named John Moore. Cornwell discovered that when he was 18, Moore fought at Penobscot Bay.
"And I thought, 'Where? What? How? When?' I knew nothing about it," Cornwell tells NPR's Guy Raz.
At First, A One-Sided Fight
Three years into the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts was virtually independent. There were no British troops in the commonwealth.
But suddenly — in the middle of the summer — the British sent about 700 men aboard three small warships to land in Penobscot Bay. They intended to establish the province of New Ireland and to hold the coast for Britain. So they began to build a fort atop a high bluff overlooking the bay.
"It's really quite a small expedition," Cornwell says. "So Massachusetts, quite rightly, decides they'll get rid of them."
The commonwealth sent a fleet of 42 ships — including 18 warships — to oust the British. It was the largest fleet assembled in the entire Revolutionary War. And Cornwell says it was dispatched with simple orders: "Captivate, kill or destroy the enemy."
On July 28, 1779, the Americans attacked — quite successfully.
"They got their whole army ashore," Cornwell says. They then scaled a steep bluff toward the scarcely finished British fort.
Once at the top, the Americans gained the high ground. All that separated them from the tiny British fort was about a half-mile of cleared land.
"And then, inexplicably, they stopped," Cornwell says. "They decided not to press home the attack."
'Everything Goes Wrong'
What followed at Penobscot, Cornwell says, was a series of terrible decisions, miscommunication and general battlefield incompetence.
The commander of the American army, Solomon Lovell, said, "I can't attack the fort unless the three British ships are destroyed."
Bernard Cornwell is the author of the Richard Sharpe novels and the Grail Quest series.
Bernard Cornwell is the author of the Richard Sharpe novels and the Grail Quest series.
Commander Dudley Saltonstall, who led the American fleet, said, "I can't attack the ships unless you attack the fort."
"You have this completely ludicrous situation where the general is saying, 'I'll move when the admiral moves,' and the admiral is saying, 'I'll move when the general moves,' " Cornwell says. "And at the end, neither of them are talking to each other."
Meanwhile, the advice of the American second-in-command, a tactician and decorated soldier named Peleg Wadsworth, was falling on deaf ears.
The British, during that bungle, managed to get a message to New York to request reinforcements. A fleet of seven ships was immediately dispatched. In the meantime, the British — under siege by the immobile Americans — continued to build the walls of the fort higher and offload guns from their ships.
"The fort," Cornwell says, "is getting ever-more-difficult to take."
The Americans, seeing the fort walls rise, also call for reinforcements. But the British arrive first. So, Cornwell says, the Americans "panic."
The American fleet cannot even manage an organized retreat. The warships flee first, instead of staying behind to protect the backs of larger, fleeing transport ships. The mess of ships eventually makes it upriver, only to discover they're trapped by a larger British fleet.
"The whole fleet is burned," Cornwell says. Only one American ship out of 42 escapes.
By some accounts, 500 Americans were killed or went missing.
Listen, My Children And You Shall Hear ...
As dramatic as it was, the Penobscot story has gone mostly unreported in history books.
Cornwell, a British transplant to the U.S., says that's in large part because the fledgling nation was victorious in the bigger war. "The Americans wanted to forget it," he says. "After all, you won."
Another fascinating wrinkle to this story is the American who was branded partially responsible for the stunning defeat. He was the man in charge of the American artillery forces: Paul Revere.
Revere had made his fabled ride years before. But after Penobscot, the author says, Revere was put under house arrest and court-martialed on charges of cowardice and incompetence during the expedition. He was eventually exonerated and then largely forgotten by history.
Until 1860. That's when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his poem "Paul Revere's Ride" — and this long-dead, relatively minor character of the American Revolution got elevated to the big leagues, Cornwell says.
He points out that there were about 20 other riders that night. And the poem by Longfellow that so misread history?
"He wasn't trying to write a piece of real history," Cornwell says. "He's trying to write a great trumpet call of patriotism on the eve of the Civil War.
" 'Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight right of Isaac Dawes?' " Cornwell asks — referring to another man who rode the night the British invaded.
And the author points out another interesting historical connection.
"Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's grandfather was Peleg Wadsworth, the man who brought the most serious charges against Revere that got him court-martialed."
It was Revere, not Peleg Wadsworth, who wound up with an equestrian bronze statue in Boston.
"He's probably turning in his grave when he sees what his grandson did," Cornwell says.
Excerpt: 'The Fort'
There was not much wind so the ships headed sluggishly upriver. There were ten of them, five warships escorting five transports, and the flooding tide did more to carry them northwards than the fitful breeze. The rain had stopped, but the clouds were low, gray, and direful. Water dripped monotonously from sails and rigging.
There was little to see from the ships, though all their gunwales were crowded with men staring at the river's banks that widened into a great inland lake. The hills about the lake were low and covered with trees, while the shoreline was intricate with creeks, headlands, wooded islands, and small, stony beaches. Here and there among the trees were cleared spaces where logs were piled or perhaps a wooden cabin stood beside a small cornfield. Smoke rose from those clearings and some men aboard the ships wondered if the distant fires were signals to warn the country of the fleet's arrival. The only people they saw were a man and a boy fishing from a small open boat. The boy, who was named william hutchings, waved excitedly at the ships, but his uncle spat. "There come the devils," he said.
The Fort: A Novel Of The Revolutionary War By Bernard Cornwell Hardcover, 480 pages Harper List Price: $25.99
The devils were mostly silent. On board the largest warship, a 32-gun frigate named Blonde, a devil in a blue coat and an oilskin-covered cocked hat lowered his telescope. He frowned thoughtfully at the dark, silent woods past which his ship slid. "To my mind," he said, "it looks like Scotland."
"Aye, it does," his companion, a red-coated devil, answered cautiously, "a resemblance, certainly."
"More wooded than Scotland, though?"
"A deal more wooded," the second man said.
"But like the west coast of scotland, wouldn't you say?"
"Not unlike," the second devil agreed. He was sixty-two years old, quite short, and had a shrewd, weathered face. It was a kindly face with small, bright blue eyes. He had been a soldier for over forty years and in that time had endured a score of hard-fought battles that had left him with a near-useless right arm, a slight limp, and a tolerant view of sinful mankind. His name was francis mcLean and he was a Brigadier-general, a Scotsman, commanding officer of His Majesty's 82nd Regiment of Foot, Governor of Halifax, and now, at least according to the dictates of the King of England, the ruler of everything he surveyed from the Blonde's quarterdeck. He had been aboard the frigate for thirteen days, the time it had taken to sail from Halifax in Nova Scotia, and he felt a twinge of worry that the length of the voyage might prove unlucky. He wondered if it might have been better to have made it in fourteen days and surreptitiously touched the wood of the rail. A burnt wreck lay on the eastern shore. it had once been a substantial ship capable of crossing an ocean, but now it was a rib cage of charred wood half inundated by the flooding tide that carried the Blonde upriver. "So how far are we now from the open sea?" he asked the blue-uniformed captain of the Blonde.
"Twenty-six nautical miles," Captain Andrew Barkley answered briskly, "and there," he pointed over the starboard bow and past the lion-crested cathead from which one of the frigate's anchors was suspended, "is your new home."
McLean borrowed the captain's glass and, using his awkward right arm as a rest for the tubes, trained the telescope forrard. for a moment the small motions of the ship defeated him so that all he glimpsed was a blur of gray clouds, dark land and sullen water, but he steadied himself to see that the Penobscot River widened to make the great lake that Captain Barkley called Penobscot Bay. The bay, McLean thought, was really a great sea loch, which he knew from his study of Barkley's charts was some eight miles from east to west and three miles from north to south. A harbor opened from the bay's eastern shore. The mouth of the harbor was edged by rocks, while on its northern side was a hill crowned thick with trees. A settlement stood on the southern slope of that hill; over a score of wooden homes and barns were set among patches of corn, plots of vegetables, and piles of timber. A handful of fishing boats was anchored in the harbor, along with one small brig that McLean assumed was a trading vessel. "So that's Majabigwaduce," he said softly.
"Back topsails!" the captain called, "order the fleet to heave to. i shall trouble you to signal for a pilot, Mister Fennel!"
"Aye aye, sir!"
The frigate suddenly seethed with men running to release sheets. "That's Majabigwaduce," Barkley said in a tone that suggested the name was as risible as the place.
"Number one gun!" Lieutenant Fennel shouted, provoking another rush of men who ran to the forward starboard cannon.
"Do you have any idea," McLean asked the captain, "what Majabigwaduce signifies?"
"Does the name mean anything?"
"No idea, no idea," Barkley said, apparently irritated by the question. "Now, mister fennel!"
The gun, charged and wadded, but without any shot, was fired. The recoil was slight, but the sound of the gun seemed hugely loud and the cloud of smoke enveloped half the Blonde's deck. The gunshot faded, then was echoed back from the shore before fading a second time. "We shall discover something now, won't we?" Barkley said.
"What is that?" McLean inquired.
"Whether they're loyal, General, whether they're loyal. If they've been infected by rebellion then they'll hardly supply a pilot, will they?"
"I suppose not," McLean said, though he suspected a disloyal pilot could well serve his rebellious cause by guiding HMS Blonde onto a rock. There were plenty of those breaking the bay's surface. On one, not fifty paces from the frigate's port gunwales, a cormorant spread its dark wings to dry.
They waited. The gun had been fired, the customary signal requesting a pilot, but the smoke prevented anyone aboard from seeing whether the settlement of majabigwaduce would respond. The five transport ships, four sloops, and frigate drifted upriver on the tide. The loudest noise was the groan, wheeze, and splashing from the pump aboard one of the sloops, HMS North. The water spurted and gushed rhythmically from an elm spigot set into her hull as sailors pumped her bilge. "She should have been broken up for firewood," Captain Barkley said sourly.
"There's no patching her?" McLean asked.
"Her timbers are rotten. she's a sieve," Barkley said dismissively. Small waves slapped the Blonde's hull, and the blue ensign at her stern stirred slow in the fitful wind. Still no boat appeared and so Barkley ordered the signal gun fired a second time. The sound echoed and faded again and, just when Barkley was considering taking the flotilla into the harbor without the benefit of a pilot, a seaman hailed from the foremast top. "Boat coming, sir!"
Excerpted from The Fort: A Novel of the Revolutionary War by Bernard Cornwell. Copyright 2010 by Bernard Cornwell. Excerpted by permission of Harper, a division of HarperCollins.