The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard Of It 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?
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The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard Of

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The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard Of

The Worst U.S. Naval Disaster You've Never Heard Of

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, long before NATO was even a glimmer came the greatest American naval disaster you've never heard of and it happened in the summer of 1779 in a place called Penobscot Bay. It's in present-day Maine.

But at the time, the land was owned by Massachusetts. The American Revolution, which was still seen by the British as a rebellion, had just entered its third year.

Mr. BERNARD CORNWELL (Historical Novelist; Author, "The Fort"): And suddenly, in the middle of December, the British send a very small expedition to land in the Penobscot Bay.

(Soundbite of bell)

RAZ: That's historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, and he picks the story up from there.

Mr. CORNWELL: They intend to establish the province of New Ireland and to sort of hold the coast for Britain. It's really quite a small expedition the British send. And then, Massachusetts, quite rightly, decides they'll get rid of them.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: But is it an act of war?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes, it's an act of war and Massachusetts is going to send of fleet. In fact, it's the largest fleet ever assembled by the rebels in the whole war of independence.

Their order said that you are to captivate, kill or destroy the enemy.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. CORNWELL: Captivate, I love. So they were sent to captivate, kill or destroy Francis McLean and his 700 men. What happened was this huge American fleet reached Penobscot Bay July 28, 1779. And the Americans attacked, and it was a very, very successful attack. They got their whole army ashore. The bluff was defended by a much smaller British (unintelligible), the British hardly advances (unintelligible).

Americans have to climb this (unintelligible) to prove they're (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. CORNWELL: Drove the British off the top. And then when they've gained the high ground and there, in front of them was the fort, they inexplicably stopped. And at that point, everything goes wrong.

The commander of the army was American Solomon Lovell, says, well, I can't attack the fort unless the three ships are destroyed. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, the commander of the American fleet, said, well, I can't attack the fleet unless you attack the fort. Well, I can't attack the fleet. And neither would move. I mean, 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. And at the end, neither of them are talking to each other.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CORNWELL: It's this little horrible situation of watching a great ambition being destroyed by, I suppose really, just sheer incompetence.

RAZ: So, Bernard Cornwell, whose new book, by the way, takes place against the backdrop of Penobscot, Cornwell says that while the Americans were doing nothing, relying on a siege to starve out the redcoats, the British were building up a fort.

Mr. CORNWELL: Making the walls of the fort higher and higher, getting more and more guns ashore.

RAZ: The Americans eventually got wind of the fort and they called in reinforcements, but it was too late. The British had already called in their own reinforcements.

Mr. CORNWELL: And then suddenly, the British relief fleet arrives at the river, at which point Saltonstall, who commanded the American fleet - well, I think the only word to say is he panicked. They managed to get the whole army off the land onto the transport ships. When they get out the river, they're trapped and they can't get out because the British have blocked it, and the whole fleet is burned and went to the bottom of the river.

RAZ: It was a massive loss - 41 ships sunk - the worst naval disaster in American history up until Pearl Harbor. But what's even more extraordinary, says Bernard Cornwell, is who was held partially responsible. He was the American officer in charge of artillery at Penobscot but you may know him better from this poem.

Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) Listen, my children, and you shall hear...

Unidentified Man #2: (Reading) The midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Mr. CORNWELL: And I guess we have to cut a very long story short and say that at the end of the campaign, Paul Revere is going to be court-martialed for incompetence and for behavior tending towards cowardice.

RAZ: Unbelievable. The hero of - yes.

Mr. CORNWELL: It is unbelievable. And it struck me when I came across this, I mean, I...

RAZ: After Revere died in 1818, he might have been forgotten to history, if not for the poem, "Paul Revere's Ride." The poem was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow more than 80 years later, and it was largely fictional.

Mr. CORNWELL: It's instantly famous, and Revere is suddenly sort of elevated into the great pantheon of American heroes.

RAZ: Bernard Cornwell, this is not a widely known story. I mean, students in high school, even in universities, don't know about this. So, you know, why did you want to sort of deflate our - you know, why do you want to pop our balloon?

Mr. CORNWELL: Oh, I'm sorry. Guy, I'm not trying to deflate your balloon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: I think I wanted to deflate Paul Revere's balloon. There's a supreme irony here. Henry Longfellow made him famous, and Henry Longfellow's name is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Raz: Right.

Mr. CORNWELL: And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's grandfather was Peg Leg Wadsworth, the man who brought the most serious charges against Revere that got him court-martialed. And I do believe that Peg Leg Wadsworth is probably turning in his grave when he sees what his grandson did.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's novelist Bernard Cornwell. His new book is called "The Fort."

Bernard Cornwell, thank you so much.

Mr. CORNWELL: Thank you, Guy.

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