One of the great fiascos in American military history, the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 has faded into almost complete obscurity.
The British had long wished to form a new colony for displaced Loyalists. What is now the State of Maine seemed perfect for the proposed colony of New Ireland. The forests of the new colony would supply ample naval stores for the Royal Navy, and due to its location it could also serve as a base for raids on New England.
In June of 1779 the British constructed Fort George on a small peninsula jutting into Penobscot Bay. The garrison consisted of 700 regulars: 50 men of the Royal Artillery and Engineers, 450 of the 74th Regiment of (Highland) Foot and 200 of the 82nd (Duke of Hamilton’s) Regiment, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis McLean.
Massachusetts reacted promptly to this invasion of territory the Bay State claimed. An expedition of 44 ships and 1000 troops, Continental Marines and Massachusetts militia, was rapidly gathered. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere commanded the artillery. The expedition arrived at Penobscot Bay on July 25, 1779.
On July 28, 1779 an assault by land was made against Fort George. The Americans incurred casualties of approximately one hundred men but took the heights near the Fort. The high casualties of this day seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of the leaders of the expedition. Brigadier General Solomon Lovell contented himself with besieging the fort, while Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, who would be cashiered from the Continental Navy for his performance during this expedition, refused to close with and destroy the small British fleet off Fort George, despite frequent requests from Lovell that this be done and for Saltonstall to bombard Fort George.
On August 12, 1779 British Commander Sir George Collier arrived with a relief fleet of ten ships from New York. The American fleet fled up the Penobscot river, and over the next two days all the ships were either destroyed or captured by the British. The surviving Americans made their way back to Massachusetts through the wilderness, with little food and no ammunition. Total American casualties were 474.
The ensuing court of inquiry blamed the disaster on lack of coordination between the land forces and the fleet. Saltonstall was court-martialed and dismissed from the service. Paul Revere was accused of cowardice and ineptitude and dismissed from the militia, although he was later cleared of all charges. Lovell was exonerated.
The territory was awarded to the United States under the Treaty of Paris in 1783, with the Brits abandoning Fort George and most of the Loyalist settlers relocating to Canada. The Brits reoccupied Fort George from 1814-1815 during the War of 1812. The precise boundaries between Maine and Canada would not be finally settled until the 1842 Webster-Ashburton treaty between the United States and Great Britain.