In the summer of 1956, the Bangor newspaper commented upon the finding of an alleged Revolutionary cannon on the bottom of the Penobscot River near that city. Authorities at the time described the cannon as being probably a part of the ill-fated expedition of 1779.
The Penobscot campaign, one of the costliest of the entire War of Independence, and one of the worst defeats suffered by American armies in the long conflict, is also one of its least known. Few Revolutionary histories give more than a few paragraphs to the combined land and sea attack.
Not one of the 24 transports remained afloat following the end of the fighting. All were burned and their skeletons were visible at low tide for decades to follow. The vast armada was scuttled, not in the open sea, but in the Penobscot River.
None of the ordnance or armaments was salvaged. They remain in the mud and silt of the river to this day.
The fleet consisted of 19 ships carrying 344 guns plus 24 armed transports. The frigate Warren, which mounted 32 eighteen- and twelve-pounders headed the imposing convoy, the largest ever assembled during the war. It took but a month to assemble the troops and man the ships. The imposing fleet appeared off Castine at the mouth of Penobscot River on July 28th. Few within the fort, which was still uncompleted, reasoned that they had a chance against such an imposing display of force. The first attack was, however, repulsed, though the only damage was to ships rigging.
For the first week, most of the action consisted of minor action between the fleets. Commodore Saltonstall seemed unwilling to risk an all-out attack, despite his preponderance in numbers and armament. Colonel Brewer, an American officer who had been in the fort, told General Lovell that the fort was undermanned. Indignantly, he later related, I told Commodore Saltonstall that he could silence the fort and small battery and have everything his own way within half an hour.
Saltonstall answered in heated tones: You seem to be damned knowing about this matter; however, I am not going to risk my shipping in that damned hole.
When Lovell decided to carry the fort by storm, Saltonstall declined any assistance. Unknowingly, General MacLean was ready to strike his colors, and had a concerted attack been made, the British would have surrendered. On August 11, Lovell made a final impassioned appeal to the fleet commander: I am once more compelled to request the most speedy service in your Department, and that a moment be no longer delayed to put into execution a combined attack by both land and sea forces, I mean not to determine your mode of attack, but it appears that any further delay must be infamous. The delay means to destroy the ships or raise the siege.
Saltonstall refused and on the 13th, as Lovell made ready for a final all-out land effort, seven enemy ships appeared on the horizon. Despite the fact that he might easily have handled this fleet, Commodore Saltonstall gave the order that all must shift for themselves. With the transports in advance, the entire fleet crowded up the Penobscot River, to the utter astonishment of the British garrison. Sir George Collier, commander of the enemy fleet, then merely applied the cork to, the bottle, by closing the mouth of the river.
No effort was spared to rally the troops ashore, but the soldiers were now in a frenzy of disorder. Guns were hurled aside, as men melted into the forest. To the horror of the gallant few who remained, one of the ships ran aground and another was captured without firing a shot. One transport after another burst into flames, set afire by the men aboard.
Wadsworth led off five companies in good order, as the river became a sea of fire. A few of the ships made it to the mouth of the Kenduskeag, where they were beached. At low tide they served as a reminder for years. All the others were burned, and not one ship remained. Nothing was salvaged.
It was a frightful defeat. American forces had suffered 500 casualties. The loss in guns and supplies would never be accurately known.
No major salvage effort has ever been made, and outside of Maine and Massachusetts, few Americans have ever read of the worst defeat suffered by American armies during the Revolution.