Sunday, December 5, 2021

ARP228 Penobscot Expedition

This week we return to the coast of Maine, which was at the time, part of Massachusetts.  Although the main area of Massachusetts was firmly under patriot control, the British attempted to secure Maine for the loyalists.

John Calef

Many loyalists had fled or been expelled from New England.  Some of them hoped to form a loyalist colony in Maine that would provide them with a new place to live.  The project also would hem in the patriots, who still hoped to capture parts of Canada.  Maine was very lightly populated at the time, perhaps around 30,000 inhabitants, not counting Indians.  The new colony could also serve as a base of operations for British forces, closer to New England than Halifax.

Two loyalists from Massachusetts spearheaded the campaign to create the colony of New Ireland.  John Calef and John Nutting had both lived near Boston before the war.  

Calef, a doctor by profession, was a prominent member of colonial society before the war.  He served on the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) during the colonial era representing his home town of Ipswich.  He had served as surgeon with the British army during the reduction of Cape Breton in 1745, and again at Louisbourg during the French and Indian War.  

However, his deeply loyalist views got him in trouble early on, in the growing dispute between the people of Massachusetts and the royal government.  In 1768, Calef was one of only 17 legislators who acceded to the royal governor’s instructions to rescind a circular letter approved months earlier, which objected to the Townshend Acts.  Calef’s support of the Royal Governor ended his career in colonial politics. Paul Revere even produced a political cartoon of Calef and the other 16 supporters of the repeals as marching into hell.

After that, Calef lived quietly in his Ipswitch home, finished with politics.  However, he could not escape his loyalist views.  In 1774, as tensions deepened in the colony following passage of the Coercive Acts, many loyalists found themselves under attack from angry mobs.  A mob made up of Calef’s neighbors appeared at his home one day.  Calef was forced to apologize for his loyalist vote many years prior, and to beg his neighbors' forgiveness.  That apparently satisfied the mob, and Calef was permitted to remain in the community.

That said, Calef realized that Massachusetts was becoming increasingly hostile to anyone with loyalist views.  In 1772, at the request of colonial Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Calef traveled to London to advocate on behalf of settlers in Penobscot who were seeking legal approval of their land claims.  That may be when Calef began to take more of an interest in the region.  In January 1775, shortly before Lexington, Calef wrote to former colonial Governor Francis Bernard, by that time living in London, encouraging him to support a policy to separate Maine from Massachusetts and create a separate political entity.  Bernard approached Lord Dartmouth, then still secretary for American Affairs, but nothing came of it at the time.

By 1777, Calef’s position within the colony as a known loyalist had become untenable.  Fearing that his home might be seized by the state, he sold it and moved his family to Penobscot.  

John Nutting

Working with Calef was another Massachusetts colonist by the name of John Nutting of Cambridge.  Nutting was a carpenter and builder.  He built the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Oliver.  Today that house is the residence for the President of Harvard University.  He had served in the Massachusetts militia during the French and Indian War and was a well respected member of the community.  He was married and raised a family.  By 1770 he was a master builder, a man of property and made some money in land speculation as well.

Home built by Nutting
That year, he seemed to have some financial troubles.  He had to mortgage some of his property, while other property was seized to repay debts.  But what really got Nutting in trouble was a streak of loyalism at a time when the colony was most definitely moving in the other direction.  In 1774, things were heating up as Governor Gage tried to seize the contents of Cambridge’s powder magazine and secure the munitions in Boston (see Episode 46).  His neighbors tried to convince him to assist with the resistance.  Instead, he assisted the sheriff in helping the regulars seize the powder and remove it to Boston.

This blatant act of loyalism caused his neighbors to turn on him.  Some accounts indicate that a mob attacked and beat him.  Nutting then fled to Boston with his family where he came under the protection of the regulars.  There, he found work, and incurred the greater wrath of his patriot neighbors, by overseeing the building of barracks for the British regulars.  At one point a group of patriots grabbed him in an attempt to kidnap him and remove him to Cambridge for trial by a patriot committee.  Nutting, however, managed to escape and return to his work.

Following Lexington and during the Siege of Boston, Nutting remained in the city with his family, enduring the hardships and becoming even more committed to the King.  In early 1776, about six weeks prior to the British evacuation, Nutting took his family to Halifax.  Again, with all the other loyalist refugees, Nutting found his building skills put to good work.  He also worked on the city’s fortifications.

New Ireland

In 1777, Nutting sailed for England, in part to propose the establishment of a loyalist colony on the coast of Maine called “New Ireland.”  Nutting had invested in land in this area before the war. Although he had lost it to repay debts, he had a good familiarity with the area and argued that the establishment of a loyalist outpost there would help to secure the region for the king.

There, he made contact with William Knox, the undersecretary of State for North America.  Knox had been born and raised in Northern Ireland.  He had lived in Georgia for a few years and served on the colonial council.  He eventually returned to London where he acted as an agent for the colonies.  He lost that job when he supported Parliament’s authority to impose the Stamp Act.  

Knox also worked in London for the government, serving under Secretaries Hillsborough, Dartmouth and Germain.  He had a reputation as a hardliner who wanted to see more ruthless use of the military to suppress the rebellion.  

Nutting worked with Knox to get ministry support for New Ireland.  Nutting helped provide advice on where to establish the settlement, on the Penobscot Peninsula, the modern site of Castine, Maine.  After about a year in London, Nutting set sail for America with dispatches for establishing New Ireland.  On his way, his ship was attacked by the American privateer ship the Vengeance.  Nutting was shot four times in the firefight.  His ship was captured and he was landed on the coast of Spain, along with the rest of the crew.  He made his way back to London.  Despite still recovering from his wounds, Nutting boarded another ship in January, 1779, headed for New York.  There, he conferred with General Clinton, who dispatched him to Halifax to work with General Francis McLean.

The French had built a fort at Penobscot decades earlier. But it had been destroyed and never rebuilt.  The force from Halifax was tasked with rebuilding the fort and to establish a haven for New England loyalists.

At the end of May, 1779, General McLean took a force of 650 regulars, mostly Scottish highlanders, aboard eight British warships, headed for Penobscot. They also brought 50 artillerymen with an array of cannons. The fleet arrived about two weeks later.  They seized the small village already there, and set about building Fort George.  With the expedition were its two biggest proponents from Massachusetts, Calef and Nutting.  

With the overwhelming force, the local inhabitants took advantage of offers of pardon if they swore oaths of allegiance.  About 480 locals from the surrounding area took the oath in the first month.  Others, who refused, retreated into the inland wilderness in order to avoid British rule. For those locals who remained, the British put many to work clearing trees around the fort.  With the garrison established, McLean returned most of the fleet to Halifax.  Originally, McLean planned to leave a single ship of war, the Albany, at the site.  However, after hearing of a possible counter attack, he also left two smaller sloops, the North and the Nautilus.

The British laid out and built an entirely new fort, ignoring the old French ruins.  They also established two artillery batteries outside the fort in order to protect the bay and give cover to the naval vessels that would also defend the bay.

Massachusetts Reacts

Word of the British landing on the coast of Maine quickly reached Boston.  Maine was not exactly crucial to George Washington’s war strategy.  But leaders in Massachusetts feared that a British outpost there might kill any chances that they would hold not the land in any treaty that ended the war.  They were not going to wait for Continental support to retake this land.

At the time, the leadership in Massachusetts was a divided mess.  Only a few months earlier the French fleet had left for the West Indies after spending the winter in Boston being repaired.  The French soldiers and sailors did not get along with the locals.  There were at least four significant riots between the two groups, with at least one French officer killed as a result. 

Governor John Hancock was in a longstanding feud with James Warren and Samuel Adams.  Warren, the former President of the Provincial Congress and head of the Massachusetts Militia.  Samuel Adams was still serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress, but acted as the de facto political leader of the state.  The political factions were fighting over a variety of issues, exacerbated by the fact that the proposed state constitution of 1778 had been overwhelmingly rejected by the voters and the state was still operating without a Constitution.

The naval leadership was not much better.  John Burroughs Hopkins was the senior military commander in Boston for the continental Navy.  He had just returned from a raid off the Virginia coast.  Despite an apparent success, Congress investigated him for not spending enough time at sea and for failing to bring his prize ships to the nearest port. Captain Hopkins, the son of disgraced Commodore Esek Hopkins, was apparently a target of Congressional wrath.  The investigation would lead to his suspension and end his naval career.  

Dudley Saltenstall
Taking his place was Captain Dudley Saltonstall, the brother in law of Silas Deane.  Saltonstall had been one of the original Continental Navy captains, but had also taken a fair amount of criticism.  

Despite the infighting, the possible loss of Maine to the British seemed to focus everyone’s attention.  On June 24, only eight days after the British landed at Penobscot, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered the state board of war to prepare a fleet to dislodge the British at Penobscot.  It took more than a month to assemble a fleet of nineteen armed ships, as well as a larger number of support and transport ships.  Among them were three Continental Navy ships that happened to be in Boston at the time, Warren, Providence, and Diligent, which would come under the command of Saltonstall in a matter of days.  Three more ships, the Tyrannicide, Hazard, and Active, made up the entirety of the Massachusetts Navy.  The remainder of the fleet was privateers hired for the expedition.

The state called for a muster of 1500 militia, as well as an artillery force from Castle Island commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.  The muster was called for two months, thinking this would be a relatively short raid to remove the British and then return home.  Militia General Solomon Lovell took overall command of the expedition.  Lovell was an experienced officer who had fought in the French and Indian War.  He had led troops at the Siege of Boston and most recently during the Rhode Island Campaign.  Lovell, however, was a militia officer who had not joined the Continental Army.  He remained a politician, serving on the General Court since before the Revolution began.

The muster, however, did not meet expectations.  The most enthusiastic troops were already away fighting with the Continental Army.  Less than 900 men of the 1500 called for actually turned out.  Of those, about one-fourth were young boys or old men deemed unfit for active service.  The ships also had their usual difficulties recruiting enough qualified sailors to man the ships.  The state offered to match the pay of the Continental Navy for sailors and to reimburse ship owners for any damage to their property during the expedition.  They also put an embargo on all non-fishing ships leaving Boston Harbor.  This was done for the professed reason of preventing word from reaching the enemy, but it also prevented any sailors from getting work outside of the expedition.

Penobscot Expedition

It took nearly six weeks after learning of the British occupation before the Massachusetts fleet left Boston on July 19, 1779.  Many of the militia had marched to Townsend, Maine in order to avoid time aboard ship.  It was not until the fleet picked up the troops that Lovell realized that the musters were far below what he expected and that so many of the militiamen were unfit for service.  Lovell spent a couple of days drilling the militia, setting off again on July 24.

The British defenders had used their weeks in Penobscot to good effect.  They had erected the walls of Fort George, and cleared trees around the fort, making an assault much more difficult.  They had positioned their three ships in the harbor to good effect.  On July 21, British spies arrived with detailed information about the enemy fleets moving toward their position.  Although Fort George was not complete, it was in a defensible condition. McLean put his cannons in place within the fort and prepared to meet the assault.

The American Commander, General Lovell, had no intelligence about the British defenses.  He had to wait until his arrival to see what he faced.  He landed several marines who obtained intelligence from some of the locals.  He also received some surprising assistance in the form of 41 Penobscot Indians who volunteered to fight with the Americans.  The next day, June 25, Lovell began his attack.

The Americans had a clear and decisive advantage in numbers of ships and cannons.  At the same time, many of the crews were inexperienced and many of the privateer ships seemed reluctant to put their ships at great risk in assaulting Penobscot Bay.  The two fleets engaged, but only from a distance, for about two hours, with little damage to either side.

At the same time, Lovell deployed his militia to smaller whaleboats with the intent of landing them on the Peninsula near Fort George.  However, fear of enemy fire during the landing cause the assault force to turn around and return to their ships after one Indian in the assault was killed by enemy fire.

The next day, the Americans tried again, opening up another naval assault on the ships in the harbor.  Again though, the Americans avoided getting too close, resulting in little damage to either fleet.  The marines landed several hundred troops on Nautilus Island where the British had established one of their artillery outposts.  After a brief firefight, the twenty-man British crew on the island abandoned their guns and fled.  The position on the island gave the Americans a platform to fire on the British ships.  However, the British simply pulled back out of range of the island and formed a second line of defense closer to Fort George.

After several days of inconclusive fighting, many of the junior officers petitioned for a more decisive action to take Fort George.  The Americans settled on a night landing of several hundred militia and marines on the Penobscot Peninsula.  The British allowed the Americans to land but then fired on them as the attackers struggled to climb the rocky hills.  Most of the British withdrew into the fort, except for a small contingent of about 20 soldiers under Lieutenant John Moore, whose stubborn resistance slowed the American advance at the cost of about half of his soldiers.  The Americans captured another artillery outpost, allowing them to focus attention on the fort itself.

Eventually, the Americans got within about 550 yards of the fort.  General McLean knew he was outnumbered and that his incomplete fort walls could not sustain an American attack.  He planned to put up a brief but honorable defense of a couple of volleys, then surrender the fort. 

Instead of a final assault, though, Lovell halted his attack and had his men dig in for a siege.  He brought up cannons to use against the fort walls.  Lovell feared that the ships in the harbor could fire on his troops and called on Saltonstall to take out those ships.  Saltonstall argued he could not take out the ships until Lovel took Fort George and the guns there covering the ships.

The result was a standoff that ran for several weeks.  Disease, battle deaths, and desertions took their toll as the American forces fell to about 700 effectives.  Lovel sent requests back to Boston to send more reinforcements.  They also became aware that the British were planning to send a relief fleet.

Finally, on August 13, more than two weeks after the initial landing, the Americans planned a coordinated assault on the ships and the fort.  Lovell led a force across the peninsula, engaging the enemy, but still failing to assault the fort directly.  That evening, the Americans viewed a fleet approaching from the south.

British Relief Fleet

The British commander in New York, General Henry Clinton, had received reports of the attack on Fort George.  He deployed Commodore George Collier with a fleet of ten warships, led by the 64 gun Raisonnable, to relief the garrison at Fort George.  

With the approach of the British fleet, the Americans gave up their siege.  They boarded their ships and sailed up the Penobscot River.  The British fleet pursued them.  Eventually, the water grew too shallow to sail any further. The Americans scuttled or burned any ships not captured, and set out to march overland through the Maine wilderness back to Massachusetts.


British fleet at Penobscot
The Americans had suffered about 150 casualties during the siege, but the retreat and march home brought that total up to 474, nearly half of the expedition.  The British defenders suffered less than 100 casualties.

The Americans saw this as a humiliating defeat.  Most of the blame fell on Captain Saltonstall, who Lovell blamed for failing to take out the three ships defending Penobscot.  A court martial found Saltonstall responsible, and dismissed him from military service.  The other officer who suffered from the loss was Colonel Paul Revere, who was accused of disobedience and cowardice.  Revere was also dismissed from the militia, although a court martial several years later eventually acquitted him of the charges.

The British would continue to occupy Fort George until the end of the war.

Next week, we head down to the gulf coast were British forces tangle with the Spanish Army at the battle of Baton Rouge.

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Next Episode 229 Baton Rouge 

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Further Reading


Harris, Gordon Ipswich mob attacks Loyalist Representative Dr. John Calef

John Calef Memorials and Petitions (1766-1782):

William Knox Papers:

Sloan, Robert W.. "New Ireland: Men in Pursuit of a Forlorn Hope, 1779-1784." Maine History Vol. 19, No. 2 (1979):

Letter from General Henry Clinton to establish a fort at Penobscot:

Penobscot Expedition (1779):

Burbank, Dale W. Want of Proper Spirit and Energy: The Penobscot Expedition of 1779, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2011 [master’s thesis]

“From George Washington to the Massachusetts Council, 3 August 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Hunter III, James W. Penobscot Expedition Archaeological Project Field Report, Naval Historical Center, 2003.

Symonds, Craig L. “THE AMERICAN NAVAL EXPEDITION TO PENOBSCOT, 1779.” Naval War College Review, vol. 24, no. 8, 1972, pp. 64–72. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Collections of the Maine Historical Society, 2nd Series, Vol. 3, Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1892 (Conduct of Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition). 

Collections of the Maine Historical Society, 2nd Series, Vol. 10, Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1899 (Col. Jonathan Mitchell’s Cumberland Co. Regiment - Bagaduce Expedition, 1779). 

Batchelder, Samuel F. The Life and Surprising Adventures of John Nutting, Cambridge Historical Society, 1912. 

Calef, John The Siege of Penobscot by the Rebels, London: Printed for G. Kearsley, 1781, reprint New York: W. Abbatt, 1910. 

Goss, Elbridge H. The Life of Colonel Paul Revere, Boston, J.G. Cupples, 1891. 

Nash, Gilbert, The Original Journal of General Solomon Lovell, kept during the Penobscot Expedition, 1779: with a sketch of his life, Weymouth Historical Society, 1881. 

Smith, Charles H. Marines in the Revolution: a history of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Wheeler, George A. History of Castine, Penobscot, and Brooksville, Maine, Burr & Robinson, 1875. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buker, George E. The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779, Naval Institute Press, 2002, or read on

Burbank Theodore P. The Crown Colony of New Ireland in Maine: The story of the Revolutionary War Battle to prevent British creation of New Ireland in Maine, Parker Nelson Publishing, 2017. 

Cornwell, Bernard The Fort, Harper Collins, 2010 [fictional novel based on events] or read on

Greenburg, Michael M. The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America's Forgotten Military Disaster, Lebanon: ForeEdge, 2014.

Wallace, Willard M. East to Bagaduce, H. Regnery Co. 1963 [fictional novel based on true events] or read on

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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