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

by NPR Staff
Nov 20, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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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."

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.

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