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Program 11: The Penobscot Expedition and The Revolution

The Eastern Frontier : Henry Mowatt

Henry Mowatt

A career officer in the British navy, Henry Mowatt became one of the most formidable opponents of the Revolution in Maine. As a lieutenant in command of the HMS Canceaux, Mowatt arrived in Falmouth (Portland) in April 1775 to protect a local Tory merchant who was defying the Continental embargo against British goods. In the process, local militia led by Samuel Thompson of Brunswick, captured and detained Mowatt for several days. Local leaders eventually secured Mowattt’s release for fear the HMS Canceaux might bombard the town. Mowatt and his Tory protégé then sailed away to Boston carrying many of Falmouth’s loyalist residents.

Six months later, on October 16, 1775, Lt. Mowattt reappeared at Falmouth leading a small flotilla with orders from his superiors in Boston to punish certain towns "in open rebellion" against the British Crown. Falmouth was one of them. Although the towns’ leaders tried to persuade the British to relent, negotiations failed. Two days later, on October 18, Mowatt’s squadron commenced an all-day bombardment that destroyed Falmouth’s shipping and left two-thirds of the town in ashes. Americans were aghast at such barbarity, but Mowatt was soon rewarded with advancement in rank and with a formal reception by King George III.

Mowatt next prominently appeared in 1779 as the commander of three sloops of war helping to protect the new British outpost at Bagaduce, known today as Castine, on the east side of Penobscot Bay. To expel the British, Massachusetts sent an armada of 40 vessels; half of them were transports carrying 1,000 militia, and the remainder were ships-of-war. Capt. Mowatt, however, positioned his little fleet so its guns could support the unfinished fort and also prevent an easy landing of American troops in Bagaduce harbor. Mowatt’s three sloops and the British fort situated above them presented a tactical problem the inexperienced American leaders never solved before the arrival of a powerful British relief fleet on August 13, 1779.

Mowatt’s three vessels then joined the newly arrived British ships in destroying what few vessels the Americans did not destroy themselves in a precipitous flight up the Penobscot River. Seldom was victory so complete as it was for the British in the Battle of Penobscot Bay.

Mowatt, however, never received official recognition for his part in the affair. His superior, Adm. Sir George Collier, failed to mention Mowatt’s vital role in saving the British post. Mowatt then spent the rest of the war seething with discontent while cruising the Maine coast, plundering towns and kidnapping local rebel leaders.

Even after the war, Mowatt continued to sail the waters of the North Atlantic. On April 14, 1798, while in command of HMS Assistance off Chesapeake Bay, Mowatt died of an apoplectic fit and was buried in the Episcopal churchyard at Hampton, Va.



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