Home The Story of Maine is a production of MPBN MPBN

HOME: The Story of Maine Home Page

Read a synopsis of each program

Explore key events in Maine history.

Explore Maine cultural history.

Explore Maine's Native American heritage.

Classroom

Check out other interesting history sites

Site index

Program 11: The Penobscot Expedition and The Revolution

Program 11 : Transcript

Transcript

James Leamon Ė Professor Emeritus, Bates College

The Penobscot disaster is usually regarded as the worst American Naval disaster with the exception of Pearl Harbor. As a military event, it is one of the great unknowns in American history in general. Even biographies of Paul Revere donít usually mention the Penobscot campaign in any detail. It might mention that he partook of it and was in command of the artillery and along with the other officers was exonerated of blame by a court marshal. And that covers up the whole situation very nicely. But the Penobscot campaign simply is a forgotten episode in most American histories.

NARRATOR:

An accidental archeological discovery in the Penobscot River sheds new light on the desperate last moments of the worst defeat of the American Revolution. On the next episode of HOME: The Story of Maine.

Leamon

The Penobscot disaster is usually regarded as the worst American Naval disaster with the exception of Pearl Harbor. As a military event, it is one of the great unknowns in American history in general. Even biographies of Paul Revere donít usually mention the Penobscot campaign in any detail. It might mention that he partook of it and was in command of the artillery and along with the other officers was exonerated of blame by a court marshal. And that covers up the whole situation very nicely. But the Penobscot campaign simply is a forgotten episode in most American histories.

NARRATOR:

In June of 1779, the British make the decision to build a fort at the mouth of the Penobscot River to protect a Loyalist colony that will be called New Ireland. The Americans in Boston responded immediately and sent an armada to stop the British. They called the mission the Penobscot Expedition. Over two hundred years later, in August of 1998, Brewer Resident Brent Phinney was salvaging water-logged lumber when he found something very unusual.

Brent Phinney Ė Brewer Resident/Marine Salvage

I was almost out of air at the time I found it . So I looked around as quick as I could and then came back up to the boat and got another tank of air on as fast as I could - go back down and look at it some more and I guess I spent the rest of that air time down there looking the whole thing over see what else is there Some people think I was crazy saying thereís cannons and cannonballs out there. People donít even know about the Penobscot Expedition. So, letís get it up and have the history where people can look at it.

 

NARRATOR:

Phinney found what appeared to be an historic artifact, but what was it? Was it significant? And why was it lying on the bottom of the Penobscot River? In the end, his discovery sheds new light on the desperation of a nearly forgotten episode in Maineís history. Next on HOME: The Story of Maine. During the following program, look for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network web markers which lead you to more information on our web site. In 1998, Phinney was salvaging logs when he found two cannons and a swivel gun lying on the bottom of the Penobscot River. A year later, he discovered an old shipwreck nearby. Concerned that these artifacts might rot and disappear into oblivion, he contacted Warren Riess of the Darling Marine Center.

Phinney

Thatís I guess when I contacted Warren Riess and told him they needed to get up here and get this stuff out of the river. He came up and talked to me I guess a couple of times and explained how they do the detailed mapping before they just yank the stuff out of the river which conserve the artifacts, that they bring out.

Warren Reiss Ė Professor, Darling Marine Center

The winters here are particularly destructive to these sites. The shallow water sites, you can get ice forming 2 or 3 feet thick. The ice will form around artifacts, around pieces of ship and as the tide comes in lift them up and then it breaks up and takes them down river and drops them somewhere. In archeology we call that "rafting." And thatís been happening over the years. Thereís an erosion going on as the rivers change. Now if we wanted to excavate them and save the artifacts and bring up the hull and everything they would let the University of Maine do that, if we had enough financing, and to not only do it properly, but study it properly, publish it, conserve everything. The State of Maine just doesnít have that kind of money. The Navy does. They have their own underwater archeology team. They have a conservation lab. And so it made most sense to bring them in not only for their expertise and funding, but for protection of these sights. Once these sights are found they can be looted.

NARRATOR:

To oversee the excavation of the underwater site where the swivel gun was found, the Naval Historical Center calls on their team of investigators including Hunter whose work combines history with underwater archeology.

 

James Hunter Ė Underwater Archeologist, US Navy

I think that archeology and history really complement one another. Especially when you integrate both equally you find that certain things that are missing from the historical record are filled in by the archeological record and vice versa. And so I always kind of thought there was something wrong with it and when they finally deconcreted it and I had a chance to look at it I realized its, itís true. The muzzleís missing. So it was very interesting. But we do know that when the gun was made it was flawed. If you look at the gun dead on down the bore you see that thereís considerable thickness in the barrel, while on one side itís appreciably thinner on the other. So it appears that whoever made the gun, whether they drilled it or cast that bore, it was cast very much off center, which was not acceptable by any means. But for whatever reason they continued to use the gun in spite of that.

NARRATOR:

The swivel gun is manufactured during the American Revolution. Up to now, the majority of colonists are Protestant and consider themselves to be British citizens. With the help of the British, New Englanders have fought periodic wars against Native Americans and their Catholic French allies, for nearly a hundred years. But now, a profound shift occurs. When the British demand to be re-paid for their military assistance and impose a series of taxes on the Colonists, the majority of Colonial Americans rebel against what they perceive as British tyranny. In Maine, protesters in the town of Falmouth kidnap a British Naval Commander and Rebels in Machias capture a Royal vessel and kill her captain. To retaliate, the British burn Falmouth and while their attempts to punish Machias fail, they do succeed in cutting off supplies to the town. American Patriots do their best to protest British rule. Up to 20% of Americans remain loyal to the Crown. These people are called Tories or, Loyalists, and their lives become more difficult and dangerous as the Revolution drags on.

Leamon

People would be Loyalist for any number of reasons. One was the obvious feeling that the Americans couldnít win. And thatís a very, very reasonable assumption throughout much of the revolution. Logic, reason, dictated that the Americans with their disunity and their lack of organized military experience couldnít possibly win against so great a military naval force and a political organization as the British Empire. Secondly, particularly after 1778 when the French alliance occurs was fear of France. Thereís a long standing tradition of hostility against Catholic France. Joining France was like joining the Devil and this is true. And of course an unsuccessful revolution meant that they would be traitors and the impact of that was that Britain and any country was very unsympathetic toward traitors. They beheaded or hanged or penalized in various ways people who were regarded as traitors. I mean I would be a Loyalist I think as I added up the causes like this.

 

NARRATOR:

Loyalists also have a philosophical argument against Independence. They believe that a manís oath is given before God and that, once a man has given his oath to the King, it cannot be broken, even if the King himself fails to live up to the agreement. In the town of Pownalborough, Loyalist and Anglican Reverend, Jacob Bailey, is pressured by Patriot leaders again and again. Like other preachers, he is asked to read the Declaration of Independence from his pulpit. He refuses.

Leamon

And in 1776, where he refused to read the Declaration and he did so on the argument that he Ė again - had given his oath to the crown. And then he said, "And what about those who also have given their oath to the Crown and broken it. What good is their oath? Itís worthless. Even if they give it now to the Continental Congress or to George Washington their oaths have been forsworn. Their oaths are valueless!"

NARRATOR:

In the Declaration of Independence, the American Patriots list their complaints against George III. They argue that, because the King has violated their trust, they are now free from their oaths of loyalty to him.

Leamon

The Declaration of Independence, the second half of which list all the ways that the King has broken his oath. He has sent troops. He has denied to Americans their rights as Englishmen. Loyalists deny that argument. He may have broken his oath. He may have sent armed troops to coerce our people. To burn our cities, to do all these things over and over and over again. But to the Loyalists, heís still our King. And itís not us to separate ourselves from him. We cannot do that.

NARRATOR:

Many Loyalists are the target of boycotts and mob rule and are no longer able to provide for their families. To protect the Loyalists and to alleviate the financial burden they represent, the British send 700 troops and 3 Sloops of War to establish a Loyalist Colony and build a fort at present-day Castine. This new fort can also threaten Massachusetts and protect British shipping lines from the American privateers that are wreaking havoc on both merchant and military vessels. The Americans in Boston quickly discover the plan and requisition transports, privateers, and warships to try and stop the establishment of this new British colony. Initially, Massachusetts Government officials are confident that they will win the battle and they take the unusual step of insuring most of the ships in the "Penobscot Expedition." They provide financial guarantees for the safety of many of the private vessels that sail with the armada. As the fleet makes its way from Boston to the Penobscot, the officers have orders to recruit 1,500 troops from militia units along the Maine coast.

 

Reiss

Itís important to realize that the militia that was put on board these ships was pretty much the low end of the spectrum. ÖAll the volunteers had left already. This is the middle of the Revolution. The Revolution had been going on for a few years. When they had a new call-up for this expedition they had the young boys who were just coming of age. And the older fellas like about my age you know, with a bad shoulder and a limp and whatever, bad eyesight, forming up this 1,000 troops that were put on board. They had never worked together as an army at all.

NARRATOR:

In contrast to this ragged band of Rebels, the British stationed at Ft. George are well-trained and battle-hardened and have the advantage of the British Ordinance Board.

Hunter

The British Ordinance Board was a group in England that was part of the British government and their job was to make specifications for certain types of artillery. They basically standardized artillery aboard ships and also Army field units. But one of their biggest responsibilities was to ensure that the weapons that were being supplied to the British Navy and to the British Army were safe. That they met the standard that the Ordinance Board had stipulated and that these weapons would not injure their own gun crews. That was their main, their main purpose.

NARRATOR:

Considering the strict regulations of the British Ordinance Board, Hunter immediately suspects that the swivel gun found in the Penobscot does not belong to the English. At the Maryland Archeological Conservation Lab, the gun is x-rayed and Hunter discovers something completely unexpected.

Hunter

Once they did a series of x-rays they were able to show that there was in fact a piece of ammunition lodged in the barrel towards the muzzle. It shows that they were using a defective weapon and paid for it. And a burst gun was never a good thing. Most of the time when a cannon from this period exploded it would kill at least one or two crew members every time it happened. I mean basically it would be shrapnel. It would throw pieces of metal in every direction. If you happened to be unfortunate enough to be standing right next to it, it would either kill you or seriously disable you.

NARRATOR:

Through the conservation process, archeologists answer many questions about the swivel gun, but one question remains: Why is a gun that is so completely flawed and potentially dangerous still being used? To answer this question, itís necessary to look back more than 200 years in Maineís history. On July 19th, 1779, approximately 40 American vessels leave Boston to fight the British at Castine.

Reiss

So they headed up to Castine. The fleet got there and they saw the British up on the hill. The British had leveled the trees, were starting to build a fort. And across the entrance to the harbor were 3 small, but professional, British ships anchored across the entrance to the harbor, showing the 3 broadsides out. The American ships then - the warships - then went in close to them to try to knock them out, push them out, but the Americans got the worst of it. And so the Americans backed off. And then they made a feint to land at a nice landing place. The British took the bait and went over there. And then the Americans landed actually in the face of 100 foot cliff called Dice Head, very steep. And the Continental Marines that had been on the American ships then stormed that heights. They were militia units on either side firing at the British. The British were up on top shooting down, dropping grenades on them. But the American Marines took the heights

NARRATOR:

Despite their lack of experience and heavy losses, the American Marines storm a 100 foot cliff and push back the British military machine. But then, just when the British Commander is about to end the battle and surrender Fort George, the American General commands his troops to stop their offensive and dig in for trench warfare.

Ed Churchill Ė Chief Curator, Maine State Museum

And so as the British Commander stood there with his mouth wide open and they all stopped and started digging in. And it was just one of those unbelievably, you know, itís a clear example of a colonial leader who didnít understand warfare.

NARRATOR:

Both the British and the Americans have faulty intelligence and both believe that they are outnumbered. The American General is determined to wait for support from the American Navy before storming the fort. At the same time, the American Navy Admiral believes that his ships will be sunk by the three British Sloops of War and he also refuses to attack.

Reiss

Plus the British could be hiding all kinds of artillery in the woods surrounding the harbor and the wind was blowing straight into the harbor. If they got into a trap, they couldnít get out. So there was the fort. The American troops surround it. The Navy wouldnít go in. Then you had this standoff for a while

Churchill

The American General said, look, he said this to the Naval Commander, he said, "You go and take those 3 vessels and then Iíll take the fort." And the Naval Commander says, "No, no, no," he says, "You go take the fort and then Iíll go after the vessels."

 

NARRATOR:

Every day for two weeks, the American commanders argue trying to decide whether the American Army or the American Navy will attack the British first. During the debates, a secretary takes notes, keeping record of how each commander voted.

Churchill

And the last line would be and Mr. Revere votes to go home. This is Paul Revere. Paul Revere was there with the ordinance vessel, which carried all the armaments, the guns and all of that. And he obviously figured he had spent enough time up there and it was time to leave. He was not making a good name for himself in this instance.

NARRATOR:

Finally, couriers from Massachusetts deliver stern orders to the American Commanders to take the fort. Now that they agree to work cooperatively, a victory is almost guaranteed. But then, on August 13, when the Commanders have finally settled their differences and the troops are preparing for the attack, British reinforcements appear on the horizon.

Churchill

And Lo! and behold here shows up the British war fleet of 7 ships. However this 7 ships included a 64, which means a 64-gun vessel, several 32ís and it was a formidable fleet. The best the Americans had was one 32

NARRATOR:

Seeing that they are trapped, one vessel, the Defence, tries to hide behind Sears Island, but is quickly discovered by the British. The Captain orders all the men ashore and scuttles the ship. The rest of the American fleet attempts to escape up the Penobscot River. But the wind and the tide are against them.

Reiss

There was almost no wind and the current as it ebbs out of the Penobscot is very, very powerful. So everybody anchored when the tide was going out. And when the tide would be coming in theyíd haul up anchor. Theyíd send their boats out ahead and tow as best they could rowing all the way.

NARRATOR:

The British have larger ships and taller masts. Their topsails catch the slight breeze, allowing them to inch their way toward the Americans. It becomes clear that the smallest American ships will be caught. The Americans drive them on the beach at Sandy Point and light fire to them. The men escape into the woods. At least 15 ships are lost there.

 

Leamon

You can just envision the chaos that this must have involved. Ships sailing up ramming one another in their haste to get ashore. Troops mutinying against their own officers in their haste to get ashore and get back into the woods in safety and get out of the way of this formidable British fleet.

NARRATOR:

On a desperate flight from the British fleet, the Americans deliberately burn and sink 35 of their own ships, and throw an untold number of munitions overboard to keep them out of British hands. Maineís history has unlocked the secrets of the swivel gun that Phinney found. Now Archeologist Hunter is clear that it once belonged to a desperate band of American rebels.

Hunter

Seeing it on the bottom, itís provenience on the bottom laying in a scatter of artillery, a scatter of munitions, gives you a real sense of what things were like in the very last hours of the Penobscot Expedition for the American forces. They were panicked. They didnít know what to do. The British were coming up the river. They had nowhere to go. You know, there were 10 ships bottlenecked at the end of this river and they didnít know what to do. And they figured the best thing that they could do was to take everything that they had that could be of use to their enemy and get rid of it, just throw it overboard. We always hear in history about how the Americans had it very difficult. They were undermanned. They were underarmed. They didnít have a lot of money. They were not very well trained. And you see a swivel gun like this, which is clearly damaged. It was clearly cast wrong. I mean it was something that would have never made its way into a European Army and yet itís being used. And I think it gives you a very tangible sense of the desperation that the Americans were enduring at the time.

Leamon

To this day the chaos was so great that no one can accurately say what the loss to the Americans were. Nobody really knows except that the Army was totally dismantled by this experience. And Massachusetts was left with an horrendous bill because it had insured all these vessels. It had paid for all the equipment. It had organized the Army.

NARRATOR:

Because so many ships are lost during the Expedition, Massachusetts is now liable for millions of pounds sterling. This cripples their ability to contribute to the Revolution. The Loyalists stay in Castine until the end of the Revolution when Maine becomes part of the new nation. At that point, some of them dismantle their homes and rebuild them on Passamaquoddy land in St. Andrews, New Brunswick where they stand today.

 

Reiss

The consequences of losing the Penobscot expedition were far reaching. The whole eastern half of Maine was taken away. So the whole eastern half of Maine was taken away because we lost that battle. It was very depressing I think to the people to the Province of Maine and New Englanders, in general, to see the British gathering that much property from that one loss. But they recovered.

Leamon

The Penobscot expedition was pivotal in the movement to separate Maine from Massachusetts largely through the fact that it was a military and financial disaster. Which meant Massachusetts could no longer protect Maine from the British. And this laid the basis for the argument that since Massachusetts did not defend Maine, Maine owed very little if anything to Massachusetts. And given the revolutionary ideology of self-determination of a separate peoples, Maine being separate from Massachusetts anyway could logically be an entity unto itself

NARRATOR:

If youíd like to learn more about the American Revolution in Maine, log on to our website at www.MainePBS.O-R-G

ALSO WITH PROGRAM 11:
THE DEFENCE | THE EASTERN FRONTIER | THE CASTINE LOYALISTS
| FEATURED INTERVIEWSTRANSCRIPT |


Institute of Museum and Library Services