Navy's Worst Defeat Prior to Pearl Harbor

By Denny, Norman R. | Sea Classics, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Navy's Worst Defeat Prior to Pearl Harbor


Denny, Norman R., Sea Classics


Ineffective leadership,

poor communications

and indecision

turned a potential

Revolutionary War

victory at Penobscot

Bay into a stunning

defeat for the

fledgling US Navy

The greatest naval defeat ever suffered by the United States, in terms of the number of ships lost in a single battle, was the result of a bureaucratic error. While little remembered and rarely mentioned in US history, the Revolutionary War Battle of Penobscot Bay is worth reviewing, if for nothing else, to acknowledge the truly heroic actions of our enemy, to relearn the value of decisive action and to remember that great things often grow out of seemingly innocuous decisions.

In the last half of the 17th century, Britain was the greatest naval power in the world. Nelson first went to sea during this period and by the early 18th century, the Admiralty would enter what was probably its golden age. Still, in 1779, there were problems. England was once again at war with France and Spain. War with Holland loomed on the horizon and the Colonists in the New World persisted in their rebellion. British warships hunted and fought not only the European powers, but also the young American Navy, state naval militias and countless privateers. Faced with another major naval conflict in Europe, the Admiralty began to gear up for battle and discovered a problem. It was Admiralty practice to maintain a three-year supply of mast timbers soaking in creosote ponds at Portsmouth and other naval yards. Unfortunately, someone within the Admiralty had allowed this supply to dwindle dangerously low.

As one writer of the period put it, "Britain has hitherto been obliged to the Northern Powers, Russia in particular, for these mast supplies." This supply was now threatened by a new European war in the Baltic and the only other readily available supply of timbers was the northern coast of Maine, where "a few miles from the seacoast, are large tracts of land, covered with pine trees, suitable for masts of the largest size." So, in search of a reliable supply of mast timbers, a small expedition sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in June of 1779 to establish a small fort in Penobscot Bay and to begin writing one of the worst chapters in US naval history.

The British expedition was headed by Brig. Gen. Francis McLean and consisted on 650 men (450 of the 74th Regiment and 200 of the 82nd), carried aboard several transports and escorted by three small warships, the Nautilus (16 guns), the Albany (14 guns) and the North (14 guns). They arrived in Penobscot Bay, in what was then northern Massachusetts, on 10 June, and immediately began establishing a fort on the small peninsula of Bagaduce.

Word quickly reached Boston of the British landing, where it was received with great alarm. Massachusetts had been free of British troops since Howe retreated to New York in 1776. Now the British were establishing a presence only two days sail from Boston! Calls for action were universal and the Massachusetts General Court immediately began to organize an expedition to destroy the British base before it could be completed and reinforced.

When it set sail from Boston on 21 July 1779, the impressive American expedition consisted 19 warships, carrying a total of 326 guns, 20 transports and approximately 1000 men. Included in the militia force was an artillery regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Paul Revere. In overall command of the naval flotilla was Cdr. Dudley Saltonstall, aboard the Continental Navy frigate Warren (32 guns). The Warren and two additional Continental ships, the sloops Diligent (14 guns) and Providence (twelve guns and John Paul Jones's first command) were reluctantly loaned to the expedition by the local Continental Naval Board, with specific directions to Saltonstall that he safeguard the Continental interests in this State adventure. He was also instructed to "preserve the greatest harmony with the commander of the land forces, that the Navy and Army may cooperate and assist each other. …

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