December 1918

The United States Marines in the Penobscot Bay Expedition, 1779

Volume 3, Issue 4
The Penobscot Bay seen from Dyce's Head, the site of the Americans' pre-dawn landing on July 28, 1779

The following are excerpts taken from an article still in manuscript form, by Rear Admiral Colby M. Chester, U. S. N., retired, entitled, "Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, Continental Navy, and The Defeat of the Penobscot Bay Expedition, 1779." A critical analysis of the campaign, showing the activities of the Marines during this expedition. Rear Admiral Chester states, in a letter to the editor of the MARINE CORPS GAZETTE, that "Next to the Nassau affair the Penobscot Expedition was the chief glory of the Marines in the Revolutionary War, only outranked by the former on account of its success."-[EDITOR.]


The territory, or district, of Maine in 1779 contained a population of about 16,000, and was of considerable value and importance to the State of Massachusetts, to which it belonged, for the ship timber, the lumber and the firewood of its forests, and for the cod and other fisheries in the waters of its coast and rivers. During the period of the Revolution, the innumerable bays, inlets, straits and reaches of its much-indented coast afforded safe retreats for the many privateers which sailed forth from and took refuge in those waters. These private armed vessels, though sanctioned and licensed by the State, were not primarily intended to operate in fleet formations under regular naval commanders, but were designed to act independently and at their own discretion in preying upon the commerce of the enemy wherever found on the high seas.

The attention of the British was drawn to the conditions existing on the northeastern coast of New England in 1779, and it was decided to invade the country and establish a strong post there for purposes of surveillance and repression. Accordingly, a British force was despatched from Halifax in June, 1779, to take post at some convenient place on the Maine coast for carrying out the policy determined upon. The military portion of this force consisted of 700 men, under the command of Brigadier General Francis McLean, of the British Army. The naval portion which was retained after the force had obtained a foothold consisted of the following sloops-of-war, armed with six-pounders, viz.: The "Albany," 14 guns, the "Nautilus," 18 guns, and the "North," 14 guns, together with the necessary transports carrying the military and naval supplies, all under the command of Captain Henry Mowat, of the "Albany."

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The expedition arrived in Penobscot Bay about the middle of June, 1779, and landed on what was then known as the Majabidwaduce Peninsula, on which the town of Castine was situated, where the construction of a fort of some pretensions and a supporting battery was undertaken. The work of felling the forest which covered the site selected and otherwise clearing the land had proceeded for about a month, but little, else in the way of rearing the earthwork had been accomplished. Intelligence having arrived of the preparation at Boston of an American expedition intended to contest this invasion, work on the fortification was thereupon accelerated and conducted by night and day, strong detachments of the local inhabitants being induced by the British to lend their services for that purpose.

The State of Massachusetts, upon learning of the invasion of her distant territory, hurriedly organized at her own expense an expedition to expel the intruders. The General Court of Massachusetts took the matter up at once. "Directions were forthwith given the Board of War to engage or employ such armed vessels, State or National, as could be procured and prepared to sail in six days; to charter, or if necessary to impress in the harbors of Boston, Salem, Beverly, and Newburyport, a number of private armed vessels belonging to individuals, competent, when joined with the others, for the enterprise; to promise the owners a fair compensation for all losses and damages they might sustain; to allow seamen the pay and rations of those in the Continental service; and to procure the necessary outfits and provisions with all possible despatch." The State of New Hampshire was also requested to join in the expedition.

There was great delay in the assembly of the troops and in procuring supplies, but, under peremptory orders, the expedition set sail from Boston on July 19, 1779. Of the 1500 troops ordered for the expedition, only about 1000 could be raised by the time the expedition was ready to start, and these were assembled with some difficulty. Other troops joined the expedition later, however, bringing the number up to about 1200. (See the official roster of troops.)

With respect to the number and rank of officers for the military portion of the expedition the provision was most ample. The following is a list of the field and staff and their titles:

It seems that these officers were all specially commissioned for service on this expedition. Some had rendered service at the battle of Lexington; and General Lovell is said to have seen some service under General Sullivan in Rhode Island for a short time, but nearly, all of them were now to engage for the first time in war service for which they were poorly prepared.

In describing the character of the enlisted men furnished for the expedition, Adjutant General Hill said: "Some were old men, some boys, and some invalids." "Most of them," he said, "had arms, but many were out of repair, little or no ammunition, and most of the officers and men quite unacquainted with any military maneuvers and even the manual exercise." General Wadsworth said: "At least one-fourth part appeared to me to be small boys and old men unfit for service."

The naval branch of the expedition was still more of a heterogeneous body than was the land force. It comprised three vessels belonging to the Continental Navy, two of them rated no higher than a brig, and both so small that they could do scarcely more than act as despatch boats for the Commodore. Three of the other vessels were small cruisers belonging to what was then known as the Massachusetts State Navy, also too small to perform much more important service than that of conveying the transports. The remainder of the sixteen vessels composing the marine force under the command of Captain Dudley Saltonstall, Captain of the Continental Frigate "Warren," and senior officer present, were fullrigged ships pierced for from sixteen to twenty guns of small caliber, the largest of which were nine-pounders. These vessels were commonly known as "privateers."

The "Warren" had been recently commissioned, and was awaiting the enlistment of a crew before starting to carry out important instructions issued by the Board of Admiralty at Philadelphia. While thus delayed in Boston Harbor she naturally became an object of much importance to the State officers, who were arranging the Penobscot Expedition, and the Commissioners of the Navy Board, as it was called, located at Boston, were appealed to for the services of the ship in that expedition. The Commissioners had been empowered to act for the Board of Admiralty appointed by the Continental Congress to take charge of all naval matters whenever an emergency arose requiring immediate action on the part of ships of the Navy, and they at once gave their consent for the "Warren" to take part in the expedition, subject to the approval of their superiors at Philadelphia. Later, the formal approval of the Board was received by the Commissioners as per the following letter:


The Commissioners of the Navy Board at Boston, Gentlemen:

We are favored with yours of the 30th ultimo, and much approve of your cautious conduct with regard to sending the Continental vessels to Penobscot, which we consent to provided you are certain that the sea force of the enemy is not superior.

Your obedient servants,

NOTE.-The author, after stating that one of the most potent causes for the failure of the Penobscot Expedition was the personnel, states as follows [EDITOR] :

"Thus Commodore Saltonstall was not only hampered in his activities by the insubordinate attitude of the crews of his vessels, but in his dealings with his chief officers as well."

An exception must be made, however, in this statement, regarding the crew of the "Warren," in favor of the Marine Guard of the ship, which was always ready for any duty that might be called for. This efficient body of men belonging to the colonial forces was one of the first corps that existed in the country during the Revolutionary War. It was organized as the first body of regular troops authorized by the Colonial Legislature under a law to establish two full regiments of Marines to be composed as far as practicable of able seamen. The companies were distributed among the different vessels of the Colonial Navy, one of which, under the command of Captain Walsh, was detailed for the "Warren," where they performed heroic work, such as has made the corps famous throughout the country's history. When ordered ashore for service in connection with the Army, the Marine Guard of each vessel in the fleet was formed into a Battalion of Infantry under the direction of the Fleet Marine Officer, Captain Walsh, who was commonly given the title of Major while thus employed.


General Lovell's journal states as follows:

The men of the first division were ordered into their boats to make a feint of landing on the bluff of Magabagaduce, while the Marines were to land on an island in the harbor which commands the shipping and one of their batteries. The Marines made good their landing, drove the enemy off the island, and took four pieces of artillery and some ammunition without the loss of a man. General Wadsworth with the first division left their feint and supported the Marines, but unfortunately lost the worthy Major Littlefield and two men by a chain shot from the enemy's shipping which sunk their boat, and were drowned.

An excerpt from the minutes of proceedings of the first Councilor-war which took place on board the "Warren" after the Penobscot Expedition reached its destination on July 26, 1779, is as follows:

Present-The Commodore and Captains of vessels of war, the General and Field Officers of the Land Forces. Concluded-That the Marines under the command of Captain Walsh (of the "Warren") should land and take possession of the island in the entrance of the river, who are to be covered by armed vessels. One of which, upon the lodgement of the Marines, will hoist English colors at the main topgallant mast-head, and, in case they want assistance a white flag at ditto, and the attention of the enemy to be directed at the same time, by a feint of the shipping to enter the harbor; and the first division of the land forces feigning to land with the Marines, but as soon as the Marines appear to be landed on said island, they are to fall up the river, and land on the opposite side of the Peninsula.

It seems, therefore, from this official record of a Council-of-war, confirmed by sworn testimony that the taking of Nautilus Island was purely a naval affair, in which the Marines of the fleet, under the command of their senior officer, landed and took possession of the island, supported by armed vessels of the fleet and that the operation was carried into effect in a seamanlike manner. According to the decision of the council, the first division of the land forces was at the same time to feign to land with the Marines, and as soon as the Marines were ashore the troops were to fall up the river and land upon the opposite side of the Peninsula, i.e., on Bagwaduce Point.

The movement of the ships of war, in their feint to enter the harbor, began at about 5:00 P.M. and it is presumed that the militia took to the boats at about the same time, at which hour General Lovell was on board of the "Warren," and it is extremely doubtful if he, while the battle was raging, could have communicated with General Wadsworth and ordered a change of plan to accord with, his version of the affair had he desired to do so. It should be noted that, at the time when the British flag was to have been displayed on board the "Providence," if the Marines needed assistance, they had already made good their landing. It was low tide, with little or no current running and an unruffled sea, and at the time there were still three or more hours of good daylight yet available for the landing of the troops. The vessels of the fleet were all in position to support the landing party. Why lose such a glorious opportunity to meet the enemy? No excuse could be made now that the weather was responsible for the miscarriage of this third attempt to land the troops.

As soon as the Marines had landed and rushed up to take possession of the battery on Nautilus Island, causing such a precipitous retreat on the part of the enemy "that they left their tents standing," Commodore Saltonstall at once got the fleet underway and "came to an anchor across the harbor's mouth close to Banks or Nautilus Island," to cover the landing of the troops, which was not made.

This is the narrative of the affair written by a member of the Marine Guard (named Philbrick) attached to the Continental Sloop "Providence." It is as follows:

At sunset I landed with thirty Marines from the "Providence" with as many more from the brig "Tryall," all under the command of Captain Davis of the Continental Army, acting as a Marine officer. We landed on a small island of two or three acres lying in the mouth of the Bagwaduce, about a mile below the ships. The island was thickly covered with wood and underbrush. We soon found our way to the summit (which was not very much elevated), and commenced erecting a breastwork. We were very industrious through the night, making as little noise as possible, that we might not be heard on board the ships. Before the break of day we had our works completed, and received from one of the ordnance transports three long 18-pounders, which we soon mounted; as it began to grow light we trimmed up a small spruce tree on which we hoisted our flag and saluted our neighbors with well-loaded guns. This was, I believe, the first they knew of our being so near them, as they appeared to be perfectly still and quiet; and by the time it took them to get ready to return our morning call, a brisk fire was kept up from us and from the ships; we could frequently see our shots hull them, so that we must have done them considerable damage; they generally overshot us, but, unfortunately, one of their shots struck the top of our breastwork and killed two men and wounded three others. After about three hours' firing, the enemy's ships slipped their cables and moved up the river out of the reach of our shots. We next went to work, cleared a piece of ground and built some comfortable huts to lodge in until further orders. Our little settlement we called "Hacker's Island."

A copy of the first order that was issued to the troops after their arrival in Penobscot Bay is as follows:

The General, with particular satisfaction, returns his thanks to Capt. Hacker, Johnson and Edmonds for the spirited assistance they afforded the Marines in covering the landing, and the officers and Marines, who so nobly and with such alacrity made good their landing yesterday, on the island, and more particularly for their forcible charge on the enemy which occasioned their precipitate retreat, and the acquirement of two pieces of cannon; likewise to Brig. Gen. Wadsworth and the officers and men under his command for the seasonable support he gave them.

General Lovell was evidently convinced, by this time, that the Marine Battalion must be his main reliance toward securing a foothold on shore, and he called for the assembly of a Council-of-war to decide what should be done toward landing the troops.

After having captured the fort on Nautilus Island the night before this fourth attempt to land the troops was made, the Marines of the fleet were re-embarked on their respective ships of war, as has already been stated, and the charge of this battery was turned over to a force of sailors under the command of Captain Hacker of the "Providence" in anticipation of the next move. Major Walsh, the Fleet Marine Officer, had the men of his command well in hand notwithstanding they were distributed among a dozen or more of the larger vessels, some of which were at anchor quite a distance from the point of attack; and on this pleasant morning in July they were ready for the movement to begin and were the first troops to embark in their boats and the first to reach the shore, eager for the attack to be made. The rest of the first division, although they were also to have been ready to land at midnight, did not do so until some time after the Marines were ashore. The second division, composed entirely of about five hundred men belonging to General Lovell's force, did not reach the shore until after the Marines had gained the heights, and took no part in the attack upon the enemy made at this time.

Philbrick was a musician belonging to the Marine Guard of the "Providence," which force was a part of the Marine Battalion under the command of Captain Walsh of the "Warren," the Fleet Marine Officer, and so he was on the firing line on that occasion. After participating in the capture of Nautilus Island as a member of this battalion, he took part in this last creditable affair of his corps, in storming Bagwaduce Heights, and he is the one witness who was a participant in the battle that wrote a graphic account of it. He says:

The Marines were first set on shore on the beach, some musket shots were fired at us from the brow of the hill, but we were at too great a distance from them to receive any damage. When the Marines were all landed and about half of the militia, we began our ascent, which was indeed a very difficult one; had it not been for the shrubs growing on the side of the hill, we might have lost half of our men before we gained the height. Though I was not encumbered with a musket I found it very difficult to keep my footing. When we had ascended about one-third of the distance, the British from the brow began a brisk fire upon us, which they kept up until we were within a few rods of the top; they then courageously fled and left the ground to us. In this ascent we had forty men killed and twenty wounded. Among the killed was Captain Walsh of the Marines on board the "Warren" frigate, a very amiable young man and a brave officer. Our brave general did not lead the van in the ascent, neither did he bring up the rear, probably he and the commodore were walking the "Warren's" quarterdeck with their spy-glasses to see the fun. I saw him two hours afterward on the hill, giving orders about building huts, for which he was probably well calculated. With the Marines belonging to the "Providence" and "Tryall" (Tyranicide) we returned to our little island (Banks or Nautilus) where in three or four days the militia were comfortably ,housed as if we had come to spend the summer with our English neighbors, when everybody knew, if they knew anything, that an express had been sent to Halifax and that they would be prompt in sending a reinforcement which might be expected in a very short time. Our general was said to be a very good sort of a man, but these good sort of men seldom make good generals. The place selected for landing was very injudiciously chosen, being a high bank covered with small trees and shrubs, with an ascent of at least 45 degrees, whereas about a mile distant was a fine, level, clear spot, sufficiently large to hold the whole army, where we might have landed under the cover of the guns of one or two of our ships without the loss of a man.

Anyone who is at all familiar with "the way we have in the Navy" can picture to himself the performance of this gallant corps of Marine troops, the first regular military organization the country ever possessed, the two regiments which composed the corps having been organized by an Act of the Colonial Congress in the year 1775, soon after General Washington had been authorized by this same authority to assume command of the State militia, which formed the army of the rebelling colonies, as they engaged in this hazardous undertaking to land on Bagwaduce Point, in this eventful day during the War for Independence. After a sleepless night, due to their desire to get at the enemy, who no doubt had laughed at the futile attempts which the American forces had already made to accomplish this purpose, the members of the guards, attached to each of the ships of Saltonstall's fleet, sprang to their stations upon the first sound of the boatswain's shrill but muffled whistle, followed by the call, "Away all boats armed and equipped," and the Marines hurrying into the boats which the hardy seamen, who manned the ships, had already hauled alongside ready for them to embark, and in a quick moment of time the boats were being stealthily pulled for the shore, with muffled oars, across the still waters of Penobscot Bay. Hardly had the keels of the boats grated up over the gravelly beach and brought to a standstill before the eager, web-footed soldiers scrambled over the sides of the boats to the shore, like a parcel of boys liberated from school, regardless of the fate that might be in store for them from an unseen foe, the first body of men of the entire American forces to reach the goal they had come to take. In the meantime the ships which had been stationed near the beach to cover the landing of the troops were keeping up an incessant fire from their heavy batteries upon the precipitous heights that ranged the shore line, in order to hold the attention of the enemy from the real attacking force, which had at last accomplished the difficult task of making a landing. Forming quickly their ranks under the sheltered bluffs, the Marine Battalion, without waiting for the belated militia, who were still far away, striving, in an irregular manner, to embark in the awaiting boats alongside the transports, marched, with the right in front with the gallant Walsh at their head, into the thickets, and began the laborious ascent up the steep sides of the hill in their front. While feeling their way through the darkness the first division of the Army, or second division of the landing force, at last gained the beach, and followed the Marines to the foot of the hills, where General Lovell gave the order to halt and await the result of the efforts of the sea soldiers to reach the heights above. But they kept on up the declivity, with skirmishers thrown to the front, one of whom finally reached the top where he was met by the musket fire from a startled enemy sentry, who was here on outpost duty. The shrill ping of his speeding bullet had hardly finished its vibration through the murky air, before the rest of the battalion of Marines hurried on in advance, each man pulling himself up by holding on to the roots of the underbrush which lined the slope, many of which gave way and allowed the scrambler to drop down the precipice, until his foot, or some other portion of his body struck a bush that would hold. Up again the gallant Marines struggle, only to be again and again thrown back upon the rear files of the companies, who saved them from the descent to what seemed in the darkness an almost bottomless pit.

Thus, torn and wounded by the pitiless branches and thistles which covered the slope, they finally reached the top of the bluff, where they were forced to face the fire of the unseen enemy, whose murderous shot, which they could not return, kept snipping twigs from the underbrush which lined the hillside, until all of them, spent of wind and with loss of strength reached the plains above, where they stopped only for a moment to regain some of their lost energy.

Hurriedly surveying the field before him, the able leader of the Marines, Major Walsh, again formed his gallant corps in military order, which it had been impossible to maintain while the men, like squirrels, were climbing from branch to branch up the steep sides of a precipice two hundred feet high, and drove the now fully alarmed enemy's pickets back to their main works through the woods, and at once took possession of Battery D.

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