A Forgotten American Military Disaster In Our Own Back Yard:  Book Review of Bernard Cornwell’s The Fort

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/09/02/a-forgotten-american-military-disaster-in-our-own-back-yard-book-review-of-bernard-cornwells-the-fort/

The Fort:  A Novel of the Revolutionary War
by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwall, the author of The Fort, is the current undisputed master of historical fiction. He has written more than 40 historical novels, including twenty in the famed Richard Sharpe series, chronicling Sharpe’s rise in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars; and thirteen in The Last Kingdom series, describing England in the days of Alfred the Great in the ninth and tenth centuries. Both have been made into TV mini-series.

 The Fort, like Agincourt, is one of Cornwell’s stand-alone novels. It is a fascinating and moving account of the last battle fought within the borders of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War in 1779. The battle turned out to be the worst defeat of the U.S. Navy for more than 150 years, until Pearl Harbor.

Most Americans, and I would wager most New Englanders, have never even heard of this battle. Having majored in history at Williams College and read history for more than 50 years since graduating, I had never heard of this battle, either. Yet the results were astonishing. The British Navy and several British Army units routed an American army made up of Massachusetts militia and marines and destroyed an armada of 44 American ships from the Massachusetts Navy and the Continental Navy (the forerunner of the present United States Navy).

It was the largest American naval expedition of the Revolutionary War, and an ignominious defeat. Little wonder the battle has been largely ignored by American historians.

The battle took place at the mouth of the Penobscot River in Maine (which was then part of Massachusetts) – near what is now Castine. At the time, the site of the fort was called Majabigwaduce – named by the Penobscot Indian tribe for the “large tideway river.”

The American force included a 100-man artillery unit led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere – whose conduct, by some accounts, was so disgraceful, and some said cowardly, that when he returned to Boston he lost his command and was, for a time, put under house arrest in Boston.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Why did the engagement happen?

On June 17, 1779, British Army forces from Halifax landed under the command of General Francis MacLean and began to build fortifications, which they named Fort George. The British goals were to establish a military presence on that part of the coast and hold this newly acquired territory, which they called the colony of New Ireland. The fighting took place on land and at sea around Penobscot Bay and the mouth of the Bagaduce River during July and August 1779.

On the American side, the goal of what became known as the Penobscot Expedition was to wrest control of this territory in Maine from the British. The expedition was largely a Massachusetts initiative – Massachusetts had ruled Maine as part of the Bay Colony since 1691. The expedition sailed from Boston with ships of the state’s navy, but it was supported by ships from the Continental Navy and by marines.

The American naval armada was led by Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, descended on his father’s side from Sir Richard Saltonstall, who led a group of English settlers up the Charles River to settle Watertown, Massachusetts in 1630, and on his mother’s side from John Winthrop, who was one of the founders of Boston in 1630 and served as governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony for a dozen years. Saltonstall’s command consisted primarily of ships from the Massachusetts State Navy, a large number of privateers, and several Continental Navy ships, including a frigate, the 32-gun Warren, named after the Massachusetts patriot who sent riders (including Revere) to Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and was killed later that year at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Unfortunately, Saltonstall’s pedigree and character led to arrogance rather than humility, stubbornness rather than flexibility, and timidity instead of courage – with disastrous results.

The Massachusetts militia was led by Brigadier General Solomon Lovell – a Massachusetts military officer who had risen through the ranks, serving in the French and Indian War and later in engagements in Boston and Rhode Island in 1776 and 1777.

In leading the Penobscot Expedition, Lovell and Saltonstall were ordered to cooperate with one another, but neither was given clear authority over the other — a contributing factor to the devastating defeat to come. However, the major reason for the calamity was both Lovell’s and Saltonstall’s refusal to take the initiative and attack the British troops at the fort and the British ships in the bay. Neither of these leaders followed Frederick the Great’s famous dictum about war, “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace”  — audacity, audacity, always audacity. (Quoted by General George Patton in the 1970 epic movie about his life.)

When the Penobscot Expedition arrived at Majabigwaduce on Sunday, July 25, 1779, the British fleet consisted of only ten ships, including troop transports and sloops with small cannon.  Approximately 800 British Army soldiers had landed and begun to build Fort George. But construction of the fort had barely begun. Two days later, as the British worked feverishly on the fort, General Lovell had not yet attacked the fort, and Commodore Saltonstall had not taken his fleet into the bay to support a militia assault with cannon fire.

Rather than entering the bay and throwing his much larger fleet at the British ships blocking the harbor, Saltonstall waited and temporized. He finally sent several smaller ships to engage the British ships, without success. He refused to take his frigate Warren into the bay to engage the enemy for fear that it would be trapped under the guns of the British.

Finally, three days after their arrival, the American militia and marines landed and captured a bluff scarcely a thousand yards before the half-finished Fort George. British General MacLean had no intention of fighting and dying to the last man; he was prepared to surrender upon a determined assault by the enemy on the fort.

 Incredibly, General Lovell ordered his men not to attack the fort, fearing the fire of their several cannons. Instead, he had them dig earthworks and trenches to lay siege to the fort. The only American officer to keep his head and show courage and good judgment was Peleg Wadsworth. He was a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia, and second in command of the troops; he repeatedly requested and then begged his superior officer, General Lovell, to order an attack on the fort – to no avail.

At the same time, a contingent of 32 American naval officers wrote a petition to Commodore Saltonstall requesting that he immediately order the American fleet into the bay and engage the much smaller British fleet. Showing obstinacy and arrogance in equal measure, he repeatedly refused. 

During this weeklong debacle, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere, who commanded an artillery unit with 100 guns, rarely followed his superiors’ orders and was much more engaged in safeguarding his own personal baggage and enjoying the creature comforts of a senior officer than how best to use his guns to support the attack on the fort and engage the British ships. In councils of war, he invariably voted against boldly engaging the enemy.

In the two weeks after the Penobscot Expedition arrived, no assault on the fort took place. On August 11, 1779, British naval reinforcements arrived, under the command of Commodore Sir George Collier, with ten ships including the 64-gun ship of the line Raisonable and five frigates. Rather than engaging Collier’s ships in the open sea, Commodore Saltonstall ordered his fleet up the Penobscot River to escape the British fleet. The American troops, who were dug in outside Fort George, also fled north up the river. 

The British ships pursued the Massachusetts fleet up the river, and rather than surrendering his ships to the British, Commodore Salstonstall ordered all his ships, including his own Warren, to be burned. It was a total debacle. (“Seldom has there been such a complete defeat in our military history,” historian Henry I. Shaw Jr. wrote in the summer 1953 issue of Military Affairs.)

In the midst of this disgraceful retreat, Brigadier General Wadsworth, who was trying to organize a fortified position with artillery on the Penobscot River to engage the British ships in pursuit, ordered Paul Revere to bring the cannon on his lighter (a flat-bottomed boat) to the shore to help in the defense. Revere not only disobeyed Wadsworth’s orders but insisted that protecting his baggage was more important than aiding in the defense of fellow Americans. He ordered his men to continue rowing north up the Penobscot River. 

Most of the land forces and sailors who escaped were forced to return to Boston, journeying the 200 miles on foot through the wilderness.  Lovell did not return to Boston until September 20, more than a month after the engagement ended.

Commodore Saltonstall was court-martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy. General Lovell was exonerated by a Board of Inquiry, as Massachusetts politicians appeared to want to place the blame for the debacle on the Navy.

Revere lost his command and was placed under house arrest. A first official inquiry left him out of the report altogether; a second one found his conduct “not wholly justifyable.” Revere demanded a court-martial, and eventually got one in 1782. The court-martial acquitted him. (Skeptics point out that the governor of the state appointed the judge-advocate of the court-martial; at the time, the governor was one John Hancock, whom Revere had warned of the coming British incursion into the countryside during Revere’s famous midnight ride in April 1775.)

Revere would be all but lost to history if it weren’t for a poem written in 1860 called “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The author was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – the grandson of Peleg Wadsworth, one of Revere’s chief accusers in the Penobscot Expedition.

Bernard Cornwell does a masterful job of recounting this cautionary tale of how military units, through poor planning, lack of teamwork and coordination, arrogance, and timidity can be utterly defeated by a smaller force. It is a terrific novel and especially apt for those who know and care about America’s founding.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $5.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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