August 13, 1779: Worst US Navy Defeat in History (Until Pearl Harbor)

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A Brief History

On August 13, 1779, a combined US Naval and ground expeditionary force was defeated after a 3 week campaign known as The Penobscot Expedition, the worst defeat in US Navy history until the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Digging Deeper

During the American Revolutionary War, the British had seized the mid-coastal region of Maine and declared it to be “New Ireland,” and the fledgling American government sought to reclaim this area from the British.  A large expedition was assembled, including 19 warships, 25 smaller auxiliary craft, and 1000 ground troops, consisting of Colonial Marines and Militiamen.  Paul Revere served as a Colonel of the Militia in charge of an artillery force of 100 men.

Facing this imposing American naval and amphibious force were 10 British warships and 700 regular British soldiers.  The British had eyed Maine (a part of Massachusetts until statehood was granted in 1820) as a base to prevent American raiders from preying upon the East Coast of Canada and the Canadian shipping.  Additionally, the British sought to protect their source of timber for ship building, especially the tall trees used as masts.

British forces arrived in Maine in June of 1779 and went about building fortifications for their new strongpoint, establishing Fort George on what is now the Castine Peninsula to protect the harbor.  The Americans quickly realized the strategic importance of the Penobscot River and assembled a force of sea and ground forces to retake the Penobscot area of Maine.  The American forces arrived on June 25, 1779, and the battle started with a naval engagement.

American forces landed, with the Continental Marine detachment taking a British battery, while the American Militia began setting up a siege of the British fort, having failed in their objective of taking the other artillery battery.  Over the next 3 weeks a series of failed attacks and naval battles took place, with the fighting characterized by excessive caution on the part of American commanders at sea and on land.  Despite superior numbers, the Americans failed to evict the British.

American losses were staggering compared to the mild British losses.  Every single American ship was lost (!) and 474 of the Americans were killed, wounded or captured.  The British lost only 86 men killed (25), wounded (35) and captured (26).  Some of the American ships lost were scuttled or burned by their own crews to avoid capture by the British when they were trapped after fleeing up the Penobscot River.  The hapless American ground forces and naval crews without their ships were forced to retreat overland to Boston, and were attacked and harassed along the way, losing as many or more men during the retreat as had been lost in the failed assaults.

Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, the American naval commander, was court martialed for his failure to attack the British ships prior to their reinforcement, and was found guilty, punishment being dismissal from the Navy.  Colonel Paul Revere was also court martialed for disobedience and cowardice, and was likewise dismissed from the Militia.  (Revere was later cleared of these charges.)

The British remained at Penobscot/Castine/New Ireland until the end of the War when they left per the Treaty of Paris.  During the War of 1812, the British came back and occupied the same area and same Fort from 1814 to 1815 when another peace treaty (The Treaty of Ghent) ordered their evacuation of Maine.

The United States Navy would not suffer such a crushing defeat for the next 162 years until the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  The Penobscot Expedition defeat and fiasco remains obscure to the American public despite its historic epic fail.  What other American defeats are likewise ignored by American historians and school teachers?  Please feel free to cite other examples of this sort of historical revisionism through omission of failure.

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Historical Evidence

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The featured image in this article, a depiction of naval action in the American Revolutionary War‘s 1779 Penobscot Expedition, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.