August 15, 2018
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A disastrous battle in Maine nearly destroyed Paul Revere’s legacy

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

Happy 283rd birthday, Paul Revere!

Let’s celebrate by talking about that folk hero status of yours.

Revere is widely remembered throughout New England as one of America’s key early patriots, a man who helped boost a fledgling nation toward independence. The story of his wild “midnight ride” warning Massachusetts towns that British troops were on their way, was immortalized — and heavily exaggerated — 85 years later by a piece of prose penned by Maine’s most revered poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Others might know of Revere’s successful career as a silversmith, casting items ranging from forks and spoons to buttons and church bells that still ring across New England.

Fewer remember Revere’s tumultuous military career, or a fateful trip to Maine that nearly destroyed his reputation and sent him back to Boston shamed and facing down the prospect of a court martial.

The Penobscot Expedition

On June 17, 1779, about 700 British troops sailed up Penobscot Bay and landed in a small settlement called Majabigwaduce. Today, that area is known as Castine. The British hoped to use the harbor as a base to attack American privateers and shipping.

Atop a bluff on the peninsula, the Redcoats started building a small wood-and-dirt fort they named after their king, Fort George.

Maine was still part of Massachusetts at the time but was treated in many ways like a far-off colony. British soldiers found little resistance among locals, some of whom were still loyal to the king and had fled more populated, less friendly parts of revolutionary Massachusetts. Others in the village just hoped the fighting wouldn’t hit this close to home.

Massachusetts caught wind of the landing and assembled a military force to dislodge the British from the bay. Their orders: “captivate, kill and destroy.”

The fleet boasted 44 ships commanded by Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, and more than 1,000 militiamen and colonial marines commanded by Brig. Gen. Solomon Lovell. Directly under Lovell, Brig. Gen. Peleg Wadsworth would be tasked with leading assaults on British gun positions and, ultimately, the ramshackle fort.

Then-Lt. Col. Paul Revere commanded an artillery detachment of 100 Massachusetts militiamen. It was four years after his famed ride from Boston to Lexington. While popular among his own men, others in the expedition viewed Revere as conceited and resistant to command.

The American force sailed into Penobscot Bay later that month. While American ships attacked the handful of British vessels anchored in the harbor, American troops landed, established a camp in the woods, and began attacking British cannon emplacements and set up firing positions of their own.

Meanwhile, British troops worked frantically to improve their unfinished fort, which had knee-high walls and gaps in the defenses. By July 29, the battle reached a stalemate and dissolved into a siege. For weeks, American troops prodded the British positions, but the fort stood.

Lovell refused to launch a large-scale land assault on the fort unless Saltonstall’s ships sailed into the harbor to occupy British ships and shore cannons. Saltonstall refused to commit his ships unless ground forces took control of the guns in and around Fort George. Their hair-pulling refusal to cooperate caused a stalemate. While they argued, the fort grew stronger.

Aside from a few successful assaults on gun emplacements surrounding the fort and skirmishes between troops and ships, little changed.

That is until Aug. 12. Just as the American ships were preparing to finally launch a large-scale attack to allow troops an opportunity to assault the fort, sails were spotted coming up the bay toward the battle. It was a British relief force of larger British ships with more guns than the Americans could counter.

The Americans rushed aboard their ships and retreated up the river, hoping to find a place to mount a defense. Over the next two days, the fleet fled farther and farther up the Penobscot River. As the British ships caught up, American crews started burning their own ships to keep them out of the enemy’s hands.

This is where Revere got into trouble. While Revere retreated upriver on a brig loaded with his guns and crew, a nearby damaged schooner began to drift toward pursuing ships. Wadsworth shouted for Revere to take his brig toward the schooner to allow the schooner’s crew to evacuate. Revere refused, saying Wadsworth had no authority over him. Revere had refused other orders earlier in the battle, and irritated commanders by sleeping and eating aboard the ships rather than on shore where the fighting was.

Wadsworth seethed not only at Revere’s refusal to follow orders during the evacuation, but also at what he saw as a show of cowardice and selfishness that put the lives of more Americans at risk. He wouldn’t forget the slight.

The last of the American task force made it as far as Bangor before deciding to scuttle and burn their vessels.

Blunder in the bay

By the time smoke from the burning hulls cleared, the entire American fleet was destroyed. An estimated 474 Americans were killed, mostly during the retreat. Just 25 British soldiers were killed during the three-week battle, with another 35 wounded and 26 captured.

Evidence of the trouncing — cannon balls, shipwrecks and possibly human remains — are still submerged in the Penobscot to this day. The Americans who survived the retreat and made it to shore were forced to walk more than 100 miles south to more populated parts of the state.

The Penobscot Expedition gets some attention in Maine history classrooms and during school field trips to Castine historical sites, but it falls well short of being common knowledge even in coastal communities surrounding the bay where the fighting happened.

Historical novelist Bernard Cornwell brought new attention to the expedition in his 2010 book, “The Fort,” which chronicles the fighting and decision-making — or lack thereof — on both sides.

The Penobscot Expedition started with almost assured victory for the Americans, but dissolved into an unmitigated failure — America’s worst naval defeat until the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

A committee that reviewed the debacle ultimately blamed it on poor coordination between land and sea forces, foisting most of the blame on Commodore Saltonstall for refusing to enter the bay and destroy the British ships. Saltonstall was court martialed, found guilty and dismissed from the military.

Wadsworth was never charged, thanks in large part to his efforts to organize the retreat and his persistent efforts to convince his superiors to cooperate.

Wadsworth and other officers were more than willing to direct a share of the blame onto Revere. They said Revere repeatedly refused to follow orders and called his conduct during the battle “unbecoming” and “bordering on cowardice.”

Revere was dismissed from the militia and placed under house arrest in Boston. His trial didn’t come until 1782, when he was acquitted of the charges because, a jury found, he couldn’t have followed orders due to the rampant confusion caused by the hasty retreat.

You can visit the Fort George site today. The British reoccupied the fort during the War of 1812, when they invaded Penobscot Bay again, and contributed some improvements, such as stone structures and barricades, a few of which still exist.

Revere remembered

Revere died at age 83 inside his Boston home, which you can still tour today. By the time of his death, he was little more than a footnote in the annals of Revolutionary history. His obituary didn’t mention his “midnight ride,” nor did it mention the unceremonious end of his military career. Instead, it focused on his business talents and early patriotic zeal.

Nearly half a century later, one of the most unusual threads in this saga of Revere’s legacy unwound. If Peleg Wadsworth’s surname rings a bell, it should.

In January 1861, as the debate over slavery and prospects of civil war loomed in America, a Mainer penned a poem intended to muster patriotic pride in the Northern states. That Mainer was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — Peleg Wadsworth’s grandson.

Longfellow’s poem was titled “Paul Revere’s Ride.” It chronicled Revere’s frantic ride to warn Lexington and Concord of the Redcoats’ arrival. The poem also took several liberties with the truth, ignored the roles of two other riders, as well as the fact that Revere was captured and didn’t actually make it to Concord. Another rider, Samuel Prescott, finished that leg of the trip.

What is true is that Revere, driven by a sense of duty and patriotism, risked his safety in an effort to warn leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

If not for Longfellow’s widely circulated poem, Revere might have been largely forgotten by today. The grandson of the man who helped destroy Revere’s reputation in the wake of a military fiasco turned Revere into a legend decades after his death.

In the wake of the poem’s publication, despite the purposeful inaccuracies and exaggerations within, Revere became a folk hero. In the decades that followed, towns in Massachusetts and Minnesota, and roads across New England, would adopt his name. Boston built a grand statue of Revere sitting astride a horse. Owning a piece of Revere silver or a bell became a point of pride.

Ring in the New Year

One place that pride is felt is Bath.

Each year on New Year’s Eve, or the day before if it falls on a Sunday like this year, Bath residents gather to celebrate by ringing the town’s historic bell cast by Revere’s shop in 1802. Originally cast for Bath’s North Church, the bell was moved to Bath City Hall, when it was built in 1929.

The event started as a commemoration of the bell’s 200th year. The fact that Paul Revere’s birthday also falls on New Year’s Day was a coincidence organizers didn’t realize, according to Mari Eosco, a Bath city councilor who serves as Main Street Bath’s interim director.

Attendees sing a version of “Auld Lang Syne” with lyrics altered to relate to Bath and the bell’s history. The city’s citizen of the year has the honor of ringing the bell during the ceremony. Afterward, attendees hit the streets to roam the downtown and visit shops, Eosco said.

Another Revere-forged bell is housed at Newcastle’s St. Patrick’s Church.

Eosco had never heard the story of the battle that nearly tarnished the Boston silversmith, but said it didn’t much matter. Revere’s bell still holds a special place in the city and serves as an important marker of New England’s deep history, she said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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