The Penobscot Expedition, a little-known event in Revolutionary War history, took place from July 25 to August 15, 1779. That year the British were attracted to the Penobscot peninsula (Castine) for several reasons: as a possible Loyalist haven, as a source of timber for the King’s Navy, and as a strategic naval base and coastal trading post. Early in June they sent a small flotilla from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with approximately 750 troops to occupy the area and to build a fort, later named Fort George. Capt. Henry Mowat was in command of the naval vessels and Brig. Gen. Frances McLean the land forces. They arrived at the peninsula in mid-June.
Since Maine was a province of Massachusetts at that time, the occupation of Penobscot, and its potential as a British naval base, was of great concern to the Massachusetts General Assembly in Boston. In record time, an American fleet of 19 armed vessels and 24 transports, with more than 1,000 ill-prepared militia was assembled and sent to Penobscot Bay to retake the area. Commodore Dudley Saltonstall was commander of the naval forces, Brig. Gen. Solomon Lovell had command of the land forces, with Lt. Col. Paul Revere in command of the ordnance train. The fleet reached the head of Penobscot Bay on July 25.
For two weeks there were a few brief, intense forays between the land forces but nothing decisive. Saltonstall, with his superior naval strength, was reluctant to take any action against Mowat’s three-ship defense, which gave the British sufficient time to send for and receive reinforcements from New York.
On August 13 seven heavily armed British warships, under the command of Sir George Collier, sailed into Penobscot Bay where they faced Saltonstall’s fleet. Anticipating a sea battle, Lovell abandoned all his positions and began a retreat up the Penobscot River. On the morning of August 14, to the astonishment of both the American Lovell and Englishman Collier, Saltonstall, who had the guns of his ships bearing broadside on the advancing British, turned his ships about and fled up the river where his entire fleet of warships and transports were sunk or scuttled and burned by their own forces. The panic-stricken crews and troops, with most of their leaders, rushed to shore and into the forest where they made their way back to Boston.
In 2004, the Castine Historical Society opened a professionally researched, designed and built exhibit about the events of a few weeks in Penobscot Bay during the American Revolution. The project was meticulously developed by volunteers Frank Hatch, Jim Stone, and Laurie Stone working with other volunteers and several contractors. The result was a multi-media installation complete with a mahogany paneled room evoking Commodore Saltonstall’s day cabin on the Continental frigate Warren.
The ambitious installation was funded by Frank Hatch in honor of his father, Francis W. Hatch, and receives continuing support from a bequest by Frank Hatch. Thousands of visitors have watched the documentary video, reacted with surprise at hearing about the role of Paul Revere, and studied the many levels of research in the touch-screen kiosks.
In 2014, CHS began exploring options for updating the exhibit and installed the revised display in 2016. The new design features maps and charts to connect the story to the landscape and invites visitors to read facsimile copies of documents created during the time the events occurred. Highlighting the local context and national significance of the story, the exhibit was built to encourage everyone to participate in the historical process, even to those who are not Revolutionary War history buffs.