My master’s thesis in history and archaeology at the University of Maine focused on a Revolutionary War trading post we excavated on the Penobscot River in Veazie. That structure had been abandoned and destroyed as a result of the ill-fated 1779 Penobscot Expedition, worst American naval defeat until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779, by Dominic Serres. Source: National Maritime Museum, London

All American ships involved were destroyed or captured. None escaped; most were beached and set ablaze by their own crews to avoid falling into British hands. Those sunken wrecks are another great story; more on them later!

One British ship involved in this battle was HMS Albany, a sloop of war that helped in the British defense of Castine during the Massachusetts-led attack. It served in New England waters for the rest of the war and then was wrecked off Maine in December 1782. A colorful history, a controversial commander and an ignominious fate…all connected with Maine maritime history.

Albany was commanded by Henry Mowatt, who in 1775 earned lasting hatred from many Americans after he burned Falmouth, present-day Portland. Mowatt (some sources spell it Mowat, others pronounce it Moat) had been on the American station as surveyor and naval officer since 1758. He knew more of Maine’s coast than anyone in the service, with more than a decade of hydrographic surveying.

But in 1775, his name to many New Englanders became synonymous with the devil. Today, there is even a Captain Mowatt Hot Sauce company, started by Dan Stevens in Portland in 1997. Their slogan is Captain Mowatt’s fiery fleet continues to burn the planet one tongue at a time. (captainmowatts.com)

The attack, however, actually seems to have hurt Mowatt’s advancement in the Royal Navy. With few options, he next took command of Albany in June 1776, disappointed in the posting. He thought her seaworthy, but in poor shape and definitely beneath his station.

Armed with 16 cannon, Albany was 100 feet long, 26 feet wide, and 230 tons. Wooden hull and plenty of sail, it carried 125 men. Mowatt called it “that wretched” ship.

In early June 1779, Albany, accompanied by sloops North and Nautilus, convoyed four transports to Bagaduce, present-day Castine. The large warship HMS Blonde sailed nearby. The fleet arrived June 17, landing 750 men under Brig. Gen. Francis McLean.

In addition to engineers and artillerymen, McLean brought 450 Argyle Highlanders from the 74th Foot regiment and 200 Hamilton Rangers from the 82nd Foot, totaling 700 men. A site was chosen on high ground and construction began, soon called Fort George.

To Mowatt’s frustration, Blonde departed, leaving only Albany, North and Nautilus for defense. Worried about this meager force and familiar with New Englanders, Mowatt knew to expect a counterattack, which soon arrived.

The Penobscot Expedition’s mission was to take Fort George, but delays and squabbles between naval and land forces doomed the enterprise and allowed Mowatt to effectively position Albany, Nautilus and North in defense of Castine’s harbor. He “sprung” the sloops, aligning them end-to-end across the harbor mouth, making any vessels that dared to approach face a three-ship broadside of cannon fire.

On Aug. 13, Vice Adm. Sir George Collier, suffering from fever and confined to a chair on his quarter-deck, arrived with a British relief squadron. Collier arranged his forces in battle crescent, trapped the American fleet in the bay and forced them to flee upriver. The rout that followed was complete. Most vessels were grounded and burned by their own crews; one ship captured, all the rest destroyed.

For the next six years, Albany and Mowatt patrolled New England waters, convoyed merchant ships to Halifax, seized smugglers and battled rebel warships. He never received any recognition for his defense of Castine. In 1782, authorities declared Albany beyond its usefulness. Nobody was surprised, least of all

Muster table for HMS Albany, December 1782. Source: Collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

Mowatt. Declared unfit and out of commission, Albany was reduced in crew and armament; its final indignity was to transport war prisoners.

It seemed appropriate for the times. The war was in its final throes, peace negotiations were underway in Paris, and half of Massachusetts’ northern province of Maine was held firmly under British control.

Albany was directed to ferry American prisoners from Halifax to Boston for its final duty. Mowatt had long called it “that wretched” ship, but due more to frustration at his own lack of advancement rather than Albany’s fitness. Relegated to ferrying prisoners, however, was seen as a personal insult to him. On Oct. 2, Albany was loaded with 232 American prisoners at Halifax and sailed for Boston.

In December, Albany departed Boston for Castine with a crew of fewer than 60. Reports say it had been stripped of armaments, although others note cannon were to be found among the rock ledges at its wreck site.

Albany sailed for Penobscot Bay into a winter storm and on Dec. 28, 1782, wrecked on the Northern Triangles, ledges at the bay’s southern entrance. The site is southwest of Vinal Haven, within sight of

NOAA Chart 13305 with the Northern Triangles highlighted in red.

Little Green and Large Green Islands. Located between Tenants’ Harbor and Matinicus, the Triangles are true ship hazards in Two Bush Channel.

The sloop grounded with such force that it tore out the bottom. Some abandoned the vessel and got into a pinnace and a small cutter. The pinnace safely reached Ash Point near Owls Head, where they chartered another boat and returned to Albany to take off remaining sailors. They eventually returned safely to Castine.

The cutter lost its way in poor visibility and freezing sleet. Three men froze to death. The survivors washed ashore on a small beach on Matinicus, afterwards referred to as Dead Man’s Beach. Residents took care of them and buried the dead. One survivor cried with shame at the hospitality, he had been part of an earlier raiding party that had killed some islanders’ cattle.

For years, visitors to the Triangles reported seeing cannon. One source reported Goose Rocks Lighthouse keeper in Fox Islands Thoroughfare often visited the wreck, which was claimed to be visible at low tide. He reported seeing cannon during calm seas.

A local Maine diver says what is left of Albany at slack tide lies in about 40 feet depth. It is possible to dive the wreck, but pay attention to open ocean conditions, tricky currents and the dangerous Triangles. Another challenge is that another wreck happened on those same rocks, one hundred years later. That was the former Confederate raider Georgia. More on that later!

Henry Mowatt served the Royal Navy for 44 years, 30 of them in New England waters. At age 64, on

Henry Mowatt’s tombstone, St. John’s Episcopal Church graveyard in Hampton, Virginia. Courtesy of David Bishop

April 14, 1798, aboard HMS Assistance off Virginia, he fell dead from apoplexy and was buried in St. John’s Episcopal Church graveyard in Hampton, Virginia.

Thomaston boy Joshua Thorndike was part of a privateer crew out of Falmouth during the war. He had been captured by Mowatt and kept prisoner aboard Albany for nine months. Learning of the wreck, he and friends would often go out and salvage what they could. Thorndike called it a detested craft. I think Henry Mowatt most likely would have agreed.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” available through Historypress.com.