The 1779 Penobscot Expedition during the Revolutionary War was a horrible disaster for the rebels and Massachusetts government. It was also the worst naval defeat for America until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Every single vessel of the expedition, over 40 ships, was lost. Only one was captured, the rest destroyed mostly by their own crews to avoid being taken by the pursuing British.

What intrigues me about the American expedition is the fate of its 19 transports. From the record, we know a lot more about the warships and privateers that took part. Pursued by the British, most of those vessels made it through the Penobscot Narrows at present-day Bucksport. In the process, they left behind the slower transports to their own fate. Of course, all that did was delay for a day or two, their own eventual ignominious end.

But for the transports, the true workhorses of the expedition, there is very little recognition or notation. Other than a published list or two, there is scant reference to any of them. In fact, most sources cannot even decide on the actual number of transports involved or lost. They cannot even agree on what were the vessel names of most of them. This is a sad commentary, and the maritime history of Maine is poorer for it.

These neglected vessels were mostly sloops along with a few schooners. They carried all manner of provisions, armaments, personal baggage, ammunition, and troops. Their captains and crews were left to fend for themselves as the warships and privateers sped past them upriver. With the British at their heels and the warships having left them behind, most transports hung a left at Odom’s Ledge at the entrance to Penobscot Narrows and headed for shore. They beached and burned themselves all along Mill Cove and Sandy Point Beach on the west side of Penobscot River.

On Aug. 14, 1779, the beach and cove area became the scene of widespread destruction from wrecked and burning American transports. A British relief force under Sir George Collier had arrived the day before and effectively bottled up the Massachusetts fleet, who had dithered for days over attacking the British at Fort George in present-day Castine. Blocked from lower Penobscot Bay, the rebel fleet’s only option was to retreat upriver.

The faster-moving warships quickly left the slower-moving transports behind, a case of everyone shift for themselves. Massachusetts warships and privateers continued upriver, the last of them eventually beaching and burning themselves at the mouth of Kenduskeag Stream in present-day Bangor.

For the transports, it was a different matter. Historian George E. Buker, in his work entitled “The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779,” concludes that of the 21 transports to take part, 19 beached and burned themselves along the shores of Sandy Point Beach and Mill Cove.

Our local scuba club has been building a shipwreck database for Penobscot Bay and it includes what little has been found in historical sources about those transports. The database lists 10 Penobscot Expedition ships that wrecked at Bangor; all were warships. Another wreck at Fort Point Ledge near Fort Pownal appears to have been the armed privateer Sky Rocket. Vengeance and General Putnam were two other privateers, both of which were beached and burned by their own crews at Hampden. A wreck discovered at Devereaux Cove just below French Point and Sandy Point Beach has not yet been identified; it could be one of the transports.

The database also lists 18 transports wrecked at Mill Cove and Sandy Point Beach. Abigail, Allen, Bethiah, Britannia, Centurion, Defiance, Dolphin, Fortune, Hannah, Industry, Job, two different vessels named Nancy, Race-horse, Rachel, Safety, Sparrow and Unity. One of the Nancys, the Allen, Rachel and Unity were all schooners; the others were sloops. One of them supposedly carried the silver wares and items of Paul Revere’s personal baggage. Others carried heavy armaments and supplies, such as cannon, cannonballs, powder, food, medical supplies and ammunition, as well as troops.

Pictured is Mill Cove, looking downstream to the remains of the old sardine pier. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom.

According to sources, two transports made it beyond Mill Cove. Pidgeon and Samuel, which carried barrels of black powder, continued upriver through the Narrows before they were destroyed by their own crews. Pidgeon was burned at the mouth of Kenduskeag Stream, and Samuel exploded and sank at Oak Point in Bangor, roughly where Saltonstall fired his own flagship, Warren. While not on Buker’s list of transports, Charming Sally carried General Lovell’s personal baggage and was abandoned at Bangor, most likely near Kenduskeag Stream. This leaves one transport unaccounted for, possibly the unidentified wreck at Devereaux Cove.

Looking upstream on Mill Cove, along the broad sweep of Sandy Point Beach and Mill Cove. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom.

The disaster was complete. British ships held off from the flaming wrecks, fearful of themselves catching afire. Some vessels exploded, scattering pieces of themselves, while others were consumed by the flames set by their own crews. By the following morning, smoking hulks, which had burned to their waterlines, dotted the shore. Wreckage, ordinance, goods, and materials lay scattered along the sand and mud embankments.

Within days, British forces swept upriver and salvaged what materials they could easily recover, especially cannon and ordinance. For years, wreckage was visible along the shoreline, occasionally scavenged for wood or metal fastenings. Time, winter ice, and flood conditions were not kind. Wreck remnants were broken up, battered, and scattered, moved up or down stream, or eroded away.

On a bright September Saturday, my wife and I went out to Sandy Point Beach. I stood there at the stretch of sand looking both downriver and then upriver. My mind tried to picture the debacle as the transports beached themselves in a chaotic mess. I saw men throwing what materials they could out onto shore. I could almost see the choking smoke and flickering flames engulfing vessels as men melted into the woods for their long, hungry march back to Boston.

Contemporary Odom’s Ledge now has a navigational beacon and, on this day, two sleeping seals. Photo by C.E. Lagerbom.

That August day in 1779 had been bright and sunny, much like the one we enjoyed walking the beach. The shoreline would have been more heavily forested with old growth, the Penobscot Narrows bridge and observation tower would not have been the prominent focal point upriver. Odom’s Ledge would not have had navigational markers on it. The rotting remains of the sardine pier would not yet have existed at the southern point of Sandy Beach. And there would have been few to no houses along the water.

I slowly walked along the high tide mark from the parking lot area down toward the old sardine pier. Half sticking out of the sand and water, I came across a clump of something. Working it from the sand’s grip, the artifact finally came free.

This handwrought iron ship spike was found by the author in the sand at Mill Cove. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom.

When the sand was brushed away, it revealed a hand-forged wrought iron ship spike. Maybe it was my imagination, but the object seemed to pulsate with historical energy, an emissary from an earlier time with a story to tell. I’d like to think that it may have come from one of those 19 forgotten transports.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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