George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the Massachusetts Council, 3 August 1779

To the Massachusetts Council

Head Quarters West Point August 3d 1779


Having received intelligence some time since that the Romulus Daphne and Delaware were preparing to leave New York on a Cruise (as was reported) for Boston-Bay1 in conversation with General Heath I mentioned to him my Intention to transmit the intelligence I had received to the Council, which I was induced to decline from his having assured me he had already done it—By the inclosed extract of a Letter from a confidential correspondent in New York, The Council will perceive those Vessells were prevented from sailing at the time they intended. But I have Just recieved a Letter from Lord Stirling stationed in the Jerseys dated yesterday (an extract from which is also inclosed) by which it appears the Ships of War at New York have all put to Sea since2—I thought it my duty to communicate this intelligence that the Vessells employed in the expedition to Penobscot may be put upon their Guard, as it is probable enough these Ships may be destined against them—and if they should be surprised the consequences would be disagreeable.3 I have the honor, to be with very great respect & esteem Gentlemen Your Most Obedt Servant

Go. Washington

LB, M-Ar; Df, DLC:GW; Varick transcript, DLC:GW.

1GW received this intelligence from his spy in New York City, Robert Townsend (alias Samuel Culper, Jr.); see Culper, Jr., to Benjamin Tallmadge, 15 July, enclosed in Tallmadge to GW, 28–30 July.

2The first part of the letter-book copy of the enclosed document provided “Extracts from a Confidential letter from New York Dated July the 29th 1779.” The letter referred to is Samuel Culper, Jr., to John Bolton, 29 July, enclosed in Benjamin Tallmadge to GW, 28–30 July. The extracts were three passages from that letter conveying intelligence on ship movements at New York: “The Romelus, Daphne and Deleware … at Stony point”; “The Le Blond Frigate … goes with him”; and “A number of Transports … to go with them” (M-Ar). For the extract given in the second part of the enclosed document, see Stirling to GW, 2 August.

3The ships were those of Commodore George Collier’s fleet consisting of the 64-gun ship of the line Raisonnable; the frigates Greyhound, Blonde, Virginia, Gallatea, and Camilla; and the sloop of war Otter that sailed from Sandy Hook on 3 Aug. bound for Penobscot Bay, Maine (then a district of Massachusetts; Ritchie, “New York Diary,” description begins Carson I. A. Ritchie, ed. “A New York Diary [British army officer’s journal] of the Revolutionary War.” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50 (1966): 221–80, 401–46. description ends 432). GW forwarded additional intelligence regarding the movements of Collier’s fleet in his letter to the Massachusetts Council of 4 August.

In September 1778 George Germain had directed General Henry Clinton to send a detachment of troops to the mouth of the Penobscot River in Penobscot Bay to establish a post as the nucleus of a settlement for displaced Loyalists—a post the King hoped to turn into a loyal province (see Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 15:193–94). In June 1779, Clinton accordingly dispatched Brig. Gen. Francis McLean, British commander in Nova Scotia, with 650 men, to construct a fort on the site of present-day Castine, Maine. Upon receiving intelligence of McLean’s landing, the state of Massachusetts, without consulting GW, organized an expedition to capture the post and eliminate the threat to its frontier. The state assembled about 1,000 militia under the command of generals Solomon Lovell and Peleg Wadsworth.

The naval force largely consisted of Massachusetts vessels: the 14-gun brigs Tyrannicide, Hazard, and Active; thirteen privateers; and some twenty transports. New Hampshire contributed their 20-gun brig Hampden to the expedition. The state did, however, receive the aid of three Continental warships: the 32-gun frigate Warren; the brig Diligent, 14 guns; and the sloop Providence, 12 guns. Capt. Dudley Saltonstall of the Warren commanded the naval force.

The Americans arrived on 25 July but failed to take McLean by surprise. Even though the British had not completed their fort, the Massachusetts commanders delayed their attack while skirmishing with British troops and establishing batteries in preparation for an assault on the fort. Their delay gave Collier time to arrive with his fleet, which also included 1,600 troops, on 12 August. After only a brief resistance, the Massachusetts troops, now trapped in the bay, were forced to burn their ships and retreat up the river through the wilderness to Boston. Massachusetts lost 474 of its militiamen, and all the ships in the expeditionary force were destroyed or captured. McLean reported 18 killed, 33 wounded, 5 who died of wounds, and 11 missing (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 16:166). Collier suffered no losses in either men or ships. For McLean’s account of his defense, see Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends 17:192–196.

GW at first received word that the British post had been captured (see GW to John Armstrong, 10 Aug.), and he continued to fear that the British fleet would arrive before McLean could be forced to surrender (see GW to Horatio Gates, 17 Aug.). By 28 Aug., GW knew of the defeat (see GW to Gates, that date). Major General Gates, at Providence, relayed full news of the disaster to GW in early September (see Gates to GW, 6 Sept.), and by 12 Sept., GW was aware of the extent of the defeat (see GW to Lafayette, that date).

The Massachusetts authorities praised their militia commanders Lovell and Wadsworth and placed the blame for the disastrous expedition on Saltonstall, who subsequently was court-martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy. Massachusetts eventually received a reimbursement of $2 million from Congress for the state’s losses (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 16:276–77, 339–42). In April 1780 Congress, on application from Massachusetts, referred to GW the consideration of another expedition against Penobscot (see Samuel Huntington to GW, 9 April 1780, DLC:GW). Though he admitted the “great importance” of dislodging the British from the post, GW deemed the expedition “impracticable” without a “naval cooperation,” which he regarded as “absolutely necessary” for any attack on the outpost (GW to Huntington, 17 April, 1780, DNA:PCC, item 152). The British maintained their fort on the Penobscot for the duration of the war.

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