Mining the past's depths in Maine

Sun Journal

History: Archaeologists plan to salvage artifacts from a Revolutionary War defeat, giving the Navy a chance for redemption.

September 28, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

BANGOR, Maine -- If Paul Revere ever shouted "The British are coming!" in this neck of the woods, it most likely happened during a moment of panic in 1779, when he turned tail and ran. And if the fleeing patriot left anything behind, it may yet be awaiting rescue at the bottom of the murky Penobscot River.

That's what archaeologist Warren Riess and a bunch of local historians are hoping. They recently began planning to search in earnest for such artifacts, although the items would be a reminder of one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history.

The debacle was called the Penobscot Expedition, and not until Pearl Harbor in 1941 were its losses eclipsed. That's probably why it almost never shows up in textbook accounts of the American Revolution.

Launched as an amphibious attack on a British fort by 40 American ships and boats, it proceeded so timidly that a British fleet had time to sail to the rescue, chasing the invasion force up the Penobscot River.

Every last American craft was either scuttled, captured or burned. Nearly 500 men were killed or captured. About 1,500 others -- including Revere, the expedition's artillery commander -- fled ashore into the bug-infested woods of Maine for a long, ignominious retreat to Boston.

"The salvage diving started within weeks of the battle itself," says local historian John Cayford, who wrote a book on the expedition. But that was the work of the victorious British, who not only held onto their fort but hauled nearly 100 abandoned cannon out of the water, shipping them north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to arm unprotected merchant ships against American privateers.

Retrieving artifacts

Now, 220 years later, it is the locals' turn to retrieve some of the booty.

A meeting in Bangor was held toward that end Aug. 30 at Miller's Restaurant, overlooking a portion of the river where perhaps 10 of the ships sank. About 60 people showed up to hear historians, archaeologists and politicians talk about what they hope to accomplish, empowered by a $15,000 start-up grant from the state.

Survey dives the previous week had turned up a cannonball, grapeshot, some broken ceramics and a brass buckle, while locating the partly burned remains of a wooden-hulled ship of 18th-century construction. Eventually, longer and more elaborate dives will have the help of remote sensors and magnetometers.

Riess, of the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center, has been trying for about 20 years to stir interest in such a project. He worked earlier on the excavation of some of the expedition ships scuttled at the mouth of the river in Penobscot Bay. Recently he has shifted his attention toward the river, particularly the section flowing between the towns of Bangor and Brewer.

Brian Higgins, head of the Brewer Historical Society, has been curious about the expedition for years, too.

"I'd always hear tales of Paul Revere, and one of them was that a shipment of Revere silverware was on board one of the ships," he says. "A while back a kid playing in south Brewer found what looked like a square timber and a sword washed up on the shore."

Cayford, the author, got interested in 1953. "I was working as a diver when they were building the Joshua L. Chamberlain bridge [between Bangor and Brewer]," he says. "We were excavating for a cofferdam. You were lucky to be able to see your hand in front of your face from all the crap dumped in [the river] by seven mills and the towns upstream."

But he remembers the moment that he looked up and saw a large shape pass through a beam of sunlight as it was hauled toward the surface. "It looked like a hunk of pulp wood," he said. "It was a cannon. We brought up five of them. They were 4-pounders."

They were made of bronze, each with the seal of Massachusetts, and they had been cast by Revere's works in Boston in 1778. Cayford had to find out more.

"So, I started digging into the situation, and in 1957 I found out why nobody had ever heard of the Penobscot Expedition. It was because it was such a disgraceful defeat."

Indeed it was.


Massachusetts commanders began organizing the expedition in June 1779, after hearing that a British force of 700 men led by Gen. Francis McLean was building a base in Maine, Fort George, near what is now the town of Castine.

Three Continental navy ships docked in Boston -- the frigate Warren, the brig Diligent and the sloop Providence -- were joined by three warships of the Massachusetts navy, one from New Hampshire and a dozen privateers, plus 21 transports and supply ships.

The flotilla, commanded by Capt. Dudley Saltonstall, boasted a firepower of about 300 guns and 2,000 soldiers. Luck seemed to be on the side of the Americans, if only because of the presence of the Providence, which under the earlier command of John Paul Jones had proved itself to be one of the ablest and most victorious ships in the Atlantic.

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