New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Captain Henry Mowat’s Account of the Battle on the Penobscot

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From the blog at

Five hundred men were dead, 43 ships were destroyed and, in August of 1779, Jeremiah Tracy and other survivors of the attack on the British at Penobscot Bay scrambled through the woods to escape capture — or worse. Jeremiah’s involvement was revealed in this blog in 2011 with Jeremiah Tracy: Pioneer of the Village of Tracy, New Brunswick, at In 2016, A War Journal from Majabidwaduce on the Penobscot gave details of the battle at

A Depiction of the Battle at Majabidwaduce

From Wikipedia

Presented today is another account of the battle by Captain Henry Mowat, the British commanding officer.

It was a remarkable battle. Captain Mowat and company arrived in mid-June to set up a fortress in the wilderness. The Americans attacked three weeks later when preparations were still in their infancy. The British would surely be defeated, and it was only by luck that Mowat had sufficient naval forces to prolong the fight. In the end, it was a rout. The American force was utterly destroyed.

The following is from The Siege of Penobscot by the Rebels, London, 1881, reprinted in the Magazine of History, New York, 1910. Both of these edition were extracted from Mowat’s A relation of the services in which Captain Henry Mowat was engaged in America, …, in the Collections of the Maine Historical Society.

‘Majabidwaduce’ has various spellings and, today, its river is simply called the Bagaduce River.

Captain Henry Mowat’s Account of the Battle on the Penobscot

The Albany at last was called to New York in the beginning of 1779. Orders had not long before arrived from Britain for taking post in Penobscot Bay, and Capt. Mowat’s experience of the New England Coast being well known to Sir Henry Clinton on former occasions, he was proposed by his Excellency approved by Admiral Gambier as the fittest to command the naval part of the Force. The Admiral desiring to know the force necessary for the Service, was answered it should be Superior to any the Enemy at Boston could readily collect on such Emergency. It was accordingly settled it should be so, and that Captain Mowat should have a ship equal to the Importance of the object.

In the meantime, the Store of Powder in the Garrison at Halifax being totally exhausted, Captain Mowat received on board the Albany and proceeded with an ample Supply, the orders and Every equipment for the Expedition, being intended to follow: but he had no sooner landed the Powder, than he was ordered by Sir George Collier to the Bay of Fundy, and Sir George repaired soon after to New York where he was left the Senior Officer on the American Station.

On this change taking place, Captain Mowat, from reasons otherwise foreign to this Narrative, Considered it Necessary to urge what he had formerly represented to Admiral Gambier, and he wrote to New York from the Bay of Fundy, that if the Albany were to be the leading Ship, it would by no means be safe to trust the Expedition with one of her class, unless a Sufficient force should cruise between it & the enemy, until the post should be established.

This representation appears to have had no effect, for the orders for the Albany alone soon after arrived at Halifax, and were delivered by Capt. Gaylor of the Romulus to General McLean until the Albany should arrive.

Thus, if the Albany had happened to lead the Expedition according to the order, the whole must have been intercepted as we shall shortly see, & carried to Boston for a mere Novice might have conceived at once She was not fit to conduct it safely. The Consequences, which must be estimated according to the view & State of affairs at that time in America, Would have been tremendous. It would have been equivalent to a Second Burgoynade before there were time for repairing, or forgetting, the first: an immense Encouragement for the Americans, who were tiring of the length of the war, to exert their remaining resources, for the Opposition to exercise their clamor, and a proportional depression of the Spirits of the Loyalists. To the Southward we had but a slender footing in Georgia against such a disaster, the reinforcements not arrived as yet And the Army there inactive for Security. To the Northward Canada was not so strong as it had been rendered in the Succeeding Year, And Nova Scotia at least, lying contiguous to the territory of Penobscot, would have been overwhelmed, for by this detachment the Garrison of Halifax had been by the one-half reduced. This disposition of the Service must appear the more strange as we know Sir George Collier was by no means ignorant of the rebel force in the New England Ports.

But the dire Event was prevented by a mere accident & that the most fortunate in the World; for the Dispatch, forwarded by General McLean, did not reach the Bay of Fundy where Capt. Mowat was stationed, nor did he in Consequence get round to Halifax, until the latest moment having elapsed the General put the order into the hands of Captain Barclay of the Blonde Frigate, then Senior officer of the Navy there, who immediately put the North & Nautilus sloops of war under orders to proceed with himself And they were on the point of sailing when the Albany arrived. However this did not alter Captain Barclay’s judicious determination. They proceeded, had a long passage As might be expected at the Season, and at last arrived at Penobscot: The Rebel frigates Boston & Providence, who were cruising on the Coast of Nova Scotia westward of Halifax, finding the Convoy Superior to what they expected, did not think proper to attack it.

In a few days after the troops were landed, the Blonde departed, leaving Captain Mowat under a copy of Sir George Collier’s original orders, with directions for the North and Nautilus & all the transports to return to Halifax. Now soon the stores were landed for Captain Barclay had brought the Sloops of War there without Sir George Collier’s orders, Captain Mowat finding the wretched Albany was to be left thus alone, to lie in an open harbour distant from every Aid, and in the Jaws of the most powerful of the rebellious Colonies, to cooperate with about 700 troops in a fort not yet begun to be erected, was convinced it would be for the good of His Majesty’s Service to use the utmost Latitude, the order would admit of, to postpone the departure of the Ships, from the following view of the Situation of the Armament.

The Bay of the Penobscot is spacious and capable of containing all the Navy in the World. In a corner of it about fourteen leagues distant from the open Sea, near the Embrochure (sic) of Penobscot River is the Harbour of Magebigwaduce. This Harbour is formed on the one Side by the Mainland, and along the entire other side of it Stretches the Peninsula of Magebigwaduce. Cross — now Nautilus Island — is at the entrance of the Harbor. The Peninsula of Magebigwaduce is a high Ridge of land at that time much encumbered with wood. To its summit, where the fort was ordered to be erected there is an ascent of more than a quarter of a mile from the nearest shore of the harbour.

The Provisions, Artillery and Engineer Stores and the equipage of the troops, being landed on the Beach, must be carried to the Ground of the fort chiefly by the labor of the men against the ascent, there being only a Couple of small teams to Assist in it. The ground & all the Avenues to it, was to be examined, cleared from wood, and at the same time guarded. Materials were to be collected & prepared, And the defenses, as well as every convenience of the fort, were to be reared. Let anyone conversant in Matters of this Nature, reflect what a work it was for 700 men, And he will also readily allow, that in the Course of it they could not possibly, whether from fatigue, or in point of Necessary Preparation be in Condition of repelling any powerful attack. That, as appears also from the rebel General Level’s letter, everything depended on our Men of War being able to prevent the Enemy from entering the Harbour, which was not liable to be commanded or protected by the Guns of the Fort. That the Harbour once forced, a Superior Number of the Enemy might land on the most convenient parts of the Peninsula, cut off the communication of our Troops with that considerable part of the Necessary Stores, which to the last while the fort was erecting, must unavoidably be left on the Beach, force them to retire within the unfinished Breastwork, where Surrounded without cover, Comfort or defence, they could have no alternative but to yield Prisoners of War in a few days, or to risk an action against thrice their number on ground from its Nature more favorable to the Enemy’s mode of fighting than for theirs. It is altogether Superfluous to comment any farther on the orders by which a harbour, of this Importance must be left to the sole protection of the Albany Sloop, carrying ten Six and Six four pounders.

The Blonde Frigate had not been many days departed, when Captain Mowat having taken Measures for procuring the best information from Boston, concluded that the Post would soon be attacked, and he proposed to General McLean to give his concurrence for detaining the North & Nautilus, as well as the Transports, judging the General’s Consent to be eligible, because otherwise he would be liable to Account for acting contrary to the orders left with him.

The General equally confident in the Intelligence, gave his Concurrence, and accordingly in the fifth week from the Arrival of the Royal Armament at Penobscot, the Rebel fleet appeared in the Bay, consisting of eighteen vessels of war as per the margin, besides Transports having on board all necessary Stores and between two and three thousand Land forces.

At that time a great portion of the stores had not as yet been carried up to the fort. Its Scite [height?] was lower by several feet, than a piece of ground at the distance of six hundred yards. The Parapet, fronting this higher ground was scarcely four feet high. All the other parts of the Parapet, parallel to the Harbour of Magebagwaduce and in the rear, were not three feet high. The two Bastions to the harbour were quite open. The troops were encamped on the area, which might be about the Space of an Acre, there had been a Shade erected for the Provisions. The Powder was lodged in covered holes dug in the proposed Glacis: There was but a Single Gun Mounted, & that a Six Pounder.

The Naval force in Magebagwaduce Harbour were the Albany, North & Nautilus, Sloops of War, Commanded by Captains Mowat, Selby and Farnham, and four Transports.

In this force and State of Preparation, one may easier conceive than describe the anxiety & hopes of all concerned on the appearance of so formidable an Armament.

The enemy came up, and paraded before the entrance of the harbour, in perfect confidence of entering it without difficulty, which would have been the case had the Albany been alone, and then everything would have been over at once; but there was such an excellent Disposition made of the Sloops of War & Transports in the entrance of the Harbour, as baffled every attempt of the Enemy to force it for three days then they prepared to land their troops on a Bluff of the Peninsula without the harbour, where the General could place pickets communicating with the Main body in the fort, to watch & to oppose, the debarkation.

These three or four days of Embarrassment on the part of the rebels gave our troops time to do something more to the Fort, to carry up the most necessary Stores, to mount several guns, and in short to devote every Endeavor to the present Exigency. The Enemy, having failed in their attempts on the harbour, effected at last a landing on the bluff, and by superior numbers forced the Pickets into the Fort, took possession of the high ground, above mentioned, within six hundred yards thereof & immediately erected their Batteries and Lines.

In this Position both Parties continued firing at one another during the whole Siege. Our Troops, though extremely harassed, were daily getting into a better Situation, with the Assistance of the Seamen, and the Requisites which the Men of War furnished, as well as their own Stores. Secure on the Flanks & in the rear while our Ships maintained the Harbour, they had only to exert their chief attention & Efforts on the side fronting the Enemies Lines, which effectually deterred the latter from advancing in that direction.

They had erected Batteries on Nautilus Island, & in the rear of the harbour, all within point blanc shot shot of any position, in which the ships could be placed, but the proper choice of different stations on every emergency eluded their utmost efforts to enter it.

Thus both sides were employed, ashore & afloat, for 21 Days, in a variety of Manouveres, which are in part described in a Journal kept by an officer on shore & published by J.C. Esq. [John Calef ]

In the Meantime Intelligence having reached New York, that Penobscot was attacked, Sir George Collier Sailed to its relief, with the Raisonable Ship of the Line, Blonde, Virginia, Carmilla, Galatea, &c. They were perceived off Penobscot Bay by the rebel look-out vessel in the Evening. In the course of the night they embarked their Troops, &c., and in the Morning early their fleet was seen under Sail; but the wind failing them to get round the upper end of Long Island, they had no alternative but to run up Penobscot River. These Manouvres were a proof that the Strange Ships sailing up the Bay were a relief and the three Sloops of War being employed from daylight in embarking the part of their Guns that were ashore on the Batteries, &c., &c., were able to join in the center of the King’s Ships: during the pursuit one of the rebel vessels struck, after a few shots, to the Blonde & Virginia: Another ran ashore at the same time some distance below the mouth of the River, and was some time after taken possession of by the Raisonable, which brought up the rear: All the rest, with the advantage of good pilots & of a whole flood tide which happened in the night, got such a distance up the River, as afforded time for destroying them, And the crews made the best of their way to New England, thro the woods, in the utmost distress.

Thus ended the attack on Penobscot. It was positively the severest blow received by the American Naval force during the War. The trade to Canada, which was intended, after the expected reduction of the Post of Penobscot, to be intercepted by this very armament, went safe that Season: The New England Provinces did not for the remaining period of the contest recover the loss of Ships, and the Expense of fitting out the Expedition: Every thought of attempting Canada, & Nova Scotia, was thenceforth laid aside, and the trade & Transports from the Banks of Newfoundland along the Coast of Nova Scotia, &c: enjoyed unusual Security.

After all was over, it was natural to be expected, that Sir George Collier would have been Supremely happy to have represented this important Service in its proper colors, and that Capt. Mowat would, according to the Custom of the Service, have been sent home with the Account: But in answer to the Claim, Sir George expressed the utmost regret, that he could not spare a Ship from the Station: assured that if he intended to send an officer to England Capt. Mowat would certainly be the person; that he only meant to transmit the Dispatches by New York, in which he pledged his word, as he held it to be no more than his duty, that the Services of the Sloops of War would be represented in the most honorable Manner to the Admiralty.

On the next day & before there was time to attend to writing the Official Account of the Siege, he put the Albany under orders to proceed up Penobscot River to the Rebel Wrecks, observing it would be some time before he would leave the Bay. This done he departed abruptly for New York, and had no sooner gone out to Sea, than the Greyhound’s Signal was made to part Company, And she proceeded directly to England with his Account.

Her destination had been Kept a Secret from everyone, General McLean excepted, who in his publick Letter Acknowledges having been privately informed. This is the Manner, in which Captain Mowat was prevented Sending an Official Account of the Siege, And, Notwithstanding Sir George Collier having solemnly pledged himself as above, we See his account to the Admiralty confined to the Merit which we will readily allow him of sailing from New York to the relief with a Squadron Which the United Naval force of All America was incompetent to resist even in a Crescent & to a description of the Disposition & destruction of the Rebel Ships, which however could not be discerned by anyone from on board the Raisonable: The Service of the three Sloops of War during the Siege were totally omitted & their Captains not even named.

When Admiral Arbuthnot’s arrival had put an end to Sir George Collier’s Command, Captain Mowat hoped some Justice would have been done him for the Service performed at Penobscot, at least so far as the laying a fair representation of it before the Admiralty, but there was not the least notice taken of him, and he was left at Magebigwaduce under a continuation of the distress of seeing also, that every Promotion, made by this Admiral, was without a single exception, of officers Junior to him: Among these an Officer, who had received his first Commission into the Albany when Captain Mowat was appointed to her, was made Post Captain: It is not from any individious (sic) Motive this Instance is given on Captain s Mowat’s part: None can be more happy in the good fortune of an Officer, with whose great Merit he has had opportunities of being well Acquainted: but it is a Contrast to the glaring Injustice himself has Met with.


Written by johnwood1946

June 28, 2017 at 8:43 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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