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Paul Revere was Court-martialed

Paul Revere was court martialed. He actually asked for it.

Four years after Revere took his famous ride and warned that the British were marching to Lexington, he fought a very different battle in the remote village of Castine, Maine on the shores of Penobscot Bay.

In June 1779, the British seized Castine and built a fort in order to establish a naval base in eastern Maine between Halifax and New York from which they could launch attacks. At that time, Maine was part of Massachusetts.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere, a skilled silversmith, became part of a combined military and naval expedition that left Boston for Castine to drive out the British. The fleet was the largest of its kind during the Revolutionary War — 19 armed vessels including three Continental Navy ships and the entire Massachusetts Navy.

Revere had joined the Massachusetts militia after being denied a Continental Army commission in 1776. He was placed in command of the state’s artillery regiment, an opportunity that would prove useful during his entrepreneurial life after the war.

The American flotilla sailed into Penobscot Bay on July 25, 1779, but had difficulty landing on the mainland. After some fierce fighting, Revere and 600 militiamen were just a few hundred yards away from the British earthen fort and in striking distance to overrun the enemy. However, the patriot land and naval officers could not agree on a strategy to capture Castine and stalemated for two weeks, while five British warships made their way into Penobscot Bay.

The Americans beat a chaotic retreat. The patriots fled up the Penobscot River, got trapped by high winds, and ultimately burned their entire flotilla to avoid capture. Revere’s men made a mad scramble into the Maine wilderness and had to find their way back to Boston. Hundreds of militiamen were killed or captured. The military fiasco of the Battle of Penobscot Bay was one of the most disastrous campaigns of the Revolution.

Revere was not popular among his troops. His aggressive command and perceived arrogance rankled many of his subordinates as well as his fellow military officers. His cantankerous personality became the catalyst for charges of insubordination, neglect of duty and cowardice on the battlefield.

Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth and General Solomon Lovell commanded the land forces. Wadsworth charged that Revere disobeyed his order to give up his ordnance brig in order to evacuate the crew of a schooner drifting toward the enemy. Wadsworth said that Revere argued that the brigadier general had no right to command him and also said that the boat could not be used because it was carrying his private baggage. Major William Todd also said that Revere had refused an order he delivered from Lovell to have his men retrieve a cannon from one of the islands in the bay. While Revere acknowledged initially refusing the order from Wadsworth before following it, he chalked the charges up to personal grievances.

Shortly after he returned to Boston and resumed his command, Revere was placed under house arrest on September 6 until the failed expedition was investigated by the Massachusetts legislature. Saltonstall was court-martialed and dismissed from the Continental Navy. However, the investigating committee did not rule one way or another on Revere’s culpability. The attacks on his integrity and patriotism still lingered.

Revere asked for a court martial hearing in order to clear his name. The primary charges leveled at Revere during the court martial were that he refused Wadsworth’s order to deliver his boat and that he fled Penobscot Bay without receiving any orders to do so. Revere argued that he did what he thought necessary to evacuate his men safely to Boston, in spite of “every disgrace that the malice of my enemies can invent.”

It took until 1782 for Revere’s case to be resolved. By then, the British had surrendered at Yorktown and the incident was mostly forgotten. The 13-officer military court agreed and acquitted him on both charges after deciding that the army was in such a confused state during the retreat that regular orders could not be given. At last, Revere had his reputation restored. He soon resumed his craft as a silversmith and the expansion of his pre-Heritage Site business to include the manufacture of artillery.

In 1801, Revere established the Revere Copper Company on land now known as the Paul Revere Heritage Site. With his son, Joseph Warren Revere, the company continued to manufacture artillery and munitions to defend the young country. The cannon shown below can be seen in Copper Mill Hall, above the Northern Spy Restaurant, whenever the restaurant is open.

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