During the American Revolution, Maine once again found herself sandwiched between two warring parties. With Montgomery and Arnold's failure to capture Quebec, new America found that it would be unable to carry Canada along with it to independence from Britain. Less settled, less established and perhaps less civilized, Maine was in a precarious position at the edge of a new nation. The British took advantage of the opportunity to invade eastern Maine in June 1779 and build a fort at Castine on the Majabagaduce Peninsular. This lay the ground work to establish a new colony for their loyalist supporters. It would be called New Ireland, sandwiched as it was between New England and New Scotland (Nova Scotia).
Massachusetts saw this as a whittling away of its territory. Without so much as a by your leave from the Continental Congress, Massachusetts raised an army of 1000 militiamen, as well as 20 transports and 19 armed ships, many privately owned and not a few manned by sailors impressed for this duty. The ill-fated attack on the new British Fort George in July 1779 known as the Penobscot or Bagaduce Expedition was masterfully bungled. In the end the militia was abandoned, the ships and transports were sunk or run aground, and Massachusetts was all but bankrupt. But, this is another story.
The connecting thread is that the expedition brought Peleg Wadsworth to Maine. A Massachusetts native and a Harvard graduate, Wadsworth was an early patriot who served on the Kingston, MA committee of correspondence and began studying military tactics as early as 1771. When the war began, he rose quickly through the ranks and, at Penobscot, was second in command of the land forces.
After Bagaduce, the reputation of almost every American officer or ship's captain involved was ruined. Perhaps the only bright spot in the American leadership was Brig. General Peleg Wadsworth who returned to eastern Maine as commander of the militia in 1780, and there our story begins.
Fort George, Castine Maine as the earthenworks appear today. Dave Higgins Photo
Life in eastern Maine was uncertain at best. The allegiance of many inhabitants depended on the proximity of the British. The possibility of trade was a determining and, often, a necessary factor. Frequent raiding parties of British troops or Tories influenced the local populations to remain passive if not outright supportive of the crown. Patriots were targeted and killed; property and ships were destroyed or confiscated. When Wadsworth arrived Downeast in the spring, he found a population whose allegiance shifted with the wind. He did not find soldiers.
There were supposed to be some eight hundred state paid militia stationed in strategically located garrison towns but the actual high was 552 men in posts spread out between Falmouth and Machias. As their terms of enlistment expired, the men went home. By Christmas he was holed up in Thomaston with hardly enough soldiers to defend himself let alone the Maine coast. For the second time he was abandoned Downeast and forced to make his own way out. He wrote a letter of resignation, but before he could leave the British struck.
Blood and Carnage
What happened late one February night in 1781 is a fabulous story of a surprise attack, a desperate defense, blood and carnage, a villain and a kidnapping. Even better, it is followed up by a daring escape in a pounding thunderstorm with a brave companion.
For the complete story of Peleg Wadsworth’s Great Escape and an entertaining read see my book The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine. Information is given at the bottom of the page.
In putting together the book, some information about Wadsworth’s later life was cut due to space issues. It is added here:
Despite everything that happened to him in Maine during the Revolution, Wadsworth returned to Maine again in 1784 and settled his family in Portland. There he built the first brick home in the city and led a prosperous life as a land agent and surveyor. Not unlike other high ranking military leaders (Henry Knox, for example), Wadsworth speculated in land. Within three years of his return to Maine, he acquired a grant of 7800 acres, known as the Wadsworth Grant, between the Saco and the Ossipee Rivers for less than $1000. Two years later, 1,000 bushels of corn were raised on burnt land on his estate.
By 1800, work was begun on his mansion house on the Wadsworth Road in Hiram by master carpenter Stephen Jewett of nearby Cornish. Lumber was milled in Wadsworth's up and down mill on Great Falls Brook. One of the largest houses in the area, it has a seven bay facade and an unusual floor plan. The house is constructed with an unusual full cellar; a team of oxen could pull a load of produce completely into the cellar for easy unloading and then continue out the opposite side. The front door allows admission directly into a room so large and high ceilinged that it was used by the local militia for drill during inclement weather and at other times as a school. The customary stairway hall usually associated with the front door is found at the side of the house. The house, the third oldest house in Hiram, still stands today although it was extensively remodeled in 1875. Windows were changed, a piazza was added and a roof top outlook was removed. Originally yellow, the exterior paint was changed to white. Reportedly, many of the furnishings are original and brought to Hiram from Duxbury and Portland by the old General himself. The property remains a working farm in the hands of Wadsworth's descendents.
Wadsworth led a very political life. He was actively involved in the movement for Maine statehood and was chairman of the first convention in 1785 in Portland to address that issue. In 1792 he was elected to the Massachusetts senate and later that same year to the third US Congress. He was a Federalist and served as a representative in the six succeeding Congresses. In 1807 he declined the nomination for another term and retired to Wadsworth Hall, his estate in Hiram. There he set about improving his grant, incorporating the town of Hiram and serving as selectman, treasurer and magistrate. Peleg Wadsworth died in 1829 at the age of 81 and was buried in Hiram in a cemetery at the foot of the hill below Wadsworth Hall.
Thomaston sported a different Wadsworth mansion of sorts. Wheaton's one story house was much abused on the night Wadsworth was captured, but in the years after the Revolution the house was repaired and much enlarged with the addition of a second story. It was then known locally as the Wadsworth House, the Seavey House after its second owner or "the old castle". It sunk into disrepair and was torn down in the 1870's to make way for a new house. This one eventually became the home of Peter Hilt and his bride Phylena Burton. And so a descendent of Wadsworth’s fellow escapee Benjamin Burton lived out her days on the site of the Wadsworth abduction that was part of her family story.
No account of Peleg Wadsworth would be complete without noting his famous grandson. When Wadsworth left his Portland home for Hiram, he left the brick mansion to his daughter Zilpah and her husband, the lawyer Stephen Longfellow. Wadsworth spent most winters in the Portland house with his daughter and her family. The famous grandson who grew up in that house was, of course, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And when he visited his grandfather in Hiram he stayed in a room, now known as the Longfellow Room, next to the main hall.
It should be noted that Peleg and Elizabeth Wadsworth had ten children. She is aptly described as a woman of great energy (!) who ran her household and raised seven sons and three daughters often without any help from her spouse who was away at war or Congress for lengthy periods of time. Their son Lt. Henry, for whom his poet nephew was named, died at Tripoli in 1804. He was a volunteer on the near mythical (but now forgotten) Intrepid, the suicide ship used to explode the captured USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor. Another son, Alexander Scammell Wadsworth, was named for his father's dear friend who was taken prisoner and heinously shot down by the British at Yorktown. Young Alexander was awarded a silver medal for heroism for his actions while serving aboard the USS Constitution during its battle with the HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. He then went on to command squadrons in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. In 1840, as Commodore Wadsworth, he ended his illustrious career after serving as Navy Commissioner.
The brick house, now known as the Wadsworth Longfellow House, still stands on Congress Street in downtown Portland. The Maine Historical Society Library is just behind it with the new museum next door to the right. Few of its many visitors seem to know much about grandfather Peleg and his adventures, but all seem to have heard of his famous grandson poet.
If you are interested in the complete story of Peleg Wadsworth's great escape, please read the my MaineStory in
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.