The escape of Peleg Wadsworth from Fort George in Castine, Maine, was not something Col. John Campbell was anxious to report to his commander.
On June 22, 1781, Campbell wrote a letter to Sir Henry Clinton, starting off with his plans to leave for Halifax, the fortification of Fort George and details about the disposition of British troops at the fort.
At the end of the letter Campbell finally broke the bad news.
I am sorry to inform your Excellency that on the 19th instant, the Rebel Brigadier General Wadsworth who was confined here in a Barrack Room, With one Burton once a Major of Militia, made their escape, by cutting a Hole in the ceiling of the Room, altho two Sentrys were constantly Posted at the Door of the Room and a Window but in the Door for the Sentrys to look through to observe their Motions.
Peleg Wadsworth, the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, served as a brigadier general in the patriot forces. As such, he had a discouraging task. He commanded troops raised for the defense of the Province of Maine, then part of Massachusetts. He didn’t have nearly enough men, and the colonists along the sparsely settled frontier switched loyalties between the British and the Americans.
The British had almost completed an earthworks fort in Castine that could accommodate 350 soldiers. They wanted to establish a colony in Downeast Maine they called New Ireland
The British at Fort George had already turned back an attack in 1779, known as the Penobscot Expedition. It resulted in the destruction of 43 American ships – the worst U.S. naval disaster until Pearl Harbor.
In early 1781, the 32-year-old Wadsworth headquartered in a small frame house in Thomaston, Maine. With him he had three bodyguards, his wife, his two children and a friend of the family, a Miss Fenno.
On the night of Feb. 17, one sentry stood guard over the sleeping family and four other soldiers were stationed in the kitchen. Then suddenly a British raiding party of 25 men stormed into the house.
They quickly overpowered the sentry and the guards. Wadsworth’s wife, Elizabeth ran to their two children, who the British did not harm. Wadsworth barricaded his bedroom door and shot at the British from his window with pistols, blunderbuss and musket.
Only when a raider shot him in the arm did he surrender.
Peleg Wadsworth was taken to Fort George, where he was treated as an officer and a gentleman. Though he was confined to a room, he ate in the officers’ mess and was allowed books and writing paper. His wound was tended to and his wife was allowed to visit.
Eventually, Wadsworth got a roommate: Maj. Benjamin Burton of Cushing, Maine, captured by a privateer off Monhegan Island. Burton and Wadsworth began to fear their captors would ship them to England, where they’d probably be tried for treason and hanged. They decided to escape.
They bought a gimlet from a servant, and Burton began to drill tiny holes in a circle in the ceiling. Wadsworth acted as lookout, as the door to their barracks room grate through which their sentries could watch them.
They made a paste of breadcrumbs to fill the holes and hide their handiwork. They feared detection when butter in the bread discolored the wood.
After three weeks of drilling holes they readied for their escape.
‘No More To Do With The Military’
On a stormy night in June, the two prisoners punched through the ceiling and crawled out along the joists. They lowered themselves over the earthworks using blankets and met on the banks of the Penobscot River. Then they found a canoe and paddled across the river, evading a search party. For three days they hid in the woods, finally reaching safety in Warren, Maine.
Wadsworth went home to Plymouth, Mass., and, as he wrote in a letter, “I had no more to do with the Military. “
In 1784, he returned to Maine and bought property in what is now Portland. He built the first brick house in the city, now known as the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Maine Historical Society runs it as a museum.
The National Register of Historic Places now lists Fort George.
With thanks to Maine Memory and Hidden History of Midcoast Maine by Patricia M. Higgins. This story last updated in 2022.