True American Hero: Peleg Wadsworth Remembered
Almost lost in the pages of Kingston history is a genuine American Hero – Peleg Wadsworth. Peleg was born May 6, 1748 in Duxbury and lived in Kingston until 1775 when he went to war after recruiting a company of minutemen, of which he was chosen captain.
Leaving behind his wife, Elizabeth Bartlett Wadsworth, Peleg and his company of volunteers marched off to do battle with the British on April 20th. The Kingston minutemen were answering a call to arms in response to the Battle of Lexington and Concord a day earlier.
There is no question of Wadsworth’s commitment and dedication to the American cause. For the next several years Peleg was in the thick of the fight; first serving as an aide to Gen. Artemas Ward in March, 1776, and later as an engineer under General Thomas in 1776 where he assisted in laying out the defenses of Roxbury and driving the British Army out of Boston. One year later Peleg joined the American forces at the Battle of Long Island on August 1, 1776. He was made Brigadier General of militia in 1777 and Adjutant General of Massachusetts in 1778.
Peleg Wadsworth’s military career was at it’s apex when he found himself playing a critical role in one of the worst naval defeats in American history – second only to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The only bright spot in an otherwise dismal failure was Wadsworth’s brilliant organization of a retreat of the surviving militia forces in a long land trek back to Boston.
The object of the military disaster was a Massachusetts invasion of Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Bay State forces intended to capture the Bagaduce Peninsula in Penobscot Bay (the site of present day Castine). The town had become a refuge for Tories who had fled Boston when the British army abandoned the city to the Continental Army under the command of Gen. Washington. Castine was critical to the British war effort since it served as a source of timber for the King’s Navy, and doubled a strategic naval base and coastal trading post and a base of operations for free-lance privateers who harassed colonial commerce along the New England coast.
Nineteen armed ships, twenty-odd transports, aalong with a number of sailors and militia troops were raised; but the inept American commanders put the British fort to siege, instead of attacking – and allowed time for a British rescue squadron, including a 64-gun Man O’ War, to arrive. Because the British fleet blocked the route to the open ocean, the Massachusetts fleet attempted to retreat up the Penobscot River but the wind and tides were against them.
For the British, the rebel’s retreat turned into a turkey shoot. Every ship in the American flotilla was either captured, sunk or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture. When the smoke cleared, nineteen America war ships, and more than twenty transport vessels lay at the bottom of the bay or were smoldering wrecks on the shore.
British losses that day were 14 dead and wounded while the American forces lost every ship in their command and more than half of the 800 men involved in the expedition. The disaster virtually wiped out the colonial navy, cost Massachusetts nearly $7,000,000 and drove the state to the brink of bankruptcy and nearly knocked the state out it of the war. Back then, the staggering cost of $7 million was the equivalent of $5.7 billion in today’s currency.
Peleg returned a hero while on the other hand, Paul Revere and Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, Commander of the Fleet, faced court-martial charges for their roles in the Penobscot debacle.
One would think that after that experience Peleg would have had his fill of Maine, but one would be wrong.
Within a year Peleg was back in Main and determined to even the score with the British. In March of 1780, General Peleg Wadsworth was given command of all the troops raised for the defense of the Province of Maine which at that time was still a part of Massachusetts.
When the British learned that their old adversary was setting up a new command the crown’s forces made the first move and launched a lightening raid on General Wadsworth’s residence and headquarters in Thomaston, Maine.
On February 17, 1781, British soldiers caught the Americans by surprise as they smashed their way through the front door and burst into the house. A fierce fight followed and Peleg was wounded while as he attempted to resist capture by the enemy forces.
After his capture General Wadsworth was imprisoned in Fort George at Bagaduce (Castine). With their Maine home in enemy hands, Peleg’s wife Elizabeth and the rest of the household (three children and a female companion) made their way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and from there back to family still living in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Peleg’s will the resist the British didn’t end with his capture. By all accounts he was a feisty and uncooperative guest of the crown. Eventually he and a fellow prisoner chopped a hole in the ceiling of their jail and crawled to freedom along the ceiling joists above the British quarters.
Peleg Wadsworth then made his way back to Kingston and his family in Plymouth, where he remained for the rest of the war.
At the war’s end in 1784 Peleg moved to Portland, Maine (then a district of Massachusetts) and was elected to the Massachusetts state senate in 1792. He went on to be elected to the Third Congress and was reelected as a Federalist to the six succeeding Congresses. Oddly enough he is best remembered as the direct ancestor of America’s poet laureate, responsible for the Wadsworth in the name Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.