American History and Genealogy Project


From the Lips of Zilpah

In Six Parts

Part I. A Live Hero

"It was the dusk hour; of a winter's afternoon in the year 1818. Portland had been shrouded in snow all through the twenty-four hours and now the wind dashed the glistening snowflakes against the leaded panes, making the big room, lighted only by the warm glow of the logs burning in the great fireplace, seem a very cosy, sheltered spot.

A lad approaching twelve, lying on the thick hearth rug, pushed his book wearily aside. It was really too dark to see to read. His blue eyes gleamed with an inner glow, while his thoughts followed Ulysses on his homeward journey to Ithaca, where Penelope sat knitting, as do the Red Cross women of today.

He heard his mother's soft footfall on the broad stair and, with innate courtesy, pulled the big, winged chair nearer the fire-side and, with a touch of the long poker, urged the stout hickory logs to a warmer cheer.
"Mother" said he, If I only knew a real hero, I should be so happy. Horatius and Aeneas lived so long ago. Are there no heroes now?"

"Why, Henry", of course there are. I know one well," she answered with a lurking smile.

"I mean a live hero who has done great deeds," persisted the eager boy.

"Yes, a real live one, who is in this house at this very moment," and Zilpah Longfellow drew her slender, little son down beside her in the big chair, sufficiently roomy for them both. She brushed back his yellow locks and looked into his eyes for the dawning recognition of her meaning. A fire grew in his glance; his hands clasped hers in his intentness.

"Mother, do you, can you, mean my very own grandpa?" rushed to his childish lips.

'"Yes, dear lad, Peleg Wadsworth, gentleman, scholar and hero, my father and your grandfather. Do not make the grave mistake, my son, of thinking that physical courage or great strength alone makes a hero. The true hero has natural courtesy, tenderness and nobility of soul combined with courage and strength. Nestle here beside me, even if you are mother's big boy, while I tell you how my father happened to be one of the heroes of 76. We will call it the Story of Peleg. I will tell it as if you had never heard of such a man.

Part II. Story of Peleg

After graduating from Harvard at an early age, as was his custom Peleg Wadsworth taught school in Plymouth. Even in those days he believed that every boy should be trained to military service, ready at his country's need. There were some twenty little boys in his private school, whom he supplied with wooden guns, with tin bayonets and bright tin swords and just a few drums. Each pleasant day he marched his little company up and down the yard at Plymouth Court House. One day, when he was doing this, he met a beautiful girl, Elizabeth Bartlett, whom he afterwards married.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he joined the Continental Army, leaving his baby and his wife with her mother. He fought the British soldiers sent over by King George to whip the American colonists, because they would not pay taxes on stamps and tea. He fought them in Rhode Island, Ire fought them in Dorchester and he fought them once again on the eastern shores of Maine. He was so brave that they made him first a Captain and then a Major in service.

One of the older generals, Solomon Lovell, was sent by the Continental government to drive the British from Maine. The British had control of Castine (then called Bagaduce). They had built a big fort there named Fort George in honor of their perverse old king. Gen. Lovell took Peleg Wadsworth as his second in command. Paul Revere was along, too, as captain in charge of the ordnance.

In a fleet of eight or nine sail, they went up Penobscot Bay as far as the mouth of the Bagaduce. Then Gen. Lovell thought it best for Major Peleg to set his men ashore in the small boats, to advance along the shore and climb the steep bank near Dyce's Head to storm the big fort. When, after great difficulty, Major Peleg arrived near the fort, he discovered it was too strongly guarded to be captured. One of his look-out men sighted a big fleet of British men-of-war sailing up the bay. For fear they might be trapped and killed between the troops from the fort and the troops from the cruisers, Peleg took his men back to his own ships and they sailed further up the river to hide awhile from the enemy. The British saw them and soon began to give chase. To make sure that the fine American ships did not fall into the enemies' hands, the Americans, themselves, set fire to that pretty white-sailed fleet and landed by row boats on the banks of the Penobscot above Fort Point. They had a wretched time after they got ashore, for the woods were very thick. None of them knew the way and it was several weeks before they reached their homes. Peleg knew some-thing about woodcraft, for he had been in the Maine woods before. Nevertheless, they almost starved and were obliged to eat roots and bad smelling sea weed and even their dogs.

The next year Peleg was given command of the whole Maine district, but he always found Fort George too strong for him to capture, although he made several attempts. Finally he decided to take a house in Thomaston for the winter and have his wife, his little boy Charles and baby Elizabeth to live with him. His oldest girl, Zilpah, he left in Plymouth with her grandmother Bartlett.

General Peleg, for he was now general, thought there would be no chance to capture Fort George, guarded as it was by so many soldiers, at least during the winter, for the harbor was blocked with ice and it was very hard to lead the troops through the deep snows. You see, he never quite gave up the idea of some day being able to capture the fort. Castine was then one of the most important places on the Maine coast.

So Peleg sat him down by the cheerful fireside in his little rented house at Thomaston to enjoy the company of his young wife and play with his little boy and girl. All these years since he was married, he had been fighting the great fight and had seen little of his family. Every spare moment he was thinking and planning how to capture the big fort at Castine when the ice went out in the Spring. All his troops were visiting their homes and there was what might be called "a lull before battle" in this part of the state. The neighbors formed a guard for the Wadsworth family. One soldier, Old Hickey, who had been with young Peleg many years, stayed with him now.

Part III. The Capture

It was one stormy night in February, 1780, I think it was the eighteenth. It had snowed all the day, just as it has today, and the little house at Thomaston was surrounded by drifts. Everyone had gone to bed and to sleep in peace and comfort. A group of fifteen red-coated British soldiers crept stealthily up under the windows, whispering, stumbling and often cursing at the great snow drifts, which made it difficult to surround the place. The sergeant saluted and reported to Lieut. Stockton, who had charge of the expedition.

"Sir, your bird is trapped, for once he is caught napping."

"Fire one volley and shoot anyone who attempts to escape,'' said the lieutenant.

Such a racket as rose on the still night air! The bullets whizzed in every direction. The windows were smashed, the doors torn from their hinges, curtains ripped down and slashed by swords. The Red-Coats rushed from one room to another, up stairs and down, trying to find General Peleg. Old Hickey was shot down at his master's door. The maid ran in from the ell crying, "The Judgment Day is upon us." Peleg's beautiful wife, with a warm robe thrown over her night gown, ran to the cradle to rescue her baby, while a young girl visitor screamed for help, as a soldier was choking her, because she refused to tell the room where the General slept.

Peleg himself had fought like a lion until a musket ball had gone through his left arm above the elbow, rendering that arm useless. So he was forced to surrender to Lieut. Stockton, who helped him on with his coat, threw a blanket from the bed over his injured shoulder and carried him prisoner to a small privateer commanded by a young officer called Lang, which was waiting to carry them to Castine.

Suffering as he was from the pain in his arm, he could not keep his thoughts from the dear ones he had left in such distress. He was devoured with anxiety for his sweet wife and baby. There, too, was Old Hickey left for dead. At the last moment he was puzzled concerning the little boy, Charles. Why had he not run to his father? Had he been killed or frightened out of his senses by the commotion?

Thus Gen. Peleg went to Fort George after all, before the Spring came, but he went a sad prisoner instead of the victor he had hoped to be. As he went through the crowd of settlers pushing and jostling each other at the landing, many of them taunted him for being a Rebel. The army surgeon was called from his house in the village to extract the bullet and his wound was dressed. For several days he lay in a stupor and the fever in his wounded arm almost got the upper hands of Dr. Calef's treatment. Day by day, however, he recovered his strength. The officers at the fort called to see him often and treated him in a friendly way with the courtesy due his rank.

Part IV. Prison Walls

The time dragged slowly, but at last May came and brought with her a garment of fresh young grass with which she clothed the bare walls of the massive fort. Every tree, too, was bursting into leaf. No joy of Spring came to Gen. Peleg's bruised heart. He sat one bright day by the window, wondering if it were possible that he could ever get by the sentries and over that same green wall, if he should make the attempt. As he wondered, he heard a light tapping at the door and the voice of his sentry, "General, a visitor for you.'' He was so discouraged that he did not even turn around. He was tired of calls from those stupid British officers. Could they not let him alone to nurse his lame arm and think his bitter thoughts? A light step on the boards of the bare floor, then a pair of soft hands clasped his head and pressed his tired lids over his straining eyes; lips whose caressing touch he knew so well met his; and in a moment more, he held his beloved wife, Elizabeth, in his arms.

''Yes," said she, "General Campbell sent for me. He knew you were grieving for home and wife, I may stay a few days, he permits it and can visit you often."

Neither expressed the thought that was vexing each, that the next ship bound to England might take Gen. Peleg an enforced passenger.

Life seemed even sadder after Elizabeth returned to her children. Four prison walls held him captive and he studied them over and over for an idea which should free him before the ship arrived from England. It had been his one ambition to get within the walls and now he was equally possessed by a desire to get without the walls of Fort George. The night of his wife's departure he lay on his rude cot, sleepless, the light from the little window in the hall door, where the sentry kept watch of his prisoner, shining upon the rough spruce planking of the ceiling. As he gazed at the ceiling, the light brought out the immense width of the board. An inspiration darted through his brain. Why not? In the hours of early dawn he gazed again and again. The room was buzzing with flies and the planks of the ceiling-were specked and dingy. The idea grew and grew, but he was so helpless with his lame arm and his only tool an ordinary jackknife.

Now there was a certain man who had lived in Castine many years, by name Barnabas Cunningham. He was old and crusty and awkward. No one had asked him if he wanted to serve King George, but he had been told he must. However, his heart was in the right place, for it was with General Washington and the thirteen states. His half-sick, fretty old wife was even more of a rebel than he. So when Barnabas was called to the fort as personal servant to Gen. Wadsworth, they were both glad that he could be of assistance to one who had served the Father of His Country.
Barnabas had proved himself faithful to General Peleg. He kept the hearth and floor well brushed and acted as nurse during the long days when the general was so helpless with his injured arm. Peleg knew in his heart that he could trust the man. Often he had told him bits of news about the Continental Army, which had drifted into the fort from time to time.

"What's over this room, Barnabas!" asked Gen. Peleg the next morning after the idea came to him.

"Just an empty garret, sir,'' smiled Barnabas, ''with a trap door near the rough stairs, which lead from this floor at the other end of the hall; but two sentries in this hall, sir."

''Then what?" continued the General.

"Another flight of stairs, a long hall, with a sentry at each door. Sentries all over the lot, at the four corners of this building on the outside, one at each corner of the fort and strung along the bastions at intervals of say, twenty feet."
"Then you think I might have difficulty in dodging the sentries, thick as blueberries in August, if I should take a walk some dark night. Friend Barnabas?"

"Indeed, sir, you would, but better to be shot, than to die like a rat in its hole. It is high time yon stirred yourself. General, if you can use your arm," offered the old servant.

That night under cover of the darkness, Peleg tried to cut that broadest plank in the spruce ceiling, but he made little headway. The following day his morning greeting to Barnabas was ''Barnabas, a good carpenter is known by his tools. I would like to learn the trade.''

When the old man brought him his noonday meal, he put in front of him a very delicious looking pie. "General," said he, "my wife would be a second Molly Stark or Betsey Ross, if she knew how. She's heard that you came from Duxbury way, that's where her mother came from, so she's baked you one of them Cape Cod cranberry cobblers. Her eyesight is troubling her some, so be keerful when you eat it, there may be some bullets mixed with the berries," and he gave a knowing grin.

Peleg was careful. He cut the first slice very skillfully and just as carefully drew out the gimlet which he concealed until bedtime. After that he put in a good night's work at boring holes a few inches apart in that obstinate spruce plank over his bed. He filled the holes with bits of bread chewed into pellets, then smeared with dust the surface of the plank. How his arm ached the next morning.

At this time a second great joy came to him. Another prisoner was rudely thrust into his room and it proved to be young Major Burton, who had served under him during the previous summer. There was great rejoicing because fate had decreed that they should share the same room. The Major was soon initiated into the secret of the gimlet and that Barnabas was trustworthy. He in his turn gave news of the American army. Each night the gimlet did good service and fortunately the bread held out to conceal the holes.

Part V. The Escape

Then one morning they heard one sentry say to the other, that the privateer had been sighted. They said something further about the prisoner being too valuable a man to exchange and that in three days he would be on his way to England.

That night their escape must be made. It was the 18th of February, when Peleg was taken prisoner. This was the 18th of June. The day had been sultry. By twilight great, black clouds rolled up behind the fort. The air grew thick with a portentous hush. The birds circled over the barracks uttering warning notes. The storm broke in veritable fury; the rain pelted on the roof like bullets, the thunder boomed; the arch of heaven was split with cruel zigzags of lightning, a terrible tempest to be caught in, but the best kind of a night to make an escape.

Hastily the two men cut the board from the ceiling and climbed into the loft. Silently they slipped along the narrow space until they reached the trap and, with the aid of the General's blanket, lowered themselves to the floor below. Cautiously past the sentries, aided by the noise of the storm, they gained without detection the outside of the barracks. Here they separated. Peleg made at once for the ram-parts. Up, up their slippery green, one moment of breathless waiting on the very summit, lying with his face flat against the green earth, then down he rushed over the outside wall, just escaping the barbed palisades, and into the half filled moat up to his waist in dirty water, and on again until under cover of the woods. Fortunately the tide was low and they could wade over the mudflats across the curve of the bay to a point opposite the fort, thus escaping the guards stationed at the neck of the peninsula.

Within half an hour, all the fort and town knew of the escape. Troops were at their heels like hungry wolves. A barge full of marines was sent out to scour the mouth of the river.

Peleg, wet, tired, aching in every bone, conscious of his injured arm in every motion, found himself some seven miles from the village in the early hours of dawn. In spite of all these discomforts, he was wild with happiness. At last he was free, free! If he only knew that Major Burton was also safe. He could not resist the temptation to hear his own voice in the silent wilderness. Lightly he began to hum Yankee Doodle and with difficulty kept from dancing a few steps accompaniment to the tune, when he heard a suppressed chuckle behind him and, yes, it was Major Burton, half choked with laughter at the thought of his dignified General trying to sing and dance in reckless joy.

From then on, it was comparatively easy, for they had both been over the ground several times. They crawled through underbrush, keeping out of sight for the whole day. They lunched on a bit of bread and meat they had saved from their dinner of the day before. Finally they were lucky enough to find an old bateau with oars, hidden under a friendly tree. The bateau required much bailing, but after hours of labor they reached the opposite side of the Penobscot River. From thence they worked their way to Thomaston, stopping at friendly farm-houses for their food.

Part VI. The Dream

"It was through such storm and stress, that the men of 76 fought their way to make a good, free government for you and a thousand other small boys like you, my son. "Zilpah ceased speaking, waited a moment, then touched with gentle hand the head resting on her shoulder. The boy uttered a long, rapturous sigh.

"Mother, do you suppose I shall ever be a Grandfather and have my grandsons so proud of me?"

Zilpah checked the amused laugh which leaped to her lips at the quaint question. A vision came to her. She saw in the bright glow of the embers on the hearth, thousands, yea, tens of thousands coming to this very room to do homage to her father and her son.

That night was bitter cold and as little Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lay snuggled in his soft pillows, he dreamed a queer dream. It seemed to him, from one side of his big four-poster mahogany bed advanced a long line of old world heroes, as far as he could see into the dim corners of the room. They came with trumpet and alarum. The foremost one like a herald bore a shining feather and lo, it was a pen. Each hero as he passed, said "Write about me." From the other side came another gleaming group. These were all new-world heroes. As the train advanced, he saw in its ranks, Hiawatha, the Indian lad, John Alden, Miles Standish and Baron Castin of St. Castin. Each looked down upon him and whispered low, "Sing about us, we are the new, the broader life, sing our deeds."

In the little brain of the sleeping lad, the seed of prophecy had taken root. Both the house and its little owner were to go down to posterity- Famous.

Louise Wheeler Bartlett

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

Back to AHGP

Copyright August @2011 - 2024 Copyright ©2000-2006  Founded April 8, 2000. Debbie Axtman,  Jim Powell, Jr., Ginger Cisewski, and  Brenda Hare, for
the exclusive use and benefit of The American History and Genealogy Project. All rights reserved.