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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Perilous Escape of Wadsworth and Burton

By Timothy Dwight (1752–1817)

[Born in Northampton, Mass., 1752. Died at New Haven, Conn., 1817. Travels in New England and New York. 1821.]

ABOUT the middle of April Major Benjamin Burton, an agreeable, brave, and worthy man, who had served under General Wadsworth the preceding summer, was taken on his passage from Boston to St. George’s river, the place of his residence; brought to the fort at Bagaduce; and lodged in the same room with General Wadsworth. Burton confirmed the report of the servants. He had learned from a source which he justly regarded as authentic that both himself and the General were to be sent, immediately after the return of a privateer now out upon a cruise, either to New York or to Halifax, and thence to England. There they were to remain prisoners until the close of the war; and were to be treated afterward as circumstances should direct. This intelligence, thus confirmed, explained at once the monitory caution of Miss Fenno; and perfectly exhibited to General Wadsworth the importance of “taking care of himself.”

The gentlemen were not long in determining, that they would not cross the Atlantic as prisoners. They resolved that they would effect their escape, or perish in the attempt. When an enterprise bordering on desperation is resolutely undertaken the means of accomplishing it are rarely wanted.

It must, however, be admitted that scarcely any circumstances could promise less than theirs. They were confined in a grated room, in the officers’ barracks, within the fort. The walls of this fortress exclusively of the depth of the ditch surrounding it were twenty feet high; with fraising on the top and chevaux-de-frise at the bottom. Two sentinels were always in the entry; and their door, the upper part of which was a window-sash, might be opened by these watchmen whenever they thought proper—and was actually opened at seasons of peculiar darkness and silence. At the exterior doors of the entries sentinels were also stationed; as were others in the body of the fort and at the quarters of Gen. Campbell. At the guard-house a strong guard was daily mounted. Several sentinels were daily stationed on the walls of the fort, and a complete line occupied them by night. Without the ditch, glacis, and abatis another complete set of solders patrolled through the night also. The gate of the fort was shut at sunset, and a piquet guard was placed on, or near, the isthmus leading from the fort to the main-land.

Bagaduce, on the middle of which the fort stands, is a peninsula about a mile and a half in length and a mile in breadth, washed by Penobscot Bay on the south, Bagaduce river on the east, on the north-west by a broad cove, and throughout the remainder of the circle by the bay and river of Penobscot. A sandy beach, however, connects it with the main-land on the western side. From these facts the difficulties of making an escape may be imperfectly imagined. Indeed, nothing but the melancholy prospect of a deplorable captivity in the hands of an enemy, exasperated by a long and tedious war carried on against those who were deemed rebels, could have induced the prisoners to take this resolution.

Not long after a cartel arrived from Boston bringing letters from the Governor and Council to General Wadsworth, with a proposal for his exchange and a sum of money, etc., for his use. These were carefully delivered to him; but the exchange being, as General Campbell said, not authorized, he refused to liberate the prisoners. This determination they had expected.

Several plans were proposed by the gentlemen for their escape, and successively rejected. At length they resolved on the following. The room in which they were confined was ceiled with boards. One of these they determined to cut off, so as to make a hole sufficiently large for a man to go through. After having passed through this hole they proposed to creep along one of the joists, under which these boards were nailed, and thus to pass over the officers’ rooms bordering on it until they should come to the next or middle entry; and then to lower themselves down into this entry by a blanket which they proposed to carry with them. If they should be discovered they proposed to act the character of officers, belonging to the garrison, intoxicated. These being objects to which the sentinels were familiarized, they hoped in this disguise to escape detection. If they should not be discovered, the passage to the walls of the fort was easy. Thence they intended to leap into the ditch; and, if they escaped without serious injury from the fall, to make the best of their way to the cove; on the surface of whose water they meant to leave their hats floating (if they should be closely pursued) to attract the fire of the enemy, while they were softly and silently making their escape.

Such was their original plan. Accordingly, after the prisoners had been seen by the sentinel, looking through the glass of the door, to have gone to bed, Gen. W. got up, the room being dark; and, standing in a chair, attempted to cut with his knife the intended opening; but he found the attempt useless and hazardous. It was useless, because the labor was too great to be accomplished with the necessary expedition. It was hazardous, because the noise made by the strokes of the knife could not fail, amid the profound silence, of being heard by the sentinel; and because the next morning must bring on an unpleasant detection. This part of the design was, therefore, given up.

The next day a soldier, who was their barber, was requested to procure a large gimlet and bring it with him when he came the next time to dress General Wadsworth. This he promised and performed without a suspicion that it was intended for anything more than amusement. He received a dollar for this piece of civility; and was sufficiently careful not to disclose a secret which might create trouble for himself.

The prisoners waited with anxiety for the arrival of the succeeding night. To their surprise, the noise made by the gimlet was such as to alarm their apprehensions and induce them again to desist. They were, however, not discouraged; but determined to make the experiment again during the day when they hoped the noise would either not be heard at all or would attract no notice. The eyes of the sentinels were now to be eluded; for the operation must in this case be performed at times when they might very naturally be employed in inspecting the room. It was necessary, also, to escape the observation of their servants, who often came in without any warning; and that of the officers, who were accustomed to visit them at almost all times of the day. But on these difficulties their persevering minds dwelt only for the purpose of overcoming them. The two sentinels who guarded the prisoners commonly walked through the entry, one after the other, from the front of the building to the rear. This distance was exactly the breadth of two rooms. After they had begun their walk the prisoners watched them with attention, until they acquired a complete comprehension of the length of the intervals between the moments at which the sentinels successively passed their door. The prisoners then began to walk within their room at the same pace with that of their watchmen, the sound of their feet being mutually heard; and all passing by the glass door the same way at the same time. The prisoners in this manner took two turns across the room while a sentinel took one through the entry. This difference of time gave them all the opportunities which they enjoyed for using their gimlet.

General Wadsworth, being of the middle stature, could, while standing on the floor, only reach the ceiling with the ends of his fingers. But Major Burton was very tall, and could reach it conveniently; so as to use the gimlet without the aid of a chair. This was a very fortunate circumstance as it saved appearances, and not improbably prevented the discovery to which they were exposed from so many sources. Accordingly, whilst the garrison was under arms on the parade and their servants were purposely sent away on errands, the gentlemen began their walk and passed by the glass door with the sentinels. General Wadsworth then walked on; but Major Burton, stopping short in the proper spot, perforated the ceiling with his gimlet in sufficient season to join General Wadsworth on his return. Again they passed the door and returned, as if by mere accident—when the ceiling was in the same manner perforated again. This process was repeated until a sufficient number of holes were bored. The interstices in the mean time were cut through with a penknife; the wounds in the ceiling, which were small, being carefully covered with a paste of chewed bread almost of the same color with that of the board. The dust made by the gimlet was also carefully swept from the floor. In this manner they completely avoided suspicion either from the sentinels, the servants, or the gentlemen by whom they were visited. In the course of three weeks a board was entirely cut asunder except a small part at each corner which was left for the purpose of holding the severed piece in its proper place, lest some accident should open the passage prematurely.

During all this time the prisoners had watched everything which related to the return of the privateer in which they were to be embarked. They had, also, made every unsuspicious inquiry in their power while occasionally conversing with their visitors and with the servants, concerning the situation of the exterior part of the fort, the ditch, the position of the chevaux-de-frise, the fraising, the posting of the outer sentinels, and piquet guard. The scraps of information which were obtained in this cautious manner General Wadsworth, who was tolerably well acquainted with the place, was able to put together in such a manner as to form a complete view of the whole ground; to fix with precision the place where they should attempt to cross the wall; where, if separated by accident, they should meet again; and to determine on several other objects of the same general nature. Major Burton, whose first acquaintance with Bagaduce commenced when he was landed as a prisoner, was less able to form correct views concerning these subjects; and labored, therefore, under disadvantages which might prove serious.

The privateer was now daily expected. It is hardly necessary to observe that the prisoners regarded the moment of her approach with extreme anxiety. They wished for a dark and boisterous night to conceal their attempt and to escape from the observation of their guard; but determined that if such an opportunity should not be furnished before the return of the privateer, to seize the best time which should occur. A part of the meat supplied for their daily meals, they laid up and dried, and preserved the crust of their bread to sustain them on their projected excursion. They also made each a large skewer of strong wood, with which they intended to fasten the corner of a large bed-blanket to one of the stakes in the fraising on the top of the wall, in order to let themselves down more easily into the ditch.

When their preparations were finished a whole week elapsed without a single favorable night. Their anxiety became intense. The weather became warm; and the butter, which had been accidentally attached to some of the bread employed as paste to cover the holes in the ceiling, spread along the neighboring parts of the board and discolored them to a considerable extent. This fact alarmed them not a little; particularly when their visitors were now and then gazing around the room in which they were confined. Nor were their apprehensions at all lessened by several incidental expressions of some British officers, which to the jealous minds of the prisoners seemed to indicate that their design was discovered.

On the afternoon of June 18 the sky was overcast. At the close of evening thick clouds from the south brought on an unusual darkness. The lightning began to blaze with intense splendor and speedily became almost incessant. About eleven o’clock, the flashes ceased. The prisoners sat up till this time, apparently playing at cards, but really waiting for the return of absolute darkness. Suddenly rain began to descend in torrents. The darkness was profound. The propitious moment for which they had so long waited with extreme solicitude had, as they believed, finally come, and more advantageously than could have been reasonably expected. They, therefore, went immediately to bed while the sentinel was looking through the glass door; and extinguished their candles.

They then immediately rose and dressed themselves. General Wadsworth, standing in a chair, attempted to cut the corner of the board which had been left to prevent the severed piece from falling; but found that he made a slow progress. Major Burton then took the knife; and within somewhat less than an hour completed the intended opening. The noise attending this operation was considerable; but was drowned by the rain upon the roof. Burton ascended first; and, being a large man, forced his way through the hole with difficulty. By agreement he was to proceed along the joists till he reached the middle entry, where he was to wait for his companion. The fowls which roosted above these rooms gave notice of his passage by their cackling; but it was unheeded, and perhaps unheard, by the sentinels. As soon as this noise ceased General Wadsworth put his blanket through the hole, fastened it with a skewer, and attempted with this aid to make his way through the passage, standing in a chair below. But he found his arm weaker and of less service than he had expected. He did not accomplish his design without extreme difficulty. But the urgency of the case reanimated his mind, invigorated his limbs, and enabled him, at length, to overcome every obstacle. The auspicious rain in the mean time, roaring incessantly on the roof of the building, entirely concealed the noise which he made during this part of his enterprise, and which in a common season must certainly have betrayed him.

When the General had reached the middle entry he could not find his companion. After searching for him several minutes in vain, he perceived the air blowing in through the door of the entry; and concluded that Major Burton had already gone out and left the door open. He, therefore, gave over the search; and proceeded to take care of himself. After passing through the door he felt his way along the eastern side, the northern end, and a part of the western side of the building, walking directly under the sheet of water which poured from the roof, that he might avoid impinging against any person accidentally in his way—a misfortune to which he was entirely exposed by the extreme darkness of the night.

After he had reached the western side of the building he made his way toward the neighboring wall of the fort and attempted to climb the bank; but, the ascent being steep and the sand giving way, he found it impossible to reach the top. He then felt out an oblique path, and ascended to the top, as from his window he had observed the soldiers do when they went out to man the wall. After he had gained the top he proceeded to the spot on the north bastion where Burton and himself had agreed to cross the wall if no accident should intervene. When he had arrived at this place and was endeavoring to discover the sentry-boxes that he might creep between them across the top of the wall, the guard-house door on the opposite side of the fort was thrown open, and the sergeant of the guard called “Relief! Turn out!” Instantly there was a scrambling on the gorge of the bastion opposite to that where he now was. This scrambling he knew must be made by Burton. The rain, in the mean time, kept the sentinels within their boxes, and made such a noise on them that they could not hear that which was made by the prisoners. In this critical moment no time was to be lost. The relief guard was approaching. General Wadsworth made all haste, therefore, to get himself with his heavy blanket across the parapet upon the fraising which was on the exterior margin of the wall—a measure indispensable to prevent the relief from treading on him as they came round on the top of the wall; and he barely effected it during the time in which the relief was shifting the sentinels. At the same time he fastened with the skewer the corner of his blanket round a picket of the fraising, so that it might hang at the greatest length beneath him. After the relief had passed on the General with great difficulty, arising particularly from the lameness of his arm, slid with his feet foremost off the ends of the pickets of the fraising, clinging with his arms and hands to the ends; thus bringing himself underneath the pickets, so as to get hold of the blanket hanging below. Then he let himself down by the blanket until he reached the corner nearest to the ground. From this he dropped without injury on the berme and within the chevaux-de-frise which lay on the berme. Leaving his blanket suspended from the fraising, he crept into the chevaux-de-frise nearest to the spot where he had descended, and moved softly along to the next angle. Here he remained without noise or motion until the relief, having gone round the walls and out of the gate to relieve the sentinels without the abatis, should have passed by. As soon as he had heard them pass, and before the sentinels had become accustomed to noises around them, he crept softly down into the ditch, went out at the watercourse between the sentry-boxes, and descended the declivity of the hill on which the fort stood into the open field. Finding himself fairly without the fort, and without the line of sentries, and perceiving no evidence that he had been discovered, he could scarcely persuade himself that the whole adventure was not a dream from which he might soon awake and find himself still in prison.

Both the rain and the darkness continued. He groped his way, therefore, among rocks, stumps, and brush, very leisurely to an old guard-house on the shore of the back cove. This building had been agreed upon between the prisoners as their place of rendezvous if any accident should separate them. After searching and waiting for his companion half an hour in vain, he proceeded onward to the cove. The time was happily that of low water. Here he drew off his shoes and stockings, took his hat from the skirt of his coat to which hitherto it had been pinned, girded up his clothes, and began to cross the water which was about a mile in breadth. Fortunately he found it nowhere more than three feet in depth. Having safely arrived at the opposite shore, and put on his stockings and shoes, he found the rain beginning to abate and the sky becoming less dark. Still he saw nothing of his companion.

It was now about two o’clock in the morning. General Wadsworth had left the fort a mile and a half behind him, and had perceived no noise which indicated that the enemy had discovered his escape. His own proper course now lay, for about a mile, up a very gently sloping acclivity, on the summit of which was a road formerly cut under his direction for the purpose of moving heavy cannon. The whole ascent was overspread with trees blown down by the wind; and to gain the summit cost him the labor of at least an hour. At length he reached the road; but after keeping it about half a mile, determined to betake himself to the woods and make his way through them to the river. Here the day dawned, and the rain abated. Here, also, he heard the reveille beat at the fort. He reached the eastern shore of the Penobscot, just below the lower Narrows, at sunrise, and found a small canoe at the very spot where he first came to the river. But he was afraid to cross it in this place lest the inhabitants on the opposite shore, through fear of the enemy or hostility to him, should carry him back to the fort; or lest their kindness, if they should be disposed to befriend him, should prove their ruin. He, therefore, made the best of his way up the river at the foot of the bank; and kept as near as he could to the water’s edge that the flood tide, which was now running, might cover his steps and prevent his course from being pursued by blood-hounds kept at the fort. In this manner, also, he escaped the notice of the inhabitants living on the eastern bank of the river.

About seven o’clock in the morning the sun began to shine and the sky became clear. At this time he had reached a place just below the upper Narrows, seven miles from the fort. Here it was necessary for him to cross the river. At a small distance he perceived a salmon net stretched from a point thickly covered with bushes, and a canoe lying on the shore. He therefore determined, after having cut a stout club, to lie by in the thicket in order to rest himself, dry his clothes, and discover the persons who should come to take fish from the net, that he might decide on the safety or danger of making himself known. In this situation he had spent near an hour, and made considerable progress in drying his clothes (not, however, without frequently looking down the river to see whether his enemies were pursuing him) when, to his unspeakable joy, he saw his friend Burton advancing toward him in the track which he had himself taken. The meeting was mutually rapturous—and the more so as each believed the other to have been lost.

Major Burton, after having passed through the hole in the ceiling, made his way directly into the second entry without interruption. As he had been able to escape from the ceiling only by the assistance of General Wadsworth, he concluded early that his friend would be unable to make his way through the same passage and rationally determining it to be better that one should regain his liberty than that both should be confined in a British jail, made no stop to learn what had become of his companion. Passing out of the eastern door (the same which General Wadsworth had selected) he entered the area of the fort, taking most watchful care to avoid the sentry-boxes. The night was so intensely dark that this was a matter of no small difficulty. Fortunately, however, he avoided them all; and steered his course, providentially, to the northeastern curtain. At the moment of his arrival the door of the guardhouse was thrown open and the relief ordered to turn out Burton heard the orders indistinctly; and supposed that himself or General Wadsworth (if he had been able to make his way out of the barrack) was discovered. He leaped, therefore, from the wall, and fell into the arms of a chevaux-de-frise, containing only four sets of pickets. Had there been six, as is sometimes the case, he must have fallen upon the points of some of them and been killed outright. Perceiving that he was not injured by the fall, he flung himself into the ditch, and passing through the abatis escaped into the open ground. As he had no doubt that either himself or General Wadsworth was discovered, and knew that in either case he should be closely pursued, he used the utmost expedition.

It had been agreed by the prisoners that if they should get out of the fort, and in this enterprise should be separated from each other, they should direct their course by the wind. Unfortunately the gale which in the afternoon and early part of the evening had blown from the south shifted, without being observed by Burton, to the east. Of the region round about him, except so far as General Wadsworth had described it to him, he was absolutely ignorant. In these unfortunate circumstances, instead of taking the direction which he had intended, he pointed his course toward a piquet guard kept near the isthmus; and came almost upon a sentinel before he discovered his danger. Happily, however, he perceived a man at a small distance in motion, and dropped softly upon the ground. The movements of the man soon convinced Burton that he was a sentinel, and that he belonged to the piquet. By various means the two friends had made themselves acquainted with the whole routine of the duty performed by the garrison. Burton, therefore, from these circumstances discerned in a moment where he was and determined to avail himself of the discovery. Accordingly, whenever the sentinel moved from him, he softly withdrew, and at length got clear of his disagreeable neighbor. He then entered the water on the side of the isthmus next to the river, with the hope of being able to advance in it so far above the piquet as to land again undiscovered. The undertaking proved very hazardous as well as very difficult. It was the time of low water. The rocks were numerous in his course, and the river between them was deep. A great quantity of sea-weed also encumbered his progress. He swam and climbed and waded, alternately, for the space of an hour; and having made in this manner a circuit which, though small, he thought would be sufficient to avoid the guard, betook himself to the shore. Here, chilled with this long-continued cold bathing and excessively wearied by exertion, he began his course through the forest, directing himself as well as he could toward the path which had been taken by General Wadsworth. After walking several miles through the same obstructions which had so much embarrassed his friend, he reached it and without any further trouble rejoined the General.

After their mutual congratulations the two friends, as they saw no persons appear, went down to the canoe, and finding in it a suit of oars pushed it into the water. Burton informed General Wadsworth that a party of the enemy was in pursuit of them and that their barge would soon come round the point below; and therefore proposed that instead of crossing the river directly they should take an oblique course by which they might avoid being discovered. Not long after the barge came in sight, moving moderately up the river, and distant from them about a mile. At this time the canoe was near half a mile from the eastern shore; but, being hidden by some bushes on another point, escaped the eyes of their pursuers. Just at the moment the crew of the barge, having rested for a minute on their oars, tacked and rowed to the eastern shore, when one of the men went up to a house standing on the bank. The two friends, seeing this, plied their oars to the utmost; and when the barge put off again, had it in their power to reach the western shore without any possible obstruction.

As they approached a landing place they saw a number of people. To avoid an interview with these strangers they changed their course, and landed on the north side of a creek, where they were entirely out of their reach, and safe from their suspicion.

After they had made fast the canoe they steered their course directly into the wilderness; leaving the barge advancing up the river but appearing to have made no discovery. The prospect of a final escape was now very hopeful; but as there could be no safety in keeping the route along the shore, since they undoubtedly would be waylaid in many places, they determined to take a direct course through the forests, to avoid inhabitants and prevent a pursuit. Accordingly, they steered toward the head of St. George’s river. This they were enabled to do by the aid of a pocket compass which Burton had fortunately retained in his possession. Their pockets supplied them with provisions—homely enough indeed, but such as satisfied hunger and such as success rendered delightful. Two showers fell upon them in the course of the day, and the heat of the sun was at times intense. Their passage, also, was often incommoded by the usual obstructions of an American forest; fallen trees, marshy grounds, and other inconveniences of the like nature. But with all these difficulties they travelled twenty-five miles by sunset.

At the approach of night they made a fire with the aid of a flint which Major Burton had in his pocket and some punk—a substance formed by a partial decomposition of the heart of the maple tree, which easily catches and long retains even the slightest spark. But as they had no axe and as they did not commence this business sufficiently early the wood of which their fire was made, being of a bad quality, burnt ill, and was extinguished long before the morning arrived. The night was cold notwithstanding the heat of the preceding day. Both extremes were equally injurious to the travellers, and increased not a little the lameness and soreness of their limbs. General Wadsworth suffered severely. He had been a long time in confinement, and had of course been prevented from taking any vigorous exercise. He was also possessed of a constitution much less firm than that of his companion, and was much less accustomed to the hardships of travelling in a forest. For these reasons they made a slow progress during the morning of the second day. By degrees, however, the General began to recover strength; and before evening they advanced, though not without much difficulty, twelve or fifteen miles. The sufferings of the preceding night effectually warned them to begin the employment of collecting fuel in better season. They had, therefore, a comfortable fire. Still, the latter part of the night was very cold and distressing.

On the third day General Wadsworth was so lame and had suffered so much from this uncomfortable pilgrimage that he was able to make very little progress. After many efforts he proposed to stop in the wilderness and wait for such relief as his friend, proceeding onward to the nearest settlements, might be able to bring him. Major Burton cut the matter short by an absolute refusal to leave him behind in circumstances so hazardous. At length they determined to refresh themselves with a little sleep and then to recommence their progress. This determination was a happy one; for they found their sleep, in the genial warmth of the day, in a high degree restorative and invigorating. They were able to travel with more and more ease; and were not a little animated with the consciousness that their pilgrimage was drawing toward a close. About six P.M. they discovered from an eminence the ascent of a smoke and other signs of human habitations; and soon, to their unspeakable joy, arrived at the place to which they had originally directed their course—the Upper Settlements on the river St. George.

The inhabitants flocked about them with a joy scarcely inferior to theirs; and not only hailed them as friends long lost but as men dropped from the clouds. Their surprise and their affection were equally intense, and their minds labored for modes in which they might exhibit sufficient kindness to their guests.