By D. Allan Kerr
As the oldest town in Maine, Kittery has generated plenty of mysteries during its 375 years. Not many are as aged and puzzling as what one might call the “Case of the Missing Medals of Honor.”
Of course, every compelling mystery needs an intriguing protagonist, and this story’s is one of Kittery’s most accomplished citizens.
Gen. Mark Fernald Wentworth was both a 19th-century physician and a soldier – a healer who also led men into battle.
His impact on Kittery affairs is reflected in the naming of Wentworth Avenue in his honor, and the decision to list his home – located on that same street, directly opposite historic Rice Public Library – on the National Register of Historic Places.
Two local schools bore his name in years past. The Wentworth School and its successor, the Wentworth Dennett School, were located on Government Street and both buildings still stand today, the latter housing artist studios.
Born in Kittery in 1820, Wentworth grew up on his family’s farm. His father died when he was just 12 years old, so he had to make his own way toward higher education, according to biographer John J. Pullen.
In addition to toiling on the farm, he served for a time as chief clerk to the storekeeper of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He also studied medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.
Wentworth was “a giant of a man,” as described in Pullen’s 1966 book, “A Shower of Stars,” both in terms of his physical stature and his prominence as a Kittery citizen.
He had a successful medical practice in his hometown, but was also an early leader of the Republican Party in southern Maine. He even served as a delegate to the 1860 convention, which nominated the presidential ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Maine’s own Hannibal Hamlin.
For the purposes of this story, however, our focus is on Wentworth’s role as a military man.
With his imposing physique and intellect, Wentworth was the kind of man who inspired others to follow. As the Civil War loomed ahead, the good doctor helped to raise and train a unit dubbed the Kittery Artillery as part of Maine’s militia in 1861. Elected as captain, he had the unit set up defenses at Fort McClary to protect the local Navy yard from possible Confederate attack.
But once the war began in earnest, the physician had to be part of the fray. As Pullen wrote, “what Wentworth wanted to do was crack heads, not patch them up; he wanted to go with the infantry.”
For months, he petitioned state leaders for a role in organizing an infantry company. When the 27th Maine Regiment was created the following year in response to Lincoln’s call for troops, Wentworth was made a lieutenant colonel of the outfit. In 1863 he was promoted to colonel in command of the regiment.
The 27th consisted primarily of men from York County in the state’s southernmost tip, including a contingent of fellow Kittery residents. The regiment was formed to serve an enlistment of just nine months and was stationed at Washington, D.C., to defend the Union’s capital from Confederate forces.
Gen. Robert E. Lee led his Confederate troops into Pennsylvania in June 1863 during the war’s pivotal Gettysburg campaign. The term of enlistment for the 27th Maine was due to expire but Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, asked for volunteers to extend their duty tours, fearing the capital might fall into Lee’s hands.
About 300 members of the 860-member regiment stepped up to the challenge. Stanton was so appreciative he announced these volunteers would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their service.
Now, as we know it today, the Medal of Honor is considered the most sacred decoration awarded on a member of the U.S. armed forces.
This is reflected in the fact that fewer than 3,600 individuals are recognized as recipients among the 41 million Americans who have worn the uniform of our armed forces throughout history, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
At this time, however, the newly created medal could be awarded for “gallantry in action and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection,” per the society.
The volunteers of the 27th agreed to extend their stay in Washington out of patriotic duty, but only wound up staying four extra days.
Once the Union victory at Gettysburg was secured, these Mainers returned home as well, without seeing combat. The war didn’t end for Wentworth, however.
In 1864, the colonel was placed in charge of a new infantry unit, the 32nd Maine regiment. As Pullen notes in his book, at this late stage of the war the number of able-bodied men in the North was so depleted this regiment was “made up of boys to a greater than normal extent.”
The 32nd, unlike Wentworth’s previous command, saw extensive action, including Union Gen. Ulysses S Grant’s Wilderness Campaign, the Battle of Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg.
While leading his men in an assault during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, the colonel was struck by a bullet that ripped through his hip bone and destroyed the arm of an 18-year-old sergeant nearby.
His troops risked their own lives to carry their commanding officer to safety as shots screamed past, and “in a final desperate effort rolled Wentworth down an embankment into a Union trench, where waiting hands caught him,” Pullen wrote.
While he survived his injuries, Wentworth was told by doctors “if he ever had a bad fall, the effects of the wound might kill him.” He was sent back home in August 1964 to recover, and received his discharge in November.
But still, the war wasn’t entirely over for the Kittery man. The following February, he received a letter regarding 864 Medals of Honor received by Maine’s governor, each with a man’s name inscribed on the back.
The Army had erroneously shipped out medals to every member of the 27th Maine Regiment, rather than just the 300 or so (the exact number seems to shift by different accounts) who volunteered to stay behind for a few days to defend the capital if needed.
Which apparently put Wentworth in a bit of a moral dilemma, and generated the mystery which remains unsolved more than 150 years later.
As the unit’s commander, Wentworth requested the medals be sent to him for dispersing and made sure those who had extended their tour of duty received what was promised.
Then, according to Pullen, he shipped the remaining 500-plus medals back to Maine’s capital, Augusta.
“A year previously, the Medal of Honor might have looked different to him – perhaps less significant, less important,” Pullen wrote in “A Shower of Stars.” “But now the shadow of the 32nd Maine lay across it.”
Having witnessed genuine courage in battle firsthand, Wentworth was reluctant to cheapen the medal by distributing it to men who had not met the lofty standards of such an honor, Pullen declared.
In his mind, those who chose to return home did not earn this decoration.
“Wentworth now had an insight into its potential value and meaning that no reading of laws and regulations would have ever been able to provide,” Pullen wrote.
But legend tells us the undistributed medals were later returned to the unit’s commander, and this is where the trail gets twisted.
Wentworth was held in high regard in his community. In honor of his service, he was breveted to brigadier general in April 1865, meaning he was promoted to this rank without receiving the equivalent pay.
During patriotic parades, according to Pullen, he watched from a position of honor at a local balcony and returned the salute of marchers passing in parade. He was known to make his medical rounds driving a wagon drawn by his horses Major and General.
He was also often accompanied by an African-American youngster named Tom Murray, who accompanied Wentworth home from the war and became part of the doctor’s household. Murray grew up to be a railroad porter and a respected member of his community, Pullen wrote.
Wentworth died in July 1897 after a fall. He is interred in a tomb near his home, on the opposite side of the neighboring building now housing Town Pizza Restaurant.
The grave marker also lists his wife Eliza and daughter Annie, who died during the war just shy of her 16th birthday and two weeks before Christmas.
Wentworth’s biographer Pullen spent a good chunk of the 1960s not only writing a book about the missing medals, but attempting to solve this mystery as well. He interviewed Wentworth’s grandchildren and descendants of the general’s former troops, personally searched Wentworth’s former home and helped initiate excavations.
Some tales shared with Pullen indicated Wentworth for a time kept the returned medals in his stable. Another account had them stored in a nail keg in a local storage attic.
An article in the July 13, 1963, edition of the Portsmouth Herald headlined “500 Medals of Honor Buried in Kittery?” speculated that the missing medals might be found on the property of an unidentified local man.
A front-page item in the Herald two days later was entitled “Look Elsewhere,” and reported a dig at the property “proved fruitless.”
Steve Dow, a descendant of a 27th regimental member who operates a website about the unit, leans toward the theory reported by Pullen and others suggesting the medals were mixed in with concrete to serve as a flagpole base near the intersection of Dame and Walker Streets, and are now underneath a parking lot.
Dow also speculates some of the medals in private collections today may have come from the 50 or so seen in a box by a local carpenter in the 1950s.
“Illegal to be sold stateside, they occasionally are found in Canadian and British auction houses,” Dow wrote in an e-mail.
Some of the undelivered medals may have been pilfered by members of the regiment during subsequent reunions and gatherings hosted by the general on his property. He was known to take exception to the wearing of these medals by those who had not earned them.
Pullen recounts one such event in which Wentworth made a statement from the podium:
It has come to my attention that additional medals, issued in error by the government, have been sent by persons unknown to me to other members of the regiment. I trust to the personal honor of the recipients that these will not be displayed.
Four of the rare medals are currently on display at the Kittery Historical & Naval Museum. A large portrait of Wentworth hangs on the museum wall, near documents signed by the physician/warrior and other items with a local connection to the Civil War. Photos of Kittery men who died during the conflict are also on display.
Ultimately, all of the 800-plus Medals of Honor awarded to the regiment were revoked from the rolls in 1917, following a review by a board of Army generals.
D. Allan Kerr is a member of Kittery’s 375th Celebration Committee. Events are planned throughout 2022 to celebrate the seaside town’s 375th birthday.