Thursday, March 8, 2012

Women of the American Revolution

DID YOU REALIZE it was International Women's Day today? Well, I didn't. So my wife is going to be mad when I don't have a present for her. Maybe I can go out to the store quick and buy her a new broom.

Seriously, I thought it might be fun to post this today. I used to ask students to read this handout and I can think of at least one person running for president who might need to consider the lessons history has to offer. In any case, the ladies were fighting for freedom even before the great Founding Fathers gave "birth" to this nation.

Women of the American Revolution

By February 1775, it seemed clear England and the Thirteen Colonies were drifting toward war.

Now, on a cold Sunday morning near winter’s end, Sarah Tarrant stood, looking out the up-stairs window of her house. A British force headed for Salem, Massachusetts was stalled in front of her home. Colonel Alexander Leslie had instructions to look for hidden military supplies and seize them if possible. Yet, when his troops reached a drawbridge near town they had been forced to halt. The bridge was up and the bridge keeper refused to put it down.

An angry crowd of colonists had now gathered. A redcoat pricked one with his bayonet. “Soldiers red-jackets, lobstercoats, cowards,” shouted another American, “damnation to your government!”

Leslie had no orders to shoot. So he had to retreat. Now, as his men turned back for Boston, Sarah let her feelings show. “Go home and tell your master he has sent you on a fool’s errand and broken the peace of our Sabbath!” she shouted from her window. A British redcoat pointed his musket in her direction. Tarrant hardly blinked. “Fire, if you have the courage,” she taunted, “but I doubt it!”

This time, the British held their fire and simply marched away.
From the first real fights at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), all through the long years of war to follow, women like Tarrant always ready to serve the cause of freedom. Ruth Draper, of Connecticut, did her part, baking bread for two days and nights as minutemen rushed north that April. Later she gave up her pewter plates to be melted down and made into bullets. For Esther Reed convinced her friends to sell their jewelry and use the money for supplies for the new American army. Another time Reed organized Philadelphia women to make 2200 shirts for soldiers. Other females spied on the British or nursed the wounded after battles. Like Elizabeth Hagar (“Handy Betty the Blacksmith”), who repaired weapons, others took jobs usually done by men. And often the ladies fought themselves. During the bloody retreat from Concord, the redcoats passed through what one described as a furnace of musket fire. A stunned British soldier reported grimly (and with poor spelling): “Even the weamin had firelocks [guns].” Side by side, minutemen and “minutemaids” blasted the lobstercoats.

Once fighting had begun, thousands of women faced difficult new decisions. If a husband joined the army how could a wife run the farm alone? Who would keep the mill or shop operating? And could a mother watch her young sons march away? Elizabeth Martin, a South Carolina lady, watched seven sons leave home and enlist in the army. “Go, boys, and fight for your country.” she told them all. “Fight till death, if you must; but never let your country be dishonored. Were I a man I would go with you.”

Even newlyweds had to ask: must we separate so soon?

George Washington understood the pain of such decisions. When Congress appointed him to command the Continental Army he sat down and wrote a letter to his wife. He began with an apology for “the uneasiness I know it will give you.” Still, he could not shirk [avoid] his duty, no matter how much he missed her. “I should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home,” he assured Martha, “[than] if my stay [in command] were to be seven times seven years.”

Then he added a note of intended to offer comfort: “I shall return safe to you in the fall.”

Mrs. Washington knew her husband was going where the bullets flew. So she prayed that he might be safe. With a bravery all her own, she offered her support. “My mind is made up,” she wrote back. “My heart is in the cause.”

If Mrs. Martin was doomed to watch her loved ones march away other women followed in their footsteps. When an American army pushed north into Canada, Jemina Warner went along with husband James. The march was a disaster. Day after day, the troops hacked their way through heavy forest. Fall weather turned cold and wet. Food ran low. Sickness swept the army, and James fell ill. One day he dropped behind the other troops. Jemina stopped to go back after him, only to find him dying in the woods. Regardless of danger, she remained by his side, holding his hand, till the “King of Terrors” carried him away. Then she covered his body in leaves and marched off to rejoin the army.

At times, so many females traveled with Washington’s army that they interfered with his marches. “The multitude of women...especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement,” he complained. Still, he never forbade them to come. Indeed, many of the ladies provided valuable service. In camp they did the sewing and laundry, cooked and nursed the sick. Martha Washington was by her husband’s side during the terrible winter at Valley Forge. There she made herself useful, knitting socks, keeping records and visiting the soldiers with small presents of food.

Margaret Corbin was one such “camp follower,” as they were called. “Molly” Corbin, however, soon found herself in combat. After her husband was assigned to the defense of a fort near New York City, Margaret refused to go to safety. When British and Hessian units attacked (November 16, 1776) they met heavy fire and fell back. Pressing forward a second time, they came climbing over the rugged ground and defensive obstacles. Inside U. S. lines John Corbin was manning an artillery piece. One of the gunners fell wounded. So his wife leaped to fill the place. Another shot killed her husband. Molly continued firing the cannon till she was also badly wounded.

After the battle ended a doctor found her lying in a pool of blood beside her husband’s body. Hit in the chest and jaw, with one arm shattered, Molly survived but never recovered full use of her injured limb. In 1779 Congress voted to reward her for her service. Molly was voted half-pay, a yearly outfit of new clothing, and a daily issue of rum or whiskey (then typical in most armies).[1]

Two years later, Mary Ludwig Hays found herself in similar circumstances during the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778). Her husband was working a cannon when the British lines advanced. On a blistering hot summer day, Mary won the nickname “Molly Pitcher,” fetching water from a nearby stream for American troops. With temperatures at 98ยบ her greatest efforts were not enough. Dozens of soldiers, including her husband, fell to heat stroke.

Then a general became confused and ordered American lines to fall back.

According to witnesses, Mrs. Hays refused. Perhaps she gave a hearty curse, or spit out her chew of tobacco.[2] We do know she shouted at the men to stand their ground. The gunners stayed and blasted great holes in the advancing redcoat ranks. At one point, Molly placed her legs far apart as she worked her gun. “A cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any damage [other] than carrying away the lower part of her petticoat.” For a moment she surveyed the situation. Then she remarked that it was “lucky it did not pass a little higher... and continued her occupation.” Legend has it that Washington saw her in action. After the battle ended it is said he made Molly Hays a sergeant.

Certainly, women like Abigail Adams understood the issues behind the fighting. Months before the Declaration of Independence was complete, she wrote her husband John, to offer her opinions:

I long to hear that you have declared [independence]...and by the way in the new Code of Laws...I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  

Let men, she added, “give up the harsh title of Master for the more of Friend.”

These were hard years for Abigail. So she made the best of a difficult situation. For months at a time, John was away from home, as a member of Congress. In his absence she ran the farm and cared for four young children. With trade cut off she had trouble finding basic items. Once she wrote her husband asking if he might “purchase me a bundle of pins and put it in your trunk for me.” Another time she heard cannon fire during the night, as American guns pounded British lines round Boston.

“I miss my partner,” she wrote sadly, “and find myself unequal to the cares which fall upon me.”

Even women who stayed at home might find themselves in danger. Sarah Smith, a widow living in New York City,[3] often visited prisons where American soldiers were held. When possible she brought food. One day she told the men to keep their spirits up. The course of the war could change, she said. Victory would come soon. A guard heard her and threw her in a cell, “saying that was the fittest place for such a d----d rebel.” Finally, British authorities kicked her out of the city for good, with “only one bed and her wearing apparel” to take with her. Sarah insisted on making a final visit to her jailed friends. Smith would not complain—explaining to the men that she and they were serving the same cause, only in different ways.

When British forces swept across New Jersey around the same time, Hannah Caldwell lowered family valuables in a bucket into the well. Then she filled hidden pockets in her dress with jewelry. To be safe she ordered her children into a back room, where she began nursing the littlest infant. A redcoat marching past her house saw her, fired his musket through a window, and killed her with a shot through the left breast and lung. Then the soldiers looted [robbed] her home and burned it to the ground.

Tory forces in the Carolinas and Georgia were especially brutal. Eliza Wilkinson had good reason to be frightened when she saw horsemen approaching her plantation one day. They were coming fast, “tear[ing] the earth, and the riders at the same time bellowing out the most horrid curses.” Dismounting quickly, the men stormed inside “with drawn swords and pistols in their hands.” Ripping caps off the heads of Eliza and her sister, they stole what they believed were jeweled hair pins. A stream of ugly abuse poured from their lips and they went room to room, wrecking everything.

Eliza was robbed of silver buckles on her shoes. Her sister lost her wedding ring. When she hesitated to part with the band, the Tory raiders stuck pistols in her face and “swore that if she did not deliver it immediately, they’d fire.”

If Eliza’s family was unable to stop this attack, Nancy Hart had different ideas. Tall and homely [plain; unattractive], the Georgia woman had learned to shoot while still a girl. When the Revolution began Hart spied for the American side, once helping capture several Tories. Finally, Loyalists forces decided to put an end to her activities once and for all. One evening five men headed for Nancy’s house.

Anxious to arrest her (and husband Ben), they managed to capture Nancy without a fight. Mr. Hart was not at home. So they settled in to wait. Ordered to prepare dinner, Nancy went about her business without complaining. She even passed around a jug of whiskey. Her “guests” drank deep. Became stupid. Careless. Suddenly, their hostess grabbed a musket and blasted the Tory leader. A second man lunged in her direction. Nancy picked up another gun and gave him a fatal [killing] wound. Then she held the others at gun-point till her husband came to her “rescue.”

Others put themselves in harm’s way, as scouts, messengers and spies. Deborah Champion was one. Only 22, and so sweet-looking enemy patrols never suspected her, she was called “the female Paul Revere.” Once, Champion rode for two days through dangerous territory to deliver secret reports. Lydia Darragh, married before Deborah was even born, and mother of nine—was “a little poor looking...Old Woman.” One night, when British officers were using her home as headquarters, she pretended she was sleepy and went upstairs “to bed.” There in the dark she listened with her ear to the floor as they discussed their plans. The next day, despite deep snow, Darragh found an excuse to walk five miles into the countryside. Meeting an American patrol, she gave warning that the enemy planned to march out the next morning and catch them unaware. Given plenty of notice, U. S. troops were ready and the redcoats retreated in disgust.

Emily Geiger was famous as a scout for General Nathanael Greene. A “brave girl...not more than eighteen years of age,” she once volunteered to deliver a message when no man dared. Captured by an enemy patrol, she waited till no one was watching. Then she removed her hidden dispatch [message], and “ate up Greene’s letter, piece by piece.” Soon after, she was freed with an apology from her captors.

When Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Sarah Osborn was there. She married a soldier in 1780 and traveled with the American army over the next year, washing, sewing and baking for the men. When Washington’s troops marched south to Virginia in the fall of 1781, she went with them. During the heavy fighting to follow Osborn carried beef, bread and coffee to soldiers in the lines. Once, when British guns were firing on American positions, General Washington stopped to ask if she were not afraid. With surprising calm, Sarah answered simply: “It would not do for the men to fight and starve, too.”

After a French fleet cut off Cornwallis’ escape, Osborn celebrated with the men. She was there on October 19, 1781, when British troops marched out of their fortifications and surrendered. She listened as enemy musicians played a sad tune. She saw drummers with black handkerchiefs tied to drums and fifes decorated with black ribbons. A British general rode by and she noticed that “tears rolled down his cheeks as he passed.”

A second woman who claimed she was there that day was Deborah Sampson (or we should say: “Robert Shurtliffe”). Disguised as a man, Deborah had enlisted in the army. She served bravely and was wounded twice, once suffering a sword cut to the side of her head. (Other sources claim Sampson enlisted in 1782, to avoid an undesirable marriage.) She herself would say that her mother was fond of a certain young man—and expected them to wed. Indeed, Mrs. Sampson “seemed struck with wonder” when her daughter seemed reluctant. When this poor “lump of a man,” as Deborah described him, proposed anyway, after drinking too much rum, the young woman made up her mind to run away.

She would explain later how she disguised her sex, tightly wrapping her chest, and using a variety of tricks. The first time she enlisted, under the name “Timothy Thayer,” she became drunk and revealed her secret. She tried again, as “Robert Shurtliffe,” and managed to sign up with a regiment from Massachusetts. On one occasion she volunteered with thirty men to flush out a group of Tories operating nearby. In the night fight which followed several of the enemy were killed. Deborah was wounded in the leg. “I considered this as a death wound, or as being equivalent to it,” she explained, “as it must, I thought, lead to the discovery of my sex.”

Carried to a hospital next morning, Sampson feared for her secret more than her life. A French doctor gave her wine to dull the pain. Then he looked her over, asking with a smile: “How you lose so much blood at this early hour? Be any bone broken?” He treated one wound, where a bullet had cut through Deborah’s boot and plowed into her leg. She did not admit that a second shot had hit her higher up and buried itself in her thigh. After the doctor left it required several attempts before she could pry this second bullet loose by herself. The young woman never lost courage. “The wine had revived me,” she said, “and God by his care, watched over me. At the third attempt I extracted [removed] the ball.”

When the youthful soldier recovered “he” fought against the Indians, taking part in one battle where fifteen natives were killed. “Shurtliffe” herself chased an escaping native and caught him. “My first impulse,” she said, “was to bayonet him; but an instant sympathy turned away the pointed steel.” A good thing: the prisoner turned out to be a white child captured and raised by the Indians.

Eventually Deborah fell ill from fever. As she would tell the story, a doctor came to check her heart, discovered her sex, and revealed the truth.[4] She was dressed and made up in proper fashion and escorted through the camp. Not a single one of her comrades recognized the young lady as “Robert Shurtliffe,” their missing friend. Discharged on October 23, 1783, Deborah soon married, and had three children. In years after she earned money by putting on her uniform and giving talks about her experience. As she liked to tell audiences, the only time she was scared was during her first bayonet attack.

Oddly enough, the final “fight” of the war involved a British officer and a tough patriot female. Under terms of a treaty of peace the last British soldiers were set to leave New York City on November 25, 1783. By right, however, they could claim control till noon. One proud officer went about town, cutting down American flags he spied before that time.

That morning, Mrs. Day, “a large, stout woman,” ran up the U. S. colors [flag] a bit too soon. A young witness described what happened next:

a burly red-faced British officer, in full uniform, [was] coming down Murray street in great haste.  Mrs. Day was sweeping in front of her door when the officer came up to her...and in loud and angry tones ordered her to haul down the flag.  She refused, [and] the officer seized the halyards [ropes] to pull it down himself.  Mrs. Day flew at him with her broomstick, and beat him so furiously over his head, that she made the powder fly from his wig.

For a few moments the poor man kept tugging at the ropes. But they tangled beyond hope. In the meantime, “Mrs. Day applied her weapon so vigorously that he was soon compelled [forced] to retreat, and leave the flag...floating triumphantly in the keen morning breeze.” So it was—for the last time—that the British learned to “Remember the Ladies.”


[1] Mrs. Corbin was “man enough” to complain when her alcohol ration was later denied. 
[2] Joseph Martin, who saw Hays in action, described her as a lady “who smoked, chewed [tobacco] and swore like a trooper.”
[3] For most of the war the city was occupied by British forces.
[4] At first he kept her secret, and sent Sampson to his house in Philadelphia to be nursed back to health.  Legend has it his niece cared for the “soldier” and fell in love with the young “man” in the process.


  1. Vey inspiring! I think I must be related to Mary Ludwig Hayes. Great post!!
    Lori Chisman Barber

  2. Molly Pitcher's a myth. Complete fabrication. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  3. I've never heard of Deborah Champion being known as the "female Paul Revere". That honor goes to Sybil Ludington who rode 40 miles in a thunderstorm in the dead of night to muster the Patriot militia for her father General Henry Ludington, because Tryon's Tories had sacked Danbury and were moving towards Ridgefield.

    1. I would assume they used that analogy more than once, perhaps even when some bold woman rode to the grocery store for a gallon of milk.

      Power in all cases to the ladies.