Founding Mothers: Soldiers, Spies and Saviors

When you read about the American Revolution, you likely see the contributions of the Continental Congress, the Sons of Liberty or General George Washington. While there were many men who contributed to the patriot cause, the stories of the women who helped win the revolution are rarely told. Cokie Roberts, noted historian and journalist for NPR and ABC once referred to the women who helped in the war as the “Founding Mothers.” These stories are an important part of our history; some of the names you know, Betsy Ross, who created the original flag of the Continental Army which the United States still uses a version of today. There were many women who served the patriot cause as nurses, seamstresses, cooks and maids. There were still others who did much more for the patriot cause.

There were some women who served as soldiers, though female soldiers were not allowed, there were a number of women that disguised themselves by cutting their hair, chest-binding and dressing as men to join. Many of these women joined because they were poor and wanted to help their families. Although some women were caught doing this and imprisoned, others continued their service long enough to obtain discharge. Other women armed themselves and remained at home to help protect their hometown. A woman known as Prudence Cummings Wright recruited a group of 30-40 women to  capture two British spies who were coming through Pepperell, Massachusetts. The women captured the two spies and obtained documents that they were carrying. A few years after the women captured the suspected spies they were paid a bounty by the town for their services.

Woodcut-from-A-New-Touch-on-the-Times-circa-1779
Woodcut of a woman combatant Circa 1779 – History of Massachusetts

There were also many women who served the patriot cause as spies.  One you may have heard of from Alexander Rose’s book “Washington’s Spies” and the associated television series “Turn”. Anna Smith Strong live in Setauket, a town on Long Island in New York. Anna developed what became known as the “Clothesline Code”, it was a simple code that would let Caleb Brewster, another spy to pick up the information and transport it to Benjamin Tallmedge, who served as an adviser and spymaster to General George Washington. To notify Brewster that there was a new message, Strong would hang a Black Petticoat and a number of handkerchiefs, the handkerchiefs would signify which of six coves along the Setauket area of Long Island that the information had been placed. This spy ring called the Culper spy ring would deliver information from various spies in Manhattan and Long Island, the information proved vital for Washington and his army and the Culper spy ring is likely the most well known of the Revolutionary war spy rings.

Another important spy for Washington’s army was Lydia Darragh (also written as Darrah). The Darragh family lived in Philadelphia during the British occupation. The family were Quakers and sided with the patriot cause against the British. General Howe of the British army took residence in a house across the road from Darragh. Lydia Darragh and her family took this opportunity to gather information from the British and send it to her son who was serving with General Washington.  They would have access to report on officers comings and goings, that would be easy, looking out the window. Lydia Darragh and her family would visit the home of General Howe, delivering refreshments and firewood. The Darraghs would eventually be invited into Howe’s residence for parties and dinners. This access gave them an incredible ability to overhear information passed between the officers. Lydia would write this information in a shorthand that could only be deciphered by her family. Lydia would then turn those notes into buttons which she would then sew onto her son’s coat. Her son would travel to see her other son who was stationed with Washington and the buttons would be removed and opened, read by her son and deciphered for Tallmedge and Washington. On December 2, 1777, Lydia Darragh hid in a closet while officers were meeting, planning an surprise attack against Washington and his army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. That evening, Lydia left town, using the excuse of getting flour from a mill outside of town. She delivered the message about the attack to Colonel Elias Boudinot who delivered it to General Washington and allowed the army time to prepare for the attack.

sybil-ludington-statue
Sybil Ludington Statue – Carmel, New York (Military.com)

Sybil Ludington was 16 years old on April 25, 1777, her father Colonel Henry Ludington was commander of the Seventh Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia. Colonel Ludington received that British General Tryon had just arrived in Danbury, Connecticut and were now burning the town. The messenger that delivered the message to Ludington was exhausted and unfamiliar with the area. Colonel could not spare any of his soldiers with the British on the way. His daughter Sybil volunteered to make the 40 mile ride and warn the other militias that the British forces were coming, allowing them to arm and prepare.

The Battle of Monmouth was fought on an unseasonably hot, June 28, 1778. The Continental Army attacked the rear of the British Army in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Mary Ludwig Hayes was helping the Continental soldiers by getting water from a nearby well. When her husband became wounded, Mary replaced her husband on the artillery piece where he served and made sure that the artillery piece continued to fire throughout the day. The story of Mary Ludwig Hayes is largely recognized as the story of Molly Pitcher, a legendary story of the Revolutionary war. Margaret Corbin whose husband was in the artillery during the British attack on Fort Washington. Corbin’s husband was wounded, and she stepped in to help on the artillery line. Margaret was severely wounded in the attack, an army physician was able to attend to her wounds, Corbin survived her wounds and was the first female soldier to receive a soldier’s lifetime pension.

molly pitcher
Molly Pitcher – Battle of Monmouth (Library of Congress)

There are many more women’s revolutionary war stories, that I will share in the near future.

Sources:

Women in the American Revolution

Revolutionary Spies

Spy Stories

Roles of Women in the Revolutionary War

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college and get my education and make learning history fun and exciting. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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