Everyone who has studied the history of the United States of America has heard of Paul Revere, George Washington, and Benedict Arnold, but who has heard of Molly Pitcher, Sybil Luddington, or Eliza Lucas? Was it not Abigail Adams who told her husband John Adams to, “Remember the ladies”? And James Otis, brother of Mercy Otis Warren, another mother, said, “Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature?” (Roberts 49). These women, and many more, were active in the Revolutionary War; they are considered “mothers of our country.” However, not all of them picked up muskets and went into battle. Some chose to fight for America with an arrow or a cannon, others with a pen or a needle (Zitek). However, some of the women that helped were actually just teenage girls. The women that participated in the Revolutionary War contributed to both the Patriot and Loyalist sides, and provided a means of help for many soldiers.
Of course, the revolution began as a serious conflict between the colonies of America and England following the French and Indian War from 1754-1763 (Kamensky 31). England was in debt from the war, so Parliament decided to introduce, and then raise taxes in the colonies to settle the debt (Kamensky 32). The revolution began in 1775, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord; out of two million colonists, one-third were Patriots, one-third were neutral, and one-third were Loyalists (Kamensky 32). King George III employed some of these Loyalists as royal governors, judges, tax collectors, and customs officials (Kamensky 32)). The revolution was fought everywhere in colonial America, which led to many women being involved, seeing as some battles occurred on a farm, or armies raided houses for food and money (Kamensky 34).
When the war began, ten percent of businesses in Boston, Massachusetts were run by women (Zeinert 12). When Boston Harbor was closed, women had to make everything for themselves and their families, such as fabric for clothing, candles, and soap; to encourage these women, public spinning bees were held and participating women and girls were treated as heroines (Zeinert 13). In fact, early on in the war, the short supply of fabric in the colonies led to court suits fought over such things as a missing handkerchief or a burn in someone’s blanket (Collins 50). In New England, a general court ordered women, boys, and girls to spin three pounds of thread a week for at least 30 weeks a year (Collins 50).
Women in the 1700s were not encouraged by any means to assist or participate in fighting of any kind, and were expected to behave in a certain way (Zeinert 8). Their lives consisted of marrying young, raising a family, managing households, and, most importantly, obeying their husbands (Zeinert 8). For a woman to never marry made her into an outcast. A quote from Karen Zeinert in her book, Those Remarkable Women of the American Revolution, reads, “Scandalous, outlandish, and totally inappropriate: Any woman in colonial times who stepped out of her acceptable female role and into a traditionally male role, like that of a soldier, could expect to be labeled this way.
Some women were bold enough to take it a step further than this character in an 18th-century book by disguising themselves as men” (Zeinert 7). One woman named Eliza Wilkinson actually asked her husband for the right to think for herself (Zeinert 42). Colonial homes operated by a system called “couverture,” a system in which husbands owned their wives, where the women had some rights to inheritance of property, but they owned nothing, not even their own jewelry (Roberts 12). Some colonies allowed divorce, unlike England, and this difference between the mother country and her daughter was another factor dividing them and causing disputes (Roberts 12).
The lives of the following women were outside the normal routine, in the way that all these women published newspapers. Clementina Rind, Margaret Draper, Mary Crouch, Ann Catherine Green, Elizabeth Timothy, and Mary Katherine Goddard were all women in the colonies of America who lived outside the average female role (Zeinert 46). Mary Katherine Goddard was the most successful female publisher during the American Revolution. She became involved in writing after her father died. She and her mother, along with her brother William, who was a printer’s apprentice, began the Providence Gazette in Rhode Island in 1762 (Zeinert 47).
Unfortunately, the paper failed, and William left for Philadelphia to work for another journal. Mary and her mother join him, and end of doing most of his work. When William leaves again to buy a printing shop in Baltimore, his mother dies, and Goddard accompanies him and starts her own paper, the Maryland Journal, in February of 1774 (Zeinert 47). Goddard printed almanacs, pamphlets, and special order throughout the entire war, although she had a difficult time finding supplies, such as proper paper (Zeinert 47). With these papers, Goddard assisted Patriots in keeping up-to-date on the war’s latest events and replaced rumor with fact (Zeinert 47). Her professionalism gained the attention of prominent Patriots, and the second Continental Congress asked for her help in printing extra copies of the Declaration of Independence for state legislatures (Zeinert 47).
Many girls wrote in journals throughout the war, providing their personal opinion on battles and the war itself. In 1771, thirteen-year-old Anna Green Winslow of Boston wrote, “As I am, as we say, a daughter of Liberty, I choose to wear as much of my own manufactory as possible” (Salmon 58). In 1774, twenty-year-old Jemima Condict of Pleasantdale, New Jersey wrote, “It seems we have troublesome times coming, for there is a great disturbance in the earth and they say it is tea that caused it. So then if they will quarrel about such as trifling thing as that what must we expect but war, and I think or at least fear it will be so” (Salmon 64). In 1769, the Boston Evening Post wrote, “industry and frugality of American ladies must exalt them in the eyes of the world and serve to show how greatly they are contributing to bring about the political salvation of a whole continent” (Roberts 39). Therefore, it seems that no matter how inferior women were in colonial America’s society, they still knew of the happenings of the war, and they certainly had their opinions.
Deborah Read was a woman who was very opinionated of the war, and she stepped out of a woman’s role and into a man’s when her husband left to go to France, seeing as she helped to run the entire postal system of the colonies (Roberts 25). Deborah was fifteen years old when she met seventeen-year-old Benjamin Franklin when he began boarding with her and her mother (Roberts 25). In 1724, Franklin asked Read to marry him, right before he went to England for his job (Roberts 25). Read’s mother said no, at least until Franklin returned to the colonies (Roberts 25). After Franklin left, Read’s mother married her off to John Rogers, who took her dowry, spent it all, ran up debts, and then ran off to the West Indies where he was rumored to have died (Aircheck).
Franklin returned in 1726, and “took to wife” Read, because they could not legally marry because there was no proof that Rogers was dead (Roberts 25). Read had no dowry, but she agreed to raise Franklin’s illegitimate son William as her own (Roberts 26). Read and Franklin moved into a house together in 1730, where Franklin owned and ran a print shop in the back of the house, with the newspaper the Philadelphia Gazette (Roberts 26). When Franklin became postmaster for all the colonies, Read kept the books and helped run the service, and when he was sent to France, she helped invest in real estate and expanded the print business (Aircheck). Read took pride in what she accomplished, but women were expected to do these things for their husbands.
Some women did nothing for their husbands, but gave their lives to their growing country. Such women were female spies, for both the Patriot side and the Loyalist side. Anna Strong’s job was to inform Patriot spies in New York when information came and where they could get the messages (Zeinert 33). She would receive a midnight lantern signal, and the next morning she would hang a number of white hankies on her clothesline along with a black petticoat, the number of hankies corresponded with the spy’s number (Zeinert 33). One of these agents was only known for her code name, Agent 355; she was Robert Townsend’s mistress, arrested when Benedict Arnold fled to the British lines (Zeinert 34). She was put aboard the prison ship “Jersey” and was killed for espionage (Zeinert 34). Patience Lovell Wright was a friend of Benjamin Franklin in England, and she gathered information from British officers’ wives and sent it to the colonies (Zeinert 36). Sally Townsend’s father ran a boardinghouse near New York City where she lived and worked (Zeinert 33).
The boarders there were often British officers, specifically Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe, who developed a loving attitude toward Townsend (Zeinert 33). Townsend heard him talking about West Point, and saw him getting a message from a cupboard; fortunately, she intercepted future messages and exposed Major John André as a traitor in the colonies (Zeinert 34). But the most unusual of all Patriot women spies was Lydia Darragh, a Quaker whose religious beliefs prevented her from getting involved with war (Zitek). Well-known and respected in Philadelphia, she was a mortician, a nurse-midwife, a mother of five children, and a spy (Zeinert 30). Darragh came from Ireland to the colonies, and she used her neutral Quaker status to gain the trust of British officers who met in her family’s home (Zeinert 28). Darragh gained important military secrets and information, and she passed them on to the Continental Army (Zeinert 28).
She was forced to give up rooms in her home so the British could hold secret meetings, and in return, they offered Darragh a pass that allowed her to leave Philadelphia at any time to visit her children (Zeinert 31). This family of Quakers, who were supposed to have a neutral attitude towards the war, had backed the Revolution from the beginning and the oldest son, Charles, had joined the Continental Army (Zeinert 31). When the secret meeting occurred, Darragh would listen at the door, tell her husband the information, who would then write notes and wrap them around buttons, which were covered in cloth and sewed onto fourteen-year-old John’s jacket, would then pass the buttons onto Charles (Zeinert 31). On December 2, 1777, the British met in Darragh’s home to finalize plans for the attack that was to occur in three days; Darragh knew that information this important couldn’t be kept secret (Zeinert 31).
She left Philadelphia on December 4 and walked six miles until she ran into one of Washington’s scouts from Whitemarsh; she told him the plan, and then returned to Philadelphia (Zeinert 32). On December 8, 1777, she was questioned for warning Washington’s men at Whitemarsh of a surprise attack from the British (Zeinert 30). When asked about betrayal, the British officers only asked if any visitors had been in the house that night; therefore, Darragh was not suspected and never found guilty of espionage (Zeinert 32).
However, despite these many known Patriot female spies, there were also Loyalist female spies, such as Rebecca Shoemaker, the wife of a Loyalist major officer in Philadelphia (Zeinert 34). She gathered information and passed it on it letters, but came under suspicion when the British abandoned Philadelphia in June 1778 (Zeinert 35). Lorenda Holmes also gathered information and carried messages to assist the British, in New York; however, she was caught by Patriots, and she was released and warned never to practice espionage again (Zeinert 35). Holmes still carried messages and helped British soldiers get through Patriot lines; she was caught again while aiding the British Army increase their numbers (Zeinert 35).
Her captors, who could force no serious punishment upon a woman, removed her shoes and burned her feet (Zeinert 35). The most notorious female Loyalist spy was Ann Bates, who began her espionage in 1778 by posing as a peddler and going through all the Patriot camps, examining the number of soldiers, weapons, and Loyalist sympathizers (Zeinert 37). Bates took her orders from General Duncan Drummond and John André (Zeinert 38).
Another action-filled role of the mothers of our country was assisting the Patriot army by whatever means necessary. Martha Bratton was an arsonist, who had been entrusted with a storehouse of gunpowder; however, when she heard of the British soldiers’ plan to steal it, Bratton set a trap, blew up the storehouse, and injured others (Frost-Knappman 46). She later realized the cruelty of war, and began a war hospital for both British and American soldiers (Frost-Knappman 46). On April 26, 1777, two thousand British raiders set out to destroy the Continental Army’s supplies in Danbury Connecticut (Zeinert 22). Sixteen-year-old Sybil Luddington rode to alert every Minuteman in a 40-mile radius, and for her heroism, she is now known as “the girl Paul Revere” (Zeinert 22). Elizabeth Burgin visited Patriots locked in prison ship in New York City harbor, and helped 200 of the prisoners escape; Burgin then left for New England and received a pension from Congress in 1781 (Zitek). Also in 1781, Catherine Moore Barry participated in the Battle of Cowpens; when Cornwallis and the British army chased Morgan, Morgan went to Barry for help (Zitek). She immediately called all local troops to join Morgan’s men, and helped set a trap for Cornwallis (Zitek).
After being defeated, Cornwallis and his men retreated right into George Washington’s hands at Yorktown, where the colonies won their independence (Zitek). Grace and Rachel Martin were two sisters who grew tired of the way in which British soldiers treated colonial women and children; they borrowed their husbands’ clothes and pistols, and, disguised as men, stopped a pair of British officers and stole their battle documents without firing a shot (Zitek). Nancy Hart, the bravest of all, disguised herself as a crazy man and walked through British camps to pick up information for the Patriots; however, when two British soldiers discovered her, she killed them with their own muskets (Zitek). War Woman Creek in Georgia is named after Hart (Zitek). These women performed miraculous duties for their country.
Even more extraordinary than those ladies, however, was fighting in the battles, which many women did, to the surprise of the rest of the troops. Margaret Corbin was a woman whose husband had enlisted in the army; on November 16, 1776, his regiment was attacked by enemy forces at Fort Washington, New York (Zeinert 20). First, his cannon partner was killed, and then him, and Corbin took their places at the cannon in the battle until one of her arms was nearly severed at the shoulder by grapeshot (Zeinert 20). She was saved by a passing doctor, and her wounds left her permanently disabled; however, she then became part of the invalid regiment as “Captain Molly,” and Corbin became the first women to receive a lifetime pension for wounds received in battle (Zitek). Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army in her early twenties, under the name of Robert Shurtleff (Miller 58). Her story ends two different ways, however.
The first says that in June of 1782, a group of Loyalists was fighting with a small group of Patriot soldiers near New York City (Miller 58). The group of 31 Patriots forced the Loyalists away, and the wounded were treated; one man, Shurtleff, attempted to hide a wound in his thigh, but the doctors needed to fix it, and when they did, they discovered Shurtleff was actually a woman dressed as a soldier (Miller 59). The second says that Sampson’s identity was not revealed until the second time she was hospitalized, which occurred when she was hit with yellow fever (Zeinert 17). When Dr. Binney discovered that Shurtleff was a woman, he took her to his house so his wife could care for her (Zeinert 17).
When Sampson returned, the commanding officers discovered her identity and gave her an honorable discharge (Zeinert 17). Finally, Mary Hays was a camp follower whose husband was a soldier of New Jersey (Zeinert 20). Her job was to carry water to soldiers on the battlefield, which earned her the nickname “Molly Pitcher” (Zeinert 20). On June 28, 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, Hays stayed at her husband’s cannon after he was killed and continued to fire at the enemy, even when a cannonball passed straight through her legs and skirt (Zeinert 20).
Women played a major role in gaining America’s freedom, as well as setting up principles still used in government and society today. So while some hear of the American Revolution and think of blood and gore in battles, maybe others will think of the women, all of those mentioned, and even those who died for their country without even revealing their name. These women, and many more, were active in the Revolutionary War; they are considered “mothers of our country.” However, not all of them picked up muskets and went into battle. Some chose to fight for America with an arrow or a cannon, others with a pen or a needle (Zitek). Fortunately for every citizen of the United States of America today, these mothers gave up many things, some even their lives, so that America could gain its freedom.
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