Read the Revolution

January 28, 2014

Women in Battle

While countless stories recount the heroics of men who fought for American independence, far fewer chronicle the equally heroic actions of the women who served during the Revolutionary War. In her book, Founding Mothers, Cokie Roberts offers a comprehensive look at the many roles women played in the war, including soldiers, spies, nurses, and cooks. In this excerpt, Roberts describes the battlefield actions of a handful of women--representatives of many others whose stories have been lost to history.

“America was now a country, but a country in name only, required to fight for its life. And in this first war as a nation, as in every war since, women played a significant but unsung role. In addition to the legions of women taking over for their husbands at home, often under perilous circumstances, there were genuine Revolutionary War heroines--women who served as soldiers and spies, women who tricked the enemy, women who were tricked by the enemy. Their stories are told in romantic song and story and in dust-dry pension records of the U.S. Army.

“The most well-known of these women, Molly Pitcher, may not have ever existed. According to the famous story, a woman called Molly was bringing water to thirsty soldiers (that’s where the ‘Pitcher’ comes from) during the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, when she saw her husband shot, then took his place firing a cannon. There’s a good bit of historical debate about who this woman might have been, and whether ‘Molly Pitcher’ became a generic term for the female water carriers on the battlefield. But it’s pretty clear that a woman was working a cannon at Monmouth and was later granted a pension by Pennsylvania ‘for her services in the Revolutionary War.’

“Another account of a woman warrior is considerably clearer. Margaret Corbin’s husband, John, was killed firing artillery from Fort Washington, New York. His wife moved into his battle station and fought bravely, sustaining three gunshot wounds, until the British captured the post. Because her wounds disabled her, the Continental Congress awarded Margaret half the pay of a soldier and a complete outfit of clothing, or its value in cash; eventually she also received an annual clothing allowance. Not willing to leave it at that, as a member of what was called the Invalid Regiment, Margaret Corbin petitioned and won a full ration, including rum or whiskey. Many years after her death the Daughters of the American Revolution were granted their request to rebury Margaret Corbin at West Point, making her the only Revolutionary veteran to receive that honor.

“What were these women doing on the battlefield in the first place? They, along with many thousands of others, went to war with their husbands and brought their children as well. Most of these so-called camp followers were extremely poor; they hadn’t the wherewithal to survive at home alone. Though there’s been some behind-the-hand snickering about these women for centuries, they were not prostitutes. The American camps maintained strict rules about consorting with ‘bad’ women, in contrast to the British, who hired women to ‘service’ the troops. Though he knew he couldn’t turn away these destitute women, they were the bane of George Washington’s sense of an orderly and disciplined army. Still, no army could do without women. They foraged for and cooked food for the soldiers, sewed and laundered their clothes, and nursed their wounds. Women were assigned battle chores as well, such as swabbing down the cannons with water. Recognizing that they were indispensable, the army paid the women for their work and issued them rations-only a fraction of what the men received, of course....

“Women spies didn’t present the commander in chief with any of the problems that the camp followers did, as long as they were American spies. During the dread winter at Valley Forge, he warned, on February 11, 1778, of the ‘pernicious consequences’ of allowing women ‘to pass and repass from Philadelphia to camp, under pretence of coming out to visit their friends in the Army... but really with an intent to entice the soldiers to desert.’ But there were women in Philadelphia working their wits and their wiles for the patriot cause as well, most notably Lydia Darragh, a local mortician. She used a vantage point from a window in her house to record British troop activities, then wrote them up in coded messages, which she would hide behind her son’s coat buttons. He would then bring the messages to his big brother serving in Washington’s army. When the British officer Major Andre arrived at her door to commandeer her house for fellow officers, Lydia asked permission to stay there as well, with some of her children. One night she heard the enemy generals plotting a surprise attack on Washington’s camp. She devised a ruse to receive a pass out of the city, traveled on foot until she met up with a friendly soldier, and delivered the information to the American army in time to thwart disaster...

“Down through the decades, probably much embroidered in the telling, have come dramatic stories of women riding their horses through the night, wading through dangerous waters, skirting enemy lines, braving almost certain death in order to impart crucial information to the Continental Army.... Then there were the women who disguised themselves as men and fought right alongside their male brethren. It’s impossible to know how many there were--a few names are preserved in the military records, but their stories are lost...

“The most famous of the women who fought as men was Deborah Sampson, who reveled in her tales of derring-do, regaling audiences on the speaking circuit for years after the war... Deborah secretly sewed a suit of men’s clothes, snuck into the woods to change out of her dress, and for all intents and purposes became a man. She enlisted in the army as Robert Shurtliff and went off to war. In her three years’ service, Deborah, or ‘Robert,’ was twice wounded but continued to volunteer for hazardous duty. Apparently tall and strong, the other soldiers called their beardless brother ‘Molly,’ but it never occurred to them that someone who could do her work and survive her wounds really was a girl... Years later Washington invited her to come see the Congress, which then voted her a pension and some land in recognition of her military service...”

Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 78-82.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance. To learn more about the Museum's plans for a national museum in Philadelphia that will tell the complete story of the Revolution, click here.

Read the Revolution is produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor.