Female Patriots of the Revolutionary War
Hidden History: Honoring the Female Patriots of America’s First War
Women in the United States were first made a permanent part of the military in 1948. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense formally adopted a policy allowing women to serve in combat units at all levels. However, women have always played important roles in American war efforts, including its very first conflict.
In the Revolutionary War of 1775-1783, the accomplishments and heroic efforts of women have been largely underrated and ignored. Many women, including the wives of heroes of the revolution and future presidents, made invaluable behind-the-scenes contributions, according to the article “10 Amazing Women of the Revolutionary War” on the website, Allthingsliberty.com. While husbands and sons were fighting for liberty, women ran farms, homesteads, and businesses. Some women uprooted their entire families to follow their men around the battlefields. Wives and children sacrificed comfort and endured the same hardships the soldiers faced.
Being that history is generally written by men and about men, the sacrifices and efforts of these women have been largely forgotten. But freedom could not have been won over the British without the heroics of these brave women.
The "Camp Followers"
Martha Custis Washington is best known for the man she married, George Washington, and for her role as America’s inaugural First Lady. During the Revolutionary War, however, Martha left her children at home and joined her husband at his encampment, according to Allthingslibery.com. Known as "camp followers," these women would leave their homes and follow the army's encampment to be close to their husbands. She set up a sewing circle with other officer’s wives, and together they provided clothing for the Continental Army. She was known to use her family’s money to bring supplies to the troops, and also served as a nurse to her husband’s men.
Lucy Flucker Knox was one of those women in Martha Washington’s sewing circle. A member of a Loyalist family, Lucy defiantly married a patriot named Henry Knox and never saw her family again. Lucy also had been known to generously share supplies with her husband’s men. According to Allthingliberty.com, Lucy, Martha and other officer’s wives lived in a stone house next to the encampment, and Lucy regularly played host to the army’s cold and hungry officers. Following the war, the majority of officers and their wives returned to their permanent homes. Henry and Lucy Knox had no such home--even though she and Henry were married for over 20 years--having spent their entire married life devoted to the cause of freedom from England.
Authors for Liberty
Another president’s wife played a far bigger role in the American Revolution. Abigail Adams, wife of future president John Adams, was appointed to the Massachusetts Colony General Court—along with Mercy Warren and Hannah Winthrop, wife of Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop—to question Massachusetts women charged with loyalty to the British crown who, either through their words or actions, were working against the battle for independence.
Allthingsliberty.com also said that, following the formation of the Second Continental Congress, Abigail began writing to her husband championing the call for women’s rights, arguing that the formation of a new type of government was a unique opportunity to give women the same legal standing as men and urging him to “remember the ladies.” Throughout much of her husband’s career in the new government, Abigail remained on their farm in Braintree, MA, managing the estate, trading livestock, and purchasing land. She also supervised farm construction, the planting and harvesting of crops, and the hiring of farmhands. She served as an unofficial adviser to John Adams throughout his career, and his letters to Abigail contain requests for her advice on many issues, including the question of whether or not he should seek the presidency.
In addition to her role serving on the Massachusetts Colony General Court, Mercy Otis Warren was a prolific writer who was not afraid to let her opinions be known in writing, as well as America’s first female playwright. According to the Online Library of Liberty (oll.libertyfund.org), Mercy wrote plays, poetry, letters, and one of the most complete accounts of the American Revolution. Her writings and political poetry supported the call for revolution and recognized the importance of educating women, a practice not common in Colonial America. She later wrote pamphlets warning of dangers in the new Constitution. Although she may not be considered a feminist in modern terms, her call to establish schools for girls and women was revolutionary at the time. According to Oll.libertyfund.org, “In her history, we see the continual struggle between liberty, virtue, and reason on the one hand, against the blind pursuit of power, luxury, and passion on the other.”
Phillis Wheatley also became an influential writer during the Revolutionary War. An African American slave, she wrote poetry and essays, becoming not only one of the first published American females but also the first published African American woman, according to the American Battlefield Trust website, Battlefields.org in the article Women in the American Revolution: On the Homefront and on the Battlefield. Her writings were popular both in the Americas and abroad, and her 1773 poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, became her best-known work. She even published a poem about George Washington, and he personally invited her to recite it to him while he was stationed with the Continental Army at Cambridge, MA in 1776. Following the death of her master in 1778, Phillis was granted her freedom.
Backing the Cause for Freedom
Another influential woman who worked behind the scenes for the cause of liberty was Esther DeBerdt Reed. Born in London, Esther met and married American Joseph Reed and eventually moved to Philadelphia. During the Revolution, Esther became disenchanted with her homeland of England and supported the patriotic cause by establishing “The Ladies of Philadelphia” group. The organization raised $300,000—an exorbitant amount at the time--by going door to door asking for donations. Esther expressed to General Washington that the money should be divided up and given to the soldiers, but Washington believed the money should be used for something the soldiers desperately needed: clothing. Esther and the women of The Ladies of Philadelphia used the money to buy linen and sewed shirts for the American troops.
Although not a writer or outspoken patriot, Betsy Ross is credited with making a contribution to the American Revolution that is not only well-known, but is also influential to this day. Betsy’s story is legendary, but according to Battlefields.org, it is also very likely just a story. The design and construction of the first American flag—thirteen red and white stripes and a field of blue in the corner featuring thirteen stars--is credited to Betsy. Research on the origins of the story can be traced back to the celebration of America’s centennial in 1876 when the story surfaced and was promoted by Betsy’s grandson, William Canby. Also, Congress passed the Flag Act establishing to stars and stripes as the official United States flag in 1777, a full year after Betsy supposedly sewed the original flag, according to the website.
What is known about Betsy is that she married John Ross, a fellow apprentice upholsterer, in 1772 and was promptly expelled from her Quaker family for marrying an Anglican, according to an article on Betsy Ross on the website Biography.com. She and John opened an upholstery business together. When John was killed while on duty with the militia in 1776, Betsy kept the business going by making flags for the Pennsylvania colony. While there is no proof that Betsy created the first American flag, she was undoubtedly a flag-maker. Records show that Betsy was paid by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making “ship’s colours, &c.” in 1777, according to the website.
Though none of these women took up arms, their contributions to America's fight for freedom was invaluable. They should be remembered for their patriotism along with the men who bravely fought for the freedom that established the United States of America.
Battlefields.org. Women in the American Revolution: On the homefront and on the battlefield. American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/women-american-revolution
Biography.com (2018, Dec. 18). Betsy Ross. Biography. https://www.biography.com/military-figure/betsy-ross
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice (2013, Feb. 21). The Roles of Women in the Revolutionary War. History of Massachusetts.org. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-roles-of-women-in-the-revolutionary-war/
Murrow, Pamela (2013, Oct. 25). 10 Amazing Women of the Revolutionary War. Journal of the American Revolution. https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/10-amazing-women-revolutionary-war/
Oll.libertyfund.org. Mercy Otis Warren. Online Library of Liberty. https://oll.libertyfund.org/people/mercy-otis-warren?q=mercy+otis+warren#