The Midnight Ride of . . .Emily Geiger
An Unsung Heroine
Like Paul Revere, Emily Geiger took her ride during the Revolutionary War. Like his ride, Emily's was made with haste; part of it occurred at night. There the obvious similarities in the stories end. Emily's story illustrates the fact the most of the world's acts of heroism or greatness will take place quietly--even clandestinely--and will go largely unnoticed after just a few years have passed.
It was 1781. The Revolutionary War raged. In the South, patriot Generals Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter, Henry Lee, and Francis Marion were waging an all-out campaign to rid South Carolina of the British. General Greene had spent 28 days trying to capture the fort at Ninety-Six, but had been forced to retreat when he discovered that British General Lord Rawdon was coming with reinforcements. General Greene felt that Rawdon’s men were vulnerable to attack, but knew he lacked manpower to win the skirmish; he needed reinforcements.
If General Greene could get a message to General Sumter the two units could join forces and attack General Rawdon together. Two things made getting such a message to General Sumter very difficult. Seventy miles of difficult country—some of it a dense marsh—separated the two armies. Additionally, the area was a hotbed for Tory sympathizers; records indicate that the area had the highest concentration of Tories in the country. General Greene hesitated to order any of his men—who were exhausted and weak from lack of proper food—to undertake such a difficult ride through hostile territory. So he called for a civilian volunteer to carry a message.
Enter 18-year old Emily Geiger who lived with her father John near where General Greene was camped. John Geiger was a loyal and outspoken patriot, but was prevented from serving his country because he was handicapped. Emily overheard her father and one of his friends discussing Greene’s dilemma and his call for a courier. Without saying anything to her father, Emily left the house and went to Greene's camp, asking to speak to the general personally. Greene was understandably leery about sending a young woman on such a long and dangerous trip, but he was desperate and felt that she was not likely to arouse suspicion. He consented to let Emily go, wrote his message, and gave it to her to read, in case she had to destroy it. Then he gave her a horse and sent her on her way.
Unknown to Emily, a Tory spy had seen her leave General Greene’s camp. He reported her activities to a man named Lowry, who in turn sent a man to apprehend Emily. Unsuspecting, Emily continued her journey until she was forced to stop for the night and stay with people unknown to her. Those folks were Tories. In the middle of the night the man tracking Emily arrived at the house. As fate would have it, he decided to rest a few hours before nabbing Emily. She figured out what was happening, and while the others slept she sneaked out the window, saddled her horse, and silently rode away. She pushed her horse as fast as she dared, knowing that the rider would be tailing her as soon as he woke.
Emily had made it about two-thirds of the way to General Sumter's camp when she saw three British soldiers coming toward her. The sight of a young woman traveling alone from the direction of General Greene’s camp and on a well-lathered horse had made them suspicious. When they questioned her, the soldiers became even more wary of Emily’s evasive answers. They took her captive, rode into Lord Rawdon’s camp with her and took her to the general himself. He ordered them to find a woman to search Emily. While she waited in a little room for someone to come, Emily scrambled to figure out what to do. Being found with a message would mean she would be tried as a spy and probably hanged. If she threw the message out the window, the guards would likely find it. Hiding it in the room would mean that whoever searched the room would find it. The answer came to her suddenly. She read the message, memorizing it, and then, bit by bit, she ate it. She choked the last bit down just as they returned. Obviously, no evidence of the note was found, and Emily was soon released.
Finally, at 3:00 the next afternoon, Emily arrived—dirty and bedraggled—at General Sumter’s camp. She told the general her story, and delivered the message: he was to leave immediately and meet General Greene so that together they could attack Lord Rawdon. General Sumter believed her, and gave orders for his men to pack. Shortly thereafter, Generals Greene and Sumter joined forces and defeated Lord Rawdon at Eutaw Springs. That battle was one of the last battles fought in South Carolina. It helped free the south of the British and hastened the end of the war.
Model of Emily Geiger
After a few days of rest, Emily
returned to her home. Eventually she married. Records are spotty, but indicate that Emily died while still a young woman. Emily's legacy lives on, especially at the Cayce (SC) Historical Museum which has compiled available details and dedicated a room to her to remind folks of this daring woman and her part in our national heritage.
Sources for Learning More
- Emily Geiger Materials
List of source documents.
- History's Women Emily Geiger
A magazine highlighting the extraordinary achievements of women throughout history.
- South Carolina state website
Emily Geiger's role in South Carolina history
- SCETV Bibliographical Information on Emily Geiger
Lots of information, including bibliographical sources.