Women Warriors of the Revolutionary War
Brave women joined the men in the fight for America's liberty.
Officially, there were no female fighters during the Revolutionary War. Unofficially, history records many women who took up the cause of freedom from England by acting as messengers or soldiers. Some took up arms while assisting on the battlefield, while others used disguises to pass themselves off as men. All risked their safety for the cause of liberty.
Sounding the Alarm
One of these women was Catherine Moore Barry. Kate, as she was known, was very familiar with the many trails and shortcuts that wound through and around her plantation in South Carolina. An excellent horsewoman, Kate volunteered as a scout for the Revolutionary forces. In the article "10 Amazing Women of the Revolutinary War," Allthingliberty.com says that during the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, she rode out to warn the militia, which included her husband, Captain Andrew Barry, about the impending approach of British. This enabled the militia to round up enough forces to score a victory over the Redcoats, giving the Continental Army and important victory in the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign.
Sybil Ludington is known as the female Paul Revere of the Revolutionary War. Her father was Col. Henry Ludington, commander of the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia. When the British arrived in Connecticut on April 25, 1777, they began burning down and destroying select homes and businesses in Danbury, CT. After finding and consuming cases of wine and rum during their looting, their destruction became even more cruel and wanton. According to the article on Allthingsliberty.com, a messenger dispatched to warn residents of the coming British onslaught arrived at the Ludington home to warn the Colonel but was too exhausted and unfamiliar with the area to continue on. Whether Sybil was asked to ride out or volunteered is unclear, but the 16-year-old bravely set out on a 40-mile ride, avoiding both British soldiers and Loyalists, to warn the people of Putnam and Dutchess Counties of the approaching British. According to the article "Women in the American Revolution: On the Homefront and on the Battlefield" on Battlefields.org, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a statue of her astride a horse in Caramel, NY, which would have been along the route she traveled that night.
Although it would be two centuries before women would be allowed to fight in America’s armed forces, some women actually did take up arms during the Revolutionary War. Nancy Hart was one of them. Nancy’s battle began when six British soldiers stormed onto her farm in search of a Whig leader. Even though the man they were seeking had been there, Nancy denied ever seeing him. Alltlhingsliberty.com says that the soldiers thought she was lying and, to prove a point, shot her prize turkey and ordered her to prepare the bird for them. They placed their weapons in a corner of the cabin and, while Nancy prepared the bird, began partaking of some wine that she served them. Meanwhile, under the pretense of sending her daughter outside for a bucket of water, she instructed the girl to blow on a conch shell, thereby alerting her neighbors that Tories were at her cabin.
According to Allthingsliberty.com, as the soldiers drank and became more and more intoxicated, Nancy began to secretly pass their weapons one by one through an opening in their cabin to her daughter. Eventually, the soldiers realized what was happening and attempted to rush her. She held them off with the last remaining gun and declared she would shoot the next man who moved. One man did not heed her warning, and Nancy made good on her promise. Once her husband Benjamin arrived along with many of her neighbors, Nancy insisted the men be hung. Interestingly, railroad workers grading a site near the old Hart cabin in 1912 came across a neat row of six skeletons buried in three feet of dirt. Forensic experts estimated they had been there for more than a century.
Perhaps one of the better-known stories of the Revolutionary War belongs to Margaret Cochran Corbin. One of the many wives known as the “camp followers,” Margaret was stationed at Fort Washington with her husband when British and Hessian troops attacked on November 16, 1776. According to Womenshistory.org, when the fighting began, Margaret donned men’s clothing to get nearer to her husband, John, who was assisting a gunner. When John took over as gunner after the other man was killed, Margaret jumped in to assist until her husband was hit and died. Margaret then continued to fire the cannon alone until she was hit by enemy fire in the shoulder, chest, and jaw. According to Battlefields.org, she was left for dead beside her husband until a physician came upon her and, realizing she was alive, treated her wounds. Nicknamed “Captain Molly” by her husband’s comrades, she was left with limited use of her left arm for the remainder of her life. According to the website, Margaret is one of the candidates for the legendary Revolutionary War figure of “Molly Pitcher.”
The other candidate for this legendary figure is Mary Hays McCauley. Historically, “Molly Pitcher” was a woman who was bringing pitchers of water onto the battlefield before taking over for her husband when he was no longer able to fight, according to the article "Who Was Molly Pitcher?" on the website History.com. Although there is no definitive proof she ever existed, some legends name Mary McCauley as the historic figure. She was likely a servant before she married William Hays of Carlisle, PA. Mary was part of the group of camp followers who were present during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. Mary was bringing water to the soldiers on the battlefield during that sweltering summer day when her husband collapsed, either from heat exhaustion or from being wounded. Mary then took his place and operated a cannon for the remainder of the battle. According to History.com, a soldier who witnessed her bravery later wrote in his diary: “While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat.”
Mary’s husband survived the battle and they returned to Carlisle, where he died several years later. She went on to wed John McCauley. In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania began sending Mary an annual pension of $40 “for services rendered during the war,” according to History.com. Her story became well-known after her death in 1832, and residents of Carlisle honored her in 1876 by marking her grave as “Molly Pitcher.” However, according to the article "Women's Service with the Revolutionary Army" published in the Colonial Williamsburg newsletter of the website History.org, “Molly Pitcher” may simply have been a generic term used to describe any woman who assisted soldiers on the battlefield.
Some women took the role of assisting on the battlefield a step further by disguising themselves as men to get directly into the fight. One of these women, according to Battlfields.org, was Deborah Sampson of Uxbridge, MA. A paper trail of her service lists her alias as Robert Shurtliff, the name of her deceased brother. She served the with light infantry company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. According to military records, she mustered in during the spring of 1782 and was in a battle in Westchester County, NY, where she was wounded in the thigh and forehead. Fearing she would be discovered as a female, Deborah, a.k.a. Robert, permitted physicians to treat only her head wound. She later slipped out of the field hospital tent, removed one bullet from her thigh with a penknife and closed the wound with a sewing needle. The other bullet was too deep in her leg for her to remove.
According to Battlefield.org, her identity was revealed when she contracted a fever in the summer of 1783 while on duty in Philadelphia. The physician who treated her agreed to keep her secret. She was honorably discharged after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. The bullet in her leg remained there for life and her leg never properly healed, but she did go on to marry and raise three children in Sharon, MA. Deborah often gave lectures about her wartime experiences to make ends meet, and she petitioned the state and federal government for a military pension. She was eventually granted a minimal pension for her service from both the state of Massachusetts and the federal government and received them until her death in 1827. A statue was erected in Sharon, MA to honor her bravery and service in the Revolutionary War.
Several other women were known to have disguised themselves as men and fought during the war, according to History.org. Anna Marie Lane accompanied her husband, John, when he enlisted in 1776. By the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, Lane was dressing as a man in order to accompany her husband on the battlefield. Both drew pensions after the war. Another woman, known mainly as “Samuel Gay” but who some historians believe to be a woman named Anne or Nancy Bailey of Boston, enlisted in 1777 under the alias and was promoted to Corporal before her identity was discovered. She was arrested and imprisoned, and upon her release, enlisted again and was once more discovered and jailed, according to the article “Roles of Women in the Revolutionary War” on Historyofmassachusetts.org. A third woman named Sally St. Claire also dressed as a man to join her husband on the battlefield. Both Sally and her husband died on the same day during the Battle of Savannah, according to the book It’s My Country Too: Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. Only after her death did her fellow soldiers discover that she was a woman.
Some women even went as far as to form their own militia units. When the women of Pepperell, MA heard about the Boston Tea Party, they burned their own tea leaves in the middle of the town common. After the men left to fight in the American Revolution, the women of Pepperell formed their own militia to protect their town. According to Battlefields.org, the leader of the militia was Prudence Cummings Wright, mother to eleven children and a fierce patriot. Calling themselves “The Minutewomen,” Prudence and 30 to 40 other women dressed in men’s clothing and armed themselves with muskets or whatever farm implements they could find. When the British were marching toward their town, the Minutewomen met them at Jewett’s Bridge on the Nashua River. Not only did they intimidate and stop the advancing British, but the women also took several British prisoners, including a Tory spy named Leonard Whiting, and intercepted messages regarding troop movements. A marker that remains to this day on Jewett’s Bridge reads: “Near this spot, a party of patriotic women, under the leadership of Mrs. David Wright, of Pepperell, in April 1775, captured Leonard Whiting, a Tory who was carrying treasonable dispatches to the enemy at Boston.”
Many of these women chose to give up the security of their homes in exchange for the discomfort, hardship, and the dangers of war. Most of them risked their safety. Some paid with their lives, or by having to endure lifelong disabilities. Some dared to break traditional gender roles, risking discovery and imprisonment, in order to serve their country. Although they worked, sacrificed and suffered as much as the men beside them, most never received any military pension, let alone recognition for what they had done. It is important to recognize and honor the courage and sacrifice of these women who gave so much for freedom.
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