Women of the American Revolution - Anna Maria Lane
The American Revolution was not fought solely by men on the battlefields. It was fought on the home front as well. While their husbands and sons were away, many women stepped out of the traditional role of 18th-century wife and mother to become heads of households and manage their farms and plantations. Others supported the cause by fundraising, making homespun cloth rather than buying English imports, and boycotting tea to protest unfair taxation. Still, others chose to support their men directly and followed them into war.
This story is about one such woman. Her name was Anna Maria Lane.
There is precious little known about Anna Maria’s early life. She may have been born in the 1750s and hailed from New England, possibly New Hampshire. Like many girls of her generation, Anna Maria may have been taught to read but possibly not how to write. At the time it was generally felt a woman needed little education beyond the ability to read the Bible to her children.
When she came of age, she was courted by John Lane, and they married in 1776.
The American Revolution Begins
Camp followers have existed for as long as there have been military forces. They were mostly the wives of the soldiers, and they lived with their menfolk at the encampment. Some followed out economic necessity, some because it seemed safer than falling prey to encroaching enemies or their sympathisers. Camp followers provided support services such as cooking, sewing, laundering, nursing and at times espionage. Anna Maria Lane went one step further.
At the start of the American Revolution in 1776, Anna Maria and John Lane joined the Continental Army and served under General Israel Putnam. She donned the uniform of a Continental soldier and fought alongside her husband in campaigns in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia. She was the only documented women in Virginia to dress and fight as a man.
How Anna Maria Lane Passed As a Soldier
You may wonder how Anna Maria managed to go unnoticed by the other soldiers. As it turns out; it was not that difficult.
In the 18th century, military physicals were not as thorough as they are today. So long as you had front teeth and a functioning forefinger and thumb, so you could grasp a cartridge, rip the paper open, load and fire your musket, no one checked too carefully.
Also, gender roles were more strictly defined then than they are now. If you wore a frock, you were a woman. If you wore trousers, you were a man. If you wore a uniform, you were a male soldier. Even if you appeared feminine, you were a still considered a male soldier. It was as simple as that.
‘But what about when they bathed or went to bed,’ I hear you say. ‘She would have had to remove her uniform then surely.’
Any available water would have been used for cooking and drinking. Hygiene was low on the list of priorities and, as such, the soldiers did not bathe much.
At night when the temperature drops and the cold seeps in, soldiers would sleep in their uniforms adding more layers on top of that when possible to stay warm.
It is easy to see, taking all this into account, how Anna Maria could keep her identity hidden.
The Battle of Germantown
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had been the colonial capitol until her capture by the British Army under General Howe in September 1777. General George Washington was determined to recapture her and restore morale to the Continental Army.
In the early hours of 3 October 1777, John, Anna Maria and the rest of the Continental Army marched 15 miles through the thick fog towards Germantown, located approximately five miles from Philadelphia. Part of the British Army was camped there, and Washington believed an unexpected dawn raid from many directions would rout them. He had not counted on the fog, however. Communication between generals became confused. Some got lost, and there were incidents of friendly fire.
Unfortunately, British sentries spotted their approach and alerted the rest of the army camped there. By 5:00 am, chaos ensued.
After the initial attack, the British sentries fell back to a stone house called the Chew House, or Cliveden, where they, and the rest of the soldiers stationed inside, beat back every attack by the Continental Army. Because the house lay between them and the main horde of the British Army, the Continental Army could not go around and leave their rear flank vulnerable. They had to take this house.
Eventually, the Continental Army broke through and Anna Maria Lane "in the garb and with the courage of a soldier” charged into the fray, engaging with the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. She fought as bravely as any man, receiving a severe wound during the fighting which left her lame for the rest of her life.
Prior to the battle, Washington issued a decree forbidding all women camp followers from accompanying the men to the battlefield. It is possible Anna Maria, fearing discovery, may have declined medical treatment for her injured leg.
Life After the American Revolution
At the end of the war in 1783, the Lanes moved to in Virginia where John had obtained employment at the state arsenal at Point of Fork in Fluvanna County. Later in 1801, the Lanes moved again and settled in Richmond where John joined the Public Guard. They set up home with their three children in the barracks living off daily rations.
Anna Maria volunteered her services at the military hospital where she met Dr. John H. Foushee. It was he who appealed to Governor James Monroe (who would later become the fifth President of the United States) and the Council of State to authorise a small gratuity for her services as a nurse.
Dr. Foushee’s reasons for doing this remain unclear. Perhaps he felt sorry for her because of her disability. Maybe he was familiar with the cause of her lameness and wanted to show his gratitude for her sacrifice. Possibly he felt she was an exceptional nurse and deserved a reward. I don’t suppose we will ever really know.
As the years passed, Anna Maria grew weaker and eventually became too ill to continue her duties at the hospital. By 1804, Anna Maria’s name no longer appeared on the list of county nurses in the council journal.
In 1808, John, along with several other men, was discharged from the Public Guard due to disability. They, along with Anna Maria, sought help from the Virginia government in the form of pensions.
On 28 January 1808 in a letter to Hugh Nelson, Speaker of the House of Delegates, Governor William H. Cabell put forth his argument for awarding pensions to these men and women of the American Revolution.
In the letter, Governor Cabell asked for these veterans to be given consideration in light of their services during the American Revolution. He noted Anna Maria was in particular need as she was "very infirm, having been disabled by a severe wound which she received while fighting as a common soldier, in one of our Revolutionary battles, from which she never has recovered, and perhaps never will recover."
Anna Maria is Awarded Her Pension
We will never know precisely what heroic feats Anna Maria performed on that fateful day at the Battle of Germantown. Inexplicably, no one at the General Assembly had written down any notes when Anna Maria's exploits were put forth. Historian Joyce Henry has a theory as to what might have occurred:
"At some point during the confusion of battle, many of the American soldiers became confused, and said, “We’re out of ammunition.” They felt the British heard them screaming that we were out of ammunition. They said, “The British are upon us.” And many threw their muskets down and ran and started to retreat to the rear. We know General Washington and Henry Knox and Anthony Wayne were galloping their horses about, frantically waving their swords trying to rally the men to re-take the positions to continue the assault. We know that many American soldiers continued to retreat.
We also know that a handful picked up their arms, possibly their standards, and made that final assault. We know there was one final assault on the Chew house. Meant some American soldiers made their way actually into the house, where some vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued in the yard and in the hallways. Certainly, it was a very brave act. But they did not succeed in overrunning the house.
“Was Anna Maria Lane one of these who entered the house, who picked up a fallen standard, who made a valiant final charge when others were retreating? That’s my thought. Because again, her pension record states, “In the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military service and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown.” To me, that highlights the most, I won’t call it the decisive action, but probably one of the bloodiest and heroic actions of the Battle of Germantown."
Soldier of the American Revolution
Whatever her deeds were, they must have been impressive. While the other veterans received on average $40 a year pension, The General Assembly saw fit to award Anna Maria $100 per year in consideration of her services during the American Revolution and the injury she received on the battlefield.
Two years later, on 13 June 1810, Anna Maria Lane, a soldier of the American Revolution, died. Despite her fantastic story, she remained in relative obscurity until the 1920s, when the editor of the Richmond Magazine found her pension records and wrote an article about her.
In 1997, the Virginia Sons of the American Revolution honoured her memory by sponsoring a descriptive marker which commemorates her heroic deed in the fight for American independence from English oppression. It was erected in Richmond by the Department of Historic Resources and is located near the Bell Tower in Capitol Square.
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© 2012 Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon