The history we learn in school and what is most often portrayed in popular media is almost always focused on the courage and dedication of men. Women’s stories are often lost or overlooked, and in this regard, the history of the American Revolution is no exception. Some will say, “Aw come on, Christine… what about Betsy Ross, or Martha Washington… or Abigail Adams…” and then the argument usually peters off right there. Most of us can name too few examples of women who played any role in the event considered to be one of the biggest turning points in world history.
Because women’s roles very often occur backstage to the political arena or battleground, they are seldom recorded, and hence become lost to us. Researching and writing a continuing story set during the American Revolution has offered me the opportunity to explore the many and diverse ways women were involved in the conflict.
Apathetic, Patriotic or Loyalist, women could not help but be touched by the events that occurred once “the shot heard round the world” was fired in 1775. Though 18th century society might dictate that a women’s role and viewpoint be either unimportant, or based on that of her husband or father, the events leading up to revolution and the resultant war inspired many women to act upon their own political choices.
Revolutionary America could be a very unsafe place for women. American women became eyewitnesses to war when their towns, cities and farms were engulfed in battle. With men gone off to fight, the women left behind were often called upon to manage the family and farm or business on their own. Many of these women were responsible for defending hearth and home from military foragers (both Continental and British), British Indian allies, and desperate deserters. Those unlucky enough to find themselves in either army’s path were often forced out onto the road as refugees. On her way to marry a Redcoat officer, Jane MacCrae was brutally murdered and scalped by Indian raiders employed by the British. News of her death helped to turn sentiment away from the Loyalist cause.
Out of loyalty, or sometimes due to economic constraints, many women followed their men from garrison, to camp, to battlefield, carrying children (and often bearing children) along the way. Officer wives, like the Baroness Frederika Von Riedesel, crossed oceans and braved the wilds to support their husband’s career. Other women followed their common soldier-husbands and served as cooks or laundresses for the army. No matter their social strata, these camp following women suffered victory and defeat with their armies, and bore witness to the brutality of army life and the horror of battle by nursing the sick and wounded. Though it is debated whether the story of Molly Pitcher – the wife of a Continental gunner who took his place at the cannon when he was killed in action – is fact or fiction, I would be willing to wager the act of a camp follower taking up arms against the enemy was not an uncommon one.
Some women tried to engage in a more active role than those permitted. Deborah Samson was exposed – and is thus remembered in the record – as a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to enlist and fight as a soldier in the Continental Army. Both Loyalist and Patriot women risked having their necks stretched for treason by gathering intelligence on the enemy. The mysterious agent known only as “355” was a female member of Washington’s Culpur Ring of spies who goes down in history with her name and fate never revealed. Anne Bates was one of the Britain’s most successful she-spies, infiltrating the Continental Army as a peddler woman she gave accurate report on rebel troop numbers, movements, and munitions. Lydia Darragh was a Quaker housewife who eavesdropped on the British Command quartered in her home and smuggled the information thus gathered to General Washington at Valley Forge.
These are but a few examples. Patriot or Loyalist, free or slave, black, white, or Native American, women were there. As a writer of historical fiction, I am always compelled to try and ferret out their lost stories. In my digging, I can’t help but wonder about all the unnamed women whose world was turned upside down by Revolution and War – whose stories we can only imagine.