Friday, March 13, 2015

Women Heroes of the American Revolution

March 11 - Today's post contributed by Susan Casey

Women participated in almost every aspect of the American Revolution.  The war came to them.  Battles took place in cities, on farms, outside homes.  Women aided the cause as spies, soldiers, saboteurs, rescuers and more.

Sybil Ludington photo = Courtesy of Susan Casey
Since many women of the time couldn’t read or write, their stories were passed on orally or captured in journals and letters often written by relatives.  When doing research to write Women Heroes of the American Revolution, though, I soon discovered that not every story passed down could be trusted, that there were often multiple versions of many of the tales.

Take the story of Prudence Wright who lived in Pepperrell, Massachusetts, only 45 miles away from the conflicts in Lexington and Concord that sparked the revolution.  She and other women in town had bid goodbye to their husbands, sons, and brothers who had left to join the fight.  While they waited to hear of the events, Prudence overheard a conversation about couriers carrying messages to the British in Boston and that they would be traveling past her town on their way.  She’d heard enough.  She mustered the women of Pepperrell who grabbed muskets, pitchforks, whatever they could use as a weapon. The women hid by the side of a road at the foot of a nearby bridge, surprised and dismounted the couriers when they passed, seized the messages, sadly discovered that one of the men was Prudence’s own brother, then delivered them to the authorities.

Prudence Wright monument - Courtesy of the Pepperell Historical Commission
The story of Prudence and the pitchfork brigade is a straightforward account but there are several versions of it.  Which one is the most accurate? Sorting that out points up the difficulty of writing about people who lived two hundred years ago.  As I wrote I struggled with what to include and finally decided to include all the accounts, to give readers the chance to interpret the event for themselves--to play the historian.  I did that throughout.

Elizabeth Burgin's story is an example of a dramatic tale gleaned from sketchy information related in only three letters--an account told in correspondence.  Two of the letters are from her and one is from George Washington.  She wrote that she helped 200 American prisoners escape from prison ships in New York and that she was on the run herself after the British offered a reward for her capture.  Washington commended her in his letter, writing that she had been "indefatigable for the relief of prisoners" while asking for aid for her.  Snippets that whet one's appetite for more.

Some stories are well documented and from a variety of sources.  Sixteen-year-old Betty Zane volunteered to run across a battlefield to retrieve much needed gunpowder for settlers fighting the British and their Native American allies who were attacking Fort Henry in one of the last battles of the war.  She ran the hundred yards to a cabin where the ammunition was kept and the attackers just watched. However, on her return trip they must have realized her mission.  Shots flew but she dodged them and safely slid back inside the gates of the fort, gunpowder in hand.
Heroism of Miss Elizabeth Zane  - Library of Congress LC-USZ62-2335
 Esther Reed, the wife of the then governor of Pennsylvania, called for the ladies of Philadelphia to help improve the plight of the ordinary soldier.  She, Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin, and dozens of other women went door-to-door fundraising, used the money to buy linen and made 2,500 shirts for the troops.
Esther Reed Sarah Franklin Bache - The drawing appeared in Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution by Benson John Lossing,  published in 1860
Sarah Franklin Bache - The drawing appeared in Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution by Benson John Lossing,  published in 1860.
Martha Bratton boldly defied the British soldiers who came to seize her family’s stash of gunpowder.  As they approached, she lit it on fire.  After it exploded the British commander demanded to know the perpetrator.  Martha boldly proclaimed, “It was I who did it.”
Martha Bratton from The Story of a Great Nation, 1888; courtesy of Historical Center of York County, Culture and Heritage Museums.
In some stories, though, the action of women is implied as opposed to being known.  Mary Lindley Murray helped the Continental Army.  Or did she?  Just after being defeated by the British in New York, the last of the Continental army troops, 3500 of them, were retreating on a road leading out of town.  On that same road, however, British officers and their 8,000 troops were heading into New York.  Had the two armies met it would have been a disaster for the Americans.  But they didn't.  Mary, a Quaker, who was suspected of being supportive of the revolution, invited the British officers to stop at her home along the way for some wine and cake.  As the British sipped wine and joked with Mary about her American friends, the rebel troops successfully joined the rest of the army.  No direct evidence exists that Mary assessed the situation and planned the delay.  The British later claimed they were ordered to stop in that area to await the arrival of other British troops.  The buzz at the time, though, was that Mary saved the American army.  What do you think?

Mary Lindley Murray -  Courtesy of Susan Casey
In other stories, facts give way to imagination.  Molly Pitcher is lauded in many textbooks for taking over a cannon when her husband was felled on the battlefield.  Yet anyone looking for a birth or death record for her won't find one.  Many artists depicted the scene and since they didn't know the brave woman's name dubbed her Captain Molly and ultimately Molly Pitcher.  The fictional Molly has overshadowed the real-life efforts of Mary Ludwig Hays and Margaret Cochran Corbin, the women who actually stepped up at two different battles.  They were acknowledged in their lifetimes but haven't enjoyed the fame garnered by the legendary Molly Pitcher.
Molly Pitcher - Library of Congress LC-USZC2-3186
Researching, writing and verifying the stories of the women heroes of the American Revolution was challenging but it was a captivating adventure, one spent over many months in dozens of libraries.

Susan Casey
Courtesy of Susan Casey
Susan Casey is the author of Women Heroes of the American Revolution, of Kid Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors, Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries of That Have Shaped Our World.  She is also a journalist whose work has appeared in Fast Company, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle among other publications.  She lives in Los Angeles.


  1. Thanks for this fascinating post! Your book is much needed since at the library we have many kids doing assignments on women during the American Revolution but sources are still lacking. Thanks for writing such an important book for young people.

    1. Hi Fourth Musketeer-I'm so pleased that you were fascinated. I was too while reading and then writing about the women of the revolution. I know only too well that kids need sources for their reports and it was exciting digging up details they might find interesting about the different women. Thanks so much for calling it "an important book for young people." I so appreciate your remark. .

  2. The women are amazing and I'm glad that their stories are finally being told! What a great post! I live near Lexington and Concord so this is even more meaningful!

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Pragmatic Mom! It was really exciting to write about the many women and discover their stories. And your comments mean more to me since you live in the area where it all started. Check out the book when you get a chance.