Women In The Revolution

Books about the role of women in the American Revolution often reflect the view and period of the person doing the writing. The books written in the Victorian era are often about women wearing elaborate gowns and meeting interesting people. In other times, the books have been about sewing flags, writing political literature, participating in boycotts and riding through the woods in the night to warn the men of danger. In some accounts, the women are drawing down on the British with pistols, serving in uniform and firing cannons.

Which of these represent the true story of women in the American Revolution? They all do. The one million women in America during the revolution had a wide variety of experiences during the eight years of the conflict. Most women more or less conformed to the expectations society held at the time, but not all did.

One of the most dramatic stories is that of Margaret Cochran Corbin who followed her soldier husband to Fort Washington. Her husband, John, assigned to a gunnery team, was wounded when the British attacked. Margaret, or Molly as she was called, took her husband’s post and helped to fire the gun until she too was wounded by grapeshot fired from English cannon. John Corbin died at Fort Washington and Molly was taken prisoner by the British and sent to New York with the other captives. When she was released, she went to Philadelphia and joined a unit of wounded soldiers that helped with recruiting and training. The wound never healed and she eventually became completely disabled. After a period of extended misery, she was voted a pension by Congress for her bravery in defense of Manhattan.

Another New York woman who suffered much was Elizabeth Annesley Lewis, the wife of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She was taken prisoner when the British searched her home at Whitestone, Long Island. Though she was later exchanged for the wife of a British official, the treatment she received in captivity ruined her health and she soon died.

Some of the stories of women in the revolution, particularly those that got wide attention in the late 1800s, probably aren’t true. Although her grandson made quite a splash at the time of the American centennial, Betsy Ross of Philadelphia probably didn’t sew one of the first flags. There is probably just a bit more truth to the story of Mary Lindley Murray, for whose family and mansion the Manhattan neighborhood of Murray Hill is named. It is true that General Howe stopped at her home after routing the Americans in his landing at Kip’s Bay. Israel Putman did escape from lower Manhattan with 3,500 men as the British failed to take control of the roads leading north. But most military analysts say the failure to seal off Putman in the southern part of the island had more to do with his need to consolidate his own position than the cakes offered by Mrs. Murray.

Women wrote eloquently in defense of freedom. One of the most famous propagandists of the war was Mercy Otis Warren. Though her learned style is less appealing today than the more down-to-earth words of Tom Paine, she made a sensation with her anonymous play, "The Group," in which she compared the loyalist governor to a crocodile.

Women did much of the organizing for boycotts of English goods, including tea and cloth. The boycott of British manufactured goods required American women to do a great deal of spinning and weaving. Similarly, women gathered lead utensils throughout the colonies for the soldiers to use in making bullets.

A large number of women traveled with the armies to cook, sew, carry and tend the wounded. British regiments in the New York area with 9,686 men had 3,615 women and 4,127 children on their roles. On the American side, the proportion of women marching with the army was smaller, but still thousands bore the hunger, cold and fatigue of the long campaign.

Women who were not on the march tended the farms and shops that had been left behind by the men. They cared for the wounded from nearby battles and took food and clothing to captured Americans held in British prisons.

While the words of the Declaration of Independence said that all "men" were created equal, women understood they had a stake in the war effort and they made gains after the war was won. English tradition had given property, on the death of the father, to the eldest son. This could leave widows impoverished and daughters could face a declining standard of living if they were not married by the time their fathers died.

Much of this changed shortly after the revolution. Widows begin to inherit a substantial share of property under the law and property was divided equally among children, both sons and daughters. Before the revolution, women could not write wills, but afterward they gained a voice for the first time in the disposition of their property.

The right to vote, however, was long in coming to women, not gaining ratification on a national basis until 1920.

Of all of the stories about women in the revolution, here are some of the most exciting:

SYBIL LUDDINGTON of what is now Fredericksburg, N.Y., was a 16-year-old in 1777 when she convinced her father, a colonel in the American army, to allow her to help the American cause. The British were burning Danbury, Conn., and the American side needed to gather more men. She rode 40 miles through the night to help alert the militia who chased the British back to Long Island.

NANCY MORGAN HART kept her family farm on the Georgia frontier going while her husband, an American patriot, hid from the Tories with the militia. She occasionally served as a spy, gathering information for the Americans. A group of Tory soldiers arrived at her farm one day and forced her to cook her last turkey to feed them. She offered them liquor and sent her 13-year-old daughter to warn the patriots in the neighborhood. Nancy was busily disarming the unwanted guests, hiding their guns in her skirts or sliding them out between gaps in the logs of her cabin. A Tory saw her gathering the guns and she was forced to hold them all at gunpoint. Two of the Tories tried to reach their guns, but she shot them both. When her husband arrived with the militia, they had to decide what to do with the prisoners. As they had been bragging about hanging a local American colonel, the uninvited dinner guests were themselves hanged in the back yard.

DEBORAH SAMSON GANNETT was 21 when she first disguised herself as a man and tried to enlist in the American army. She failed in her first attempt, but tried again a few months later and was accepted into a Massachusetts regiment. She was wounded in the head and thigh in an engagement with the British near Tarrytown, N.Y. Her head wound was treated at a field hospital, but she hid the wound in her thigh because she was afraid her sex would be discovered. Eventually, she developed a fever and a doctor discovered her other wound and her secret. She was discharged and later awarded a military pension. She went on the lecture circuit, telling of her experiences.