On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote her husband John and implored him, “I desire you would remember the ladies.” Indeed. I have written in past weeks of some of the women who stepped up do their part. In some cases it was on or near the front lines actively fighting, in others, it was as a spy or messenger, or maybe they stayed at home. Those who stayed at home had a vital part, as well. Crops needed to be planted and harvested, livestock tended and fed, children reared, and other family businesses run while the men were serving either in the field or politics.
Today we are used to the 24/7 nature of fighting and the weather’s primary part is in helping to conceal soldiers' movements. Most of the active duty military today is supportive in nature rather than fighting. In the 18th century, winter was not a time to fight. In most cases, the armies would find suitable quarters or camps and wait out the brutal winters. In many cases, wives would join the men to help with caring for the sick or injured, cooking, mending, and whatever else they could do. These women were not paid in most cases; they simply did their part. Some were hired to do laundry, housekeeping, and cooking, primarily for top officers.
There were thousands of “camp followers--” men, women, and children who followed the militias and served by hauling materials, providing food, firewood, and other services so the men could fight. Without these people, many of them women, the war would have been lost. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable ones. I wish we knew the details of more of these people; there are many unsung heroines.
They were known as “Patriots in Petticoats,” “Republican Mothers,” and even “American Girls” who disguised themselves as men so they could fight on the front lines. Martha Washington famously was at the winter quarters in Valley Forge along with many other wives helping get the men through the rough winter and conditions. Certainly, they were there to help their own husbands, but readily helped others as the need arose.
Martha traveled each winter to the winter quarters and even set up a “sewing circle” of ladies including Kitty Greene and Lucy Knox who left their children at home to help their husbands and the men. Tending to the nursing duties, in addition to their other tasks, made them indispensable to Washington and his men. Lucy’s family were Loyalists; she left them to be with the man she loved since she was a young girl. Lucy and her husband, Henry, never had a home of their own until after the war and nearly 20 years of marriage.
We know quite a bit of Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, due to their letters. John wanted to fight for the cause, but also understood his participation as a statesman and advocate for the cause of liberty. Besides her encouragement and suggestions, we know from her letters, that she took charge at a time when women simply did not do these things. She ran the family business, assured the farm planting, and harvesting was accomplished, bought and sold land and livestock, and supervised construction projects. Without women, such as Abigail, our founders could not have had the freedom to dedicate all their time to the prospective new nation.
While women were traditionally not as involved in politics in the day, Abigail certainly influenced policy and direction, as did Mercy Otis Warren. Mercy was a playwright and prolific writer. Using her talent as a poet, she shared her beliefs, thoughts, and opinions about war, liberty, and politics as she supported the revolution with her pen. She pushed for education for girls, as well as boys, and raised awareness to the importance women had in society. Her writing was a vital part of building support at the grassroots level.
Esther DeBerdt Reed was born in London but married an American man. Once on this side of the Atlantic, she began to support the Liberty cause. Esther founded the “Ladies of Philadelphia,” raising the astronomical sum of $300,000 for the war effort. Her desire was to give the money to underpaid soldiers, but Washington convinced her it would be better spent on clothing for the men. The women of the group then purchased linen and sewed shirts for the troops.
For some women, cooking, sewing, and cleaning were simply not enough. Margaret Cochran Corbin was one such woman. While stationed at Fort Washington, British and Hessian troops attacked the fort on November 16, 1776. Margaret’s husband, John, was an assistant gunner. During the battle, the gunner was killed, so John manned the artillery as the gunner, and Margaret assisted him. As the battle wore on, John was also hit and killed. Margaret must have distinguished herself with the other troops as they called her “Captain Molly.” After her husband was hit, rather than mourn his passing, she began to run the cannon by herself until she was also hit. Injured in the shoulder, chest, and jaw, she was never the same. She never fully recovered from her wounds and never had use of her arm until she died. Congress eventually awarded her a pension for her efforts in the war.
Catherine Moore Barry is regarded as the heroine of the “Battle of Cowpens.” The Carolinas were dense with swamps and forest, so knowing the terrain and the best path to take was essential. The British understood that taking the South was a key to their victory, and Sir Banastre Tarleton sought to hand a devastating defeat to the under- manned southern militias. Time was short when it was learned the British were advancing. Catherine used her knowledge of the back paths and countryside to evade the British and Loyalists and alert members of the militia, including her husband, Capt. Andrew Barry, so they could join Gen. Daniel Morgan and his troops.
On January 17, 1781, Morgan had his troops rested and ready when they met Tarleton and his exhausted troops. The battle was a backbreaker for the British as the cream of Cornwallis’ army was defeated and badly battered. The British southern campaign was foiled. Thanks to Catherine Barry, Morgan had the strength in numbers to secure a victory.
The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” was made famous by the poem. However, Revere never finished his ride! Paul Revere and William Dawes both set out to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the British intent to seize the patriot’s arsenal. This, of course, was before the initial “Shot Heard Round the World” was fired.
Two years later while the war raged on, Sybil Ludington was only sixteen years old. The British, operating under Gen. Tyron, moved into Danbury, CT and began selectively burning houses and businesses. A rider was sent to warn Col. Henry Ludington, Sybil’s father, of the attack. A commander of the area militia, needed the word spread to gather the men in response to this attack, but the rider was tired, his horse played out, and he was unfamiliar with the area. Young Sybil climbed on her horse at 9 PM and rode until dawn, covering 40 miles, nearly twice what Revere rode. She used a stick to prod her horse and knock on doors, and even to fend off a highwayman who tried to stop her. By the time she returned home, 400 men had gathered. While they were too late to save Danbury, they drove the British to Long Island Sound. George Washington congratulated her heroism, and in 1975 the US Postal Service commemorated her with a stamp in the “Contributors to the Cause” series.
A few days ago, I challenged you with Challenge and Opportunity. I hope these glimpses into the acts of heroism by regular folk will help you to understand that you don’t have to be a Washington or a Jefferson to make a difference.
Liberty is under attack, just as if King George himself was still in charge. I challenge you to open your eyes to the dangers, sound the alarm, step up, and do what you can. No effort is too small unless you make no effort.