Women in the American Revolution
Accounts of warfare are often strictly accounts of the heroism of men, which is understandable, as most stories of wartime heroism tend to take a narrow view and focus only on combat, a role from which women were excluded until relatively recently in history. But women have always served in times of war, including in the American Revolution. Although records of the Revolution typically focus on accounts of battlefield bravery or the patriotic statesmen who wrote the country’s founding documents. The actions of Revolutionary-era women, though often uncelebrated, were no less heroic. Thousands of women displayed a quiet bravery by stepping up to manage farms and businesses in the place of their husbands and fathers, and all while overseeing homes and children. Though it is rarely acknowledged as such, to keep a family and home going during the wartime absence of a spouse or parent is a monumental task and just as much an act of heroism, in its own way, as serving in battle.
In addition to the thousands of wives, mothers, and daughters who served their country largely unseen, there were women whose wartime contributions were recorded. Arguably the most famous of these is Molly Pitcher. Though there is some debate over whether Pitcher existed, according to lore, Molly Pitcher was one of the many women known as camp followers, wives, and other female relatives who trailed along with the armies and cooked, did laundry, and mended clothing. Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington, is known to have accompanied her husband for much of the war. If the story of Molly Pitcher is true, she followed her husband, William Hays, off to war. At the battle of Monmouth in June of 1778, on what was reportedly a sweltering, humid day, Molly repeatedly brought a pitcher of water to the parched soldiers on the battlefield, thus earning the nickname Molly Pitcher. When her husband, a gunner, collapsed, either from the heat or from being injured, Molly reportedly took his place at the canon and continued fighting. At one point, so the story goes, a British cannon ball tore between her ankles, ripping away part of her skirt. From that point, the name “Molly Pitcher” became a generic term used for the camp followers who brought water to soldiers on the battlefield.
Margaret Corbin performed a similar act of battlefield heroism, and there is much less ambiguity concerning Corbin than Pitcher. Margaret’s husband, John, was killed at Fort Washington. Seeing that her husband had been killed, Corbin took up his position as a gunner and fought in his place. During the fighting, she was shot several times and left disabled from her injuries. Because of her disabilities, the Continental Congress voted to provide her with half a soldier’s pay and one outfit of clothing or its value in cash. She would eventually petition for, and be awarded, a full soldier’s ration. Corbin was buried in an obscure grave near the Hudson River, but many years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution would successfully petition to have her reinterred at West Point.
The story of the midnight ride of Paul Revere is well-known, but the story of his female counterpart, Sibyl Ludington, of New York, has largely been overlooked by history. In April of 1777, Ludington was just sixteen, the daughter of Henry Ludington, a Colonel in the militia. Upon hearing that the British were planning to attack nearby Danbury, Connecticut, where weapons and ammunition for the Continental Army were stockpiled, Sibyl mounted her horse and rode roughly 40 miles in the dark and during a lashing rainstorm to alert local militia of the attack. Unlike Paul Revere, Sibyl was not captured during her “midnight ride.”
Some women went to even more extraordinary lengths to serve the Continental war effort, on some occasions even disguising themselves as men in order to be able to fight. Of the women who took that drastic step, perhaps the most well-known is Deborah Sampson from Massachusetts. Sampson made herself a suit of men’s clothes and fought under the name of Robert Shurtliff. Some accounts state that Shurtliff was the name of her deceased brother and other accounts maintain that the name was purely an invention. At any rate, Sampson, who was twenty years old, fought bravely and earned the respect of her fellow soldiers, who teasingly called her “Molly” because of her inability to grow a beard. Sampson’s disguise was compelling enough that her gender was apparently never questioned, even without a beard. Sampson was injured in battle several times but always refused treatment for fear that she would be discovered. On one occasion, a bullet lodged in her thigh. Rather than let a doctor treat the wound, which would have certainly resulted in her gender being revealed, she treated the injury herself, removing the bullet with a penknife. Eventually, her identity was discovered by a camp doctor, and Sampson was given an honorable discharge and money to return home. Years later, George Washington invited Sampson to speak before Congress, which voted for her to receive a pension and land for her service in the Revolution. In the years following the war, Sampson helped support her family through her public appearances, in which she regaled audiences with her wartime experiences.
Women made all manner of contributions to the war effort, not all of them in a military capacity. Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved woman in Boston, wrote poetry that celebrated American virtues such as patriotism, and even wrote verses in honor of George Washington. Wheatley has the distinction of being one of the first published women authors in America and the first African American published author in the new nation.
Though they are not as well-remembered as their male counterparts, numerous women saw the value of the American cause and made contributions in whatever means they had available.