Channelling George Washington: A Valentine for the Revolutionary Ladies


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

I’ve been told by a certain person with whom I have long been acquainted that it would be nice if I paid some attention to a group of people who had a lot to do with winning the Revolutionary War and establishing our republic.”

How would you describe that group, General?”

“That’s easy. They all wore skirts. I’m talking about the women of 1776.”

“I’ve studied that subject. I propose Mrs. Washington to head the list.”

“There’s not much doubt about that in my mind. Each winter for eight years Martha traveled from Mount Vernon over god-awful roads and across swollen rivers to join me at our winter quarters.  She swiftly became a presence in our camps, visiting the wounded, befriending the several hundred women who lived with the army, and acting as my hostess when important visitors arrived.  She was a symbol, a reminder, of the civilized home life that we all missed acutely during the years of war.”

“She was equally important in your presidential years, wasn’t she?”

“Unquestionably. My first public attempts to entertain as president, when New York was the nation’s capital, were much too stiff and formal.  I was trying to give the presidency the dignity and aura of authority I thought it needed.  Also, my dinners were a disaster; I had no one to preside over my kitchen.  When Martha arrived, she started giving her own weekly receptions.  Everyone was charmed by her cheerful relaxed style.  Simultaneously, she took charge of the kitchen and soon members of Congress were raving over the presidential cuisine.”

“Didn’t she bring her granddaughter, Nelly Custis, with her?”

“She did indeed.  Nellie was a beautiful child.  We became a little family that added a great deal to what you moderns would call our public image.”

“Were there other women we should remember?”

“In 1780, Ben Franklin’s daughter, Sally, organized a group of Philadelphia women who wanted to do something for the army.  The war looked endless and morale was plummeting.  They raised thousands of dollars from merchants and professional men.  Sally wanted to give the money to the soldiers.  I thought that would set a bad precedent and asked her to give it to me first.  I swiftly discovered I was dealing with a very independent young lady.”

“She said no to the commander in chief?”

“Very politely but VERY firmly.  She wanted the soldiers to know how much the city’s women cared about them.  I realized she was right and I agreed.  Mrs. Bache—her married name—bought cloth and the women sewed more than two thousand shirts for the men.  Over in France, her father the ambassador was so pleased when he heard about it, he published the story in the Paris newspapers to show our often wavering ally that the people still supported the Revolution.”

“Did women participate in the early protests against British encroachments on American rights?”

“Did they ever.  In Boston more than three hundred women signed a statement vowing never to drink tea as long as it arrived with a British tax on it.  Another group of women in North Carolina signed a similar petition, stressing it was a duty they owed not only to their husbands and children, “but to ourselves.”  One young woman told her diary how proud she was that she “felt nationally.”  Others began calling themselves “daughters of liberty.”

“You mentioned some women served with the army.”

“At Valley Forge, more than five hundred women received rations each day.  They washed the soldiers’ clothes, a very important task. Cleanliness kept dysentery and other diseases at bay.  Others cooked for groups of men.  At Yorktown, one woman’s diary tells of hearing the good news of the British surrender, and calmly cooking breakfast, which she brought to her group of soldiers in the trenches.”

“Did some get involved in the fighting?”

“A few—and they displayed remarkable courage.  Sixteen-year-old Sibyl Luddington became known as a female Paul Revere.  In 1777, she rode sixty miles along the pitch dark roads around Danbury, Connecticut, banging on doors to warn the militia that a British army was on its way to attack the city.  Another woman, nicknamed Molly Pitcher because she brought water to her husband’s artillery unit during battles, took her husband’s place at his gun in ninety-eight degree heatwhen he was wounded in the fighting at Monmouth, New Jersey.”

“I’ve read about a woman who displayed similar courage on the frontier.”

“You’re thinking of sixteen-year-old Betty Zane, who was the heroine of the siege of Fort Henry, in contemporary West Virginia.  The Americans were surrounded by British and Indians.  They started to run out of ammunition.  Betty volunteered to get some powder from a nearby house.  She dashed to the house, dumped a barrel of powder into a tablecloth and lugged it back to the fort through a shower of bullets.”

“What else did women do?”

“Mary Katherine Goddard took over her brother’s newspaper, the Baltimore Journal, and published it throughout the war, scarcely missing an issue, in spite of constant shortages of paper.  A group of women in Boston marched on a merchant who was hoarding coffee and other commodities waiting for prices to rise.  They made him open his warehouse and they took what they needed, paying him at current rates.  It served as a warning to other hoarders.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands of women were doing a job that was crucial to the country’s survival.”

“What was that?”

“Running the family farm while the men were fighting the war, or serving in state legislatures or the Continental Congress.  One New Hampshire woman’s diary has an interesting example of how this changed their thinking.  In her first letters to her husband, she referred to ‘your farm.’  By 1778, it had become ‘our farm.’  The Revolution transformed the way a great many women thought about themselves.  It was a leap forward toward equality between the sexes.”

“Have we left anyone out?”

“I deliberately saved the most heroic women for the close:  Our spies.  Women were crucial parts of many of our most successful espionage operations.  One of my favorites was a middle-aged Philadelphia Quaker lady named Lydia Darragh.  The British army used her house for staff meetings.  She listened upstairs, wrote the information in tiny script and sewed it into the buttons of her teenage son’s coat.  When he went into the countryside, supposedly to buy milk and vegetables, his older brother, an officer in our army, cut off the buttons and rushed them to me.  It was frequently top secret material. “

“Were any of these women spies caught?”

“Only one—and we don’t know her name.  Only her code number:  355.  She operated in New York.  She became the mistress of a British general, and passed all sorts of good information to her contact—and some think her lover—Robert Townsend.  He wrote it down using invisible ink and rushed it to me with the help of several accomplices.  One of 355’s most important discoveries was the scheme to persuade an American general to switch sides.  It helped us detect Benedict Arnold’s attempt to betray West Point to the enemy.  Ironically, that was 355’s downfall.”


“Arnold had heard about her. He didn’t know her name. But when he told the British what he knew, they quickly arrested 355.  She died aboard one of the loathsome prison ships the British had set up in New York harbor.”

“She deserves some sort of monument!”

“All the women of 1776 deserve to be remembered—in books, novels, plays.  Above all in our hearts.”                 

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