“Remember the ladies.” In her letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams writes to her husband John, reminding him that women should not be considered second class citizens and to “be more favorable to them than your ancestors.”
I wonder if Abigail knew how much a role the ladies would play in America’s fight for independence.
I’ve always been amazed how this country came to be. I’ve read books about John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, watched numerous history series about the American Revolution, and visited historical sites. Every time I learn something about how we gained our independence, I’m more amazed that our thirteen colonies succeeded.
Our founding fathers were an extraordinary group of men, and plenty has been written about them. Some of their wives, such as Martha Washington and Abigail Adams also became famous. What we don’t hear about are the every day women who made significant contributions during the war. I must admit that I didn’t think about them until I started watching the AMC series “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”
By the summer of 1778, General Washington needed to know where the British troops were in New York and what their plans were. He realized the value of intelligence and appointed Benjamin Tallmadge head of the Continental Army’s secret service in November 1778. This new group of spies would be known as the Culper Spy ring.
Tallmadge recruited only those he could trust, his childhood friend Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster who had served under Tallmadge in various major battles.
Among the members of the Culper Ring was Anna Smith Strong, Woodhull’s neighbor. She lived alone for most of the war, after her husband was confined to a British prison ship, and would use laundry hanging on her clothesline as signals for clandestine meeting locations.
Other women were in the infamous spy ring, but were only known as 355, the numeric code designated for a woman. These women supplied information to General Washington and played a role in uncovering Benedict Arnold’s treason.
Some women were known as floaters, “moving” information great distances, sometimes behind enemy lines.
Sybil Ludington was a female Paul Revere. In 1777 a rider came to their door with information the British were going to attack the nearby town of Danbury, CT. Her father was a colonel who had to prepare for battle. His regiment had disbanded for planting season. The rider was too tired to ride any farther, so the colonel sent his 16-year-old daughter to ride 40 miles, (more than Paul Revere) to spread word to the regiment. Almost all were gathered before daybreak. And she did it without a map!
It was easy for women to fall into the world of spying, but no less dangerous. Women were left at home while sons and husbands were off fighting. Many women worked as cooks and maids so it was easy to eavesdrop and they often had unrestricted access to officers’ and soldiers’ areas. Women were seen as innocent and non-threatening so it was easy for them to gather intelligence. They could easily report on supply levels, troop movements and troop numbers.
Lydia Barrington Darragh lived opposite the house where British Gen.William Howe conducted business. She would listen through the keyhole and smuggle out information when she could. When she learned of the planned surprise attack on Washington, she made up an excuse that the house needed flour so she could get a pass to leave occupied Philadelphia to get supplies. On the her way to Whitemarsh she ran into her friend Col. Thomas Craig. She relayed her information to him, and he relayed the information directly to Washington.
Some of the women left at home offered their homes as storage areas for contraband. Martha Bratton became famous for blowing up hidden ammunition and gunpowder before the British troops could excavate it.
There must be hundreds of stories like these that we will never know about. Every day citizens, doing what they could with what they had to help the rebels in the cause for independence. We don’t hear too much about the sacrifices and heroic actions of the every day citizen during the American Revolution. Sharing a few of these behind the scenes stories makes you see one more layer of our American history.
- The American Revolution. National Women’s History Museum. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/spies/2.htm.
- The Culper Spy Ring. History.com. http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/culper-spy-ring.