Women In The Revolutionary War Essay, Research Paper
WOMEN IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR
The fate of the European women who came to the New World in the early days of
colonial settlement was a life of endless hard work. Many of them who came were
already accustomed to physical labor. For those who were not, they quickly adapted.
They had survived the first 150 years of colonial life in America by providing
labor which transformed the forest into farmland. The labor of every able-bodied settler
was desperately needed, and women s traditional work of providing food, clothing, and
cleanliness was necessary for survival. Over the years the women had overcome the test
of time, climate, trials and tribulations, and had helped build a country by hand. In the
year 1776, after many conflicts with the British and the taxation laws, America was
ready to break free and women were ready to help.
Many reputable women aided the cause. They protested importation taxes by
boycotting English products, including tea, a popular item in America. Wherever
women lived they contributed to the war effort. Women spun and wove their own
clothes, in addition to making coats and shirts for the American army. They gave up
their jewelry and cooking utensils so that bullets could be made from them. Almost all
women supplied food and medical aid; and they took over farm work and managed their
husbands businesses while they were away fighting. The Revolutionary war began and
the women, like the men, were ready to do what they could to help.
From the times before, and even after the Revolutionary war, the general thought
of the country was that the womans place was in the home. Yet judging from the stories
and writings of those who lived during the fight for freedom, women could have bettered
the nation if they had shared political power with men. Instead, they were relegated to the
role of housewife, laboring over the cooking and breast-feeding a seemingly endless
procession of babies (Evens, 1). The wife of Christopher Marshall, a member of an
oversight committee for congress, was a typical example. In 1778, her husband wrote
in his journal:
From early in the morning till late at night, she is constantly
employed in the affairs of the family, which for some months has been
very large, for besides the addition to our family in the house, a constant
resort of comers and goers, which seldom go away with dry lips and
hungry bellies. This calls for her constant attendance, not only, to provide,
but also attend at getting prepared in the kitchen, baking our bread and
pies, meat, etc., but also on the table. Her cleanliness about the house, her
attendance in the orchard, cutting and drying apples, of which several
bushels have been procured, add to which her making of cider without
tools, for the constant drink of the family, her seeing all our washing done,
and her fine clothes and my shirts, which are all smoothed by her. Add to
this her making of twenty large cheeses, and that from one cow, and daily
using milk and cream, besides her sewing, knitting, etc. Thus she looketh
well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness
Although there were many women whose entire role in the war was to merely
look after the farm, others took to doing more to aid the Continental Army. This was the
first opportunity for the women to unite for a great common cause beyond the boundaries
of their town or farm.
Women organized themselves into various groups to help aid the army. Every
day women went to the hospitals to care for the sick and wounded; they went to
battlefields to look for the wounded and dead; they buried friends and even enemies.
American prisoners waited for the women to bring the food. They raised grain, harvested
it, and made bread to carry to their relatives in the army or the prisons (Engle, 15).
American Colonial women were ready, in body and mind, for the independence of the
colonies ( 15).
In the early stages of the war, some women were quick to organize themselves
into the Daughters of Liberty. An organization that had originated ten years before to
help enforce nonimportation with the Townsend Duties (Lunardini, p.11). They set up
day-long sewing meetings in order to supply the markets with goods that had been closed
off to importation; they boycotted anything British with unrelenting vigor; and they
cheered on the crowds that tore down royal insignia. Some of the younger women in the
north would not date any man who had not been in service (Engle, 13).
Throughout the war, women collected money for soldiers equipment or relief.
Organized in various communities, women calling themselves the Ladies Association,
helped to finance George Washington s army by going door-to-door and collecting funds.
In Philadelphia, Esther Reed and Sarah Bache (the daughter of Benjamin Franklin) raised
three hundred thousand dollars, which at Washington s suggestion, they used to buy cloth
to make uniforms for the ill-equipped army (Lunardini, 11).
With many of the supplies from England now unavailable, cloth being the most
desired, the colonists had to find any way possible to maintain and keep up the goods
they already possessed. Spinning societies were very common for this purpose. They
allowed the colonial communities and the soldiers to restore their older clothes for
prolonged use (Lunardini, p.11).
Like the cloth, British soap was also rare. Taking matters into her own hands, a
woman from Providence, Rhode Island, had her recipe for soap printed in a number of
newspapers so that people would be able to make it for the troops ( Evens, p.13).
During the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1778 a free,
black women, having received two hard dollars for washing, and hearing
of the distress of our prisoners in the gaol, went to market and bought
some neckbeef and two heads, with some green, and made a pot of as
good broth as she could; but having no more money to buy bread, she got
credit of a baker loaves, all of which were much in want of such supply.
She has since then paid the baker, and says, she never laid out money with
as much satisfaction.-Humanity is the same thing in rich or poor, white or
black (Evans, p.14).
To avoid the many illnesses, and to assure they never became victim to
womanizing troops, many women chose to travel with the army. With not much to look
foprward to except maintaining the farm, many women voulenteered to go with their
husbands even if they would have to fight when faced with confrontation. They earned
money by cooking and doing laundry, and were to later be called camp followers by
other colonists (Lunardini, 12).
While many women cooked and sewed to serve by their husbands side, some
women even went a step further when contributing to the cause. A number of women
picked up weapons in the heat of the battle and fought along side of the men. Women,
could only do this in two ways, by inlisting illegally as a man, or by replacing their
husbands on the battle field. Many women fought, but there were three who stood above
the rest, in courage, strength, and recognition. Deborah Sampson Gannett, who served
under the name as Robert Shurtleff, Margaret Cochran Corbin, and Mary Hays, who was
also known as Molly Pitcher.
At age forty-one, Deborah Sampson Gannett astounded audiences throughout
New England with tales of her adventures during the American Revolution twenty years
before-when she was a soldier in the Continental Army. At a time when other young
women stayed home to run households and tend farms, Deborah Sampson had put on a
uniform, picked up a gun, and gone forth to fight for independence ( Ashby, Ohrn, p.
73). Deborah was taller and stronger than the usual woman, therefore it was easy for her
to present herself as a young man. By using the name Robert Shurtleff, she enlisted in
the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army at Bellingham,
Massachusetts on May 20, 1782 (Ashby, Ohrn, p. 74).
Fighting in skirmishes with British forces throughout New England, Sampson
witnessed and endured all the horrors of war. Still, she kept fighting. For three years she
served in various duties and was wounded twice-the first time by a sword cut on the side
of the head and four ;months later she was shot through the shoulder. Her sexual identity
went undetected until she came down with a brain fever, then prevalent among the
soldiers. The attending physician, Dr. Binney, of Philadelphia, discovered her charade,
but said nothing. Instead he had her taken to his own home where she would receive
better care. When her health was restored the doctor met with Robert s commanding
officer and subsequently an order was issued for Robert Shirtliffe to carry a letter to
General Washington. (This may also be legend as there is no record of her ever being
in Philadelphia) (http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvets.html, p. 1)
When having to face General Washington alone, she knew this would be the end.
She delivered the letter she was sent to give and in return recieved a discharge from the
army, a note from the General, and enough money to pay her way home. In doing all
this, Washington spared her embarrassment by saying nothing which she was very
thankfull for. (p.1).
The state of Massachusetts and the federal government aknowledged Deborah s
services to her country. Both awarded her pensions (Ashby, Ohrn, p. 74).
The second example of the many amazing women who fought to win
independence was Margret Corbin. The revolution broke out four years after Margaret
and John Corbin were married, and John immediately enlisted. He became a private in
Captain Thomas Proctor s First Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery, and Margaret
went with him (Engle, p. 26).
On November 16, the Hessian troops then attacked Fort Washington where
Margaret and her husband were stationed. The Continentals fought to hold the fort
against the large force of attackers, pitting 2,800 men against the almost 9,000 in the
attacking force. Margaret s husband was killed at his cannon. There was no one else to
fire it, so Margaret ran to the cannon and began loading and firing it herself. She
continued firing until she herself was seriously wounded by British grapeshot. The
British captured Fort Washington, and the survivors became their prisoners
(Engle, p. 27).
How she found her way out of British hands nobody knows, but eventually
Margaret made her way back to the American army. She had a very hard time of it, for
her husband was dead and her wound disabled her. This disability stayed with her the
rest of her life.
Margaret s own state of Pennsylvania recognized her heroism and also her
poverty, and in 1779 the state voted to pay her thirty dollars relief and recommended that
the Board of War paid her as well. She was the only woman in the regiment and also the
first woman to recieve pension in the United States (p. 27).
The third, and probably most famous of the women who fought, was Mary Hays.
At the time of the Revolution, Mary Hays was married to William Hays, a soldier in the
Pennsylvania State Regiment of Artillery. During his seven years service she remained
with him at camp and battle sites, lugging buckets of water, aiding the wounded, and
helping at the cannons (Evans, p. 11).
She is said to have been accompanying her husband s regiment when it faced
Clinton at the battle of Monmouth in 1778. The day was a scorching one, and many
soldiers collapsed from the heat. The valiant Molly brought water to the men throughout
the battle, all the while exposing herself to British fire. For this deed she was dubbed
Molly Pitcher by the grateful soldiers. She also rescued and nursed wounded men.
Finally, when her own husband was killed by the enemy, she took charge of firing his
cannon and carried on until the end of the battle. Though she spent the next seven years
in the army and performed heroic deeds, Molly was never given a special pension
(Engle, p. 16).
In some cases women didn t have to resort to weapons; they used their wits.
Lydia Darrah charmed British officers into holding a late night conference in her
Philadelphia home. Pretending to retire for the night, she crept back and listened as the
enemy planned a attack against the American army at Whitemarsh, north of Philadelphia.
The following morning she told her husband that flour was needed from the mill at
Frankford, southeast of Whitemarsh. With permission from General Howe to pass
through British lines, she walked the four or five miles, through snow, to the mill. After
depositing her empty sack, she walked further, toward American outposts. An American
officer on a scouting mission listened attentively as she gave him the information. She
then returned to the mill, picked up the flour, and trudged through snowdrifts to
Philadelphia. When the British army approached Whitemarsh they found Washington s
troops alerted and prepared for them. Being the weaker force, the British returned to
Philadelphia without a conflict (Evans, p. 15).
When many women were fighting battles on the front line, others were expressing
their support, and making their mark on society through the power of their pen. Two of
the most famous were Phillis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren.
Phillis Wheatley arrived in America in 1771. She caught the eye of a Boston
Matron, Susan Wheatley, who was looking for a personal servant, and even though
Phillis was young and thin, Susan bought her and took her home. Far from treating her
like a servant, the Wheatleys quickly began acting as if she was a member of the family,
giving her her own room excusing her from the tasks assigned to the other black servants,
and teaching her to read and write. Within two years, Phillis could not only speak
English, but could read it and write in it as well ( Lunardini, p. 13).
Phillis used her newfound skill to write poetry, and published her first poem
when she was fourteen. Her work was so great that many prominent men endorsed her
talents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, sought her out, and John Hancock was one of
eighteen friends of the family who signed the foreword to her book. When the
Revolutionary War broke out, she wrote several pieces supportive of the patriot cause,
including a tribute to George Washington in 1776. He was so impressed that he invited
her to visit him at his headquarters (Lunardini, p. 14)
Phillis married John Peters in 1778, the same year that John Wheatley died, but
the match was not a good one. He got her pregnant and then deserted her three times,
and the third time proved fatal. In 1784, at thirty-one, she and her baby both died of cold
and malnutrition (p. 14)
Another prominent woman writer was Mercy Otis. Mercy was born on
September 25, 1728, in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She was the sister of James Otis, one
of the first leaders for the break from England. Mercy was a highly intelligent woman
and was dedicated to the American cause, yet her gender kept her from getting involved
in politics. Instead she made her statements on the page of her books, which made her a
famous author (http://userpages.aug. com/captbarb/femvets.html p.3).
She married James Warren in 1754 at the age of twenty-six. Warren was a
farmer and merchant from Plymouth, Massachusetts. When her brother James became a
pre-revolution leader, Mercy became a counselor and advisor to him and his friends,
Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Around 1765, Mercy started to write patriotic poetry,
which at the time was used for her and her friends amusement. She published
Massachusetts Song of Liberty and it soon became the most popular song of The
colonies. She then began to write political play, two of which were, The Adulateur and
The Group. Mercy invited many guests into her home, such as George Washington,
John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton (p. 3)
In 1790 she published all of her poetic plays in one book which was dedicated to
George Washington. She also published a three volume book in 1805 called History of
the Revolutionary War. Mercy Otis Warren died on October 19, 1814, in Plymouth
If there was one woman to remember for her stand in the Revolutionary war, it
would be Abigail Adams. She was a strong and brilliant woman who was clearly ahead
of her time. Abigail used her association with the political authorities to try to establish
equality not only for women, but for African Americans as well.
Abigail Adams was every bit her husband s equal in the confines of their
marriage. The wife of John Adams, the second president of the United States, Abigail
Adams became as astute an observer of the political system born out of the Revolutionary
War as any of her husband s colleagues. Although she never pushed the boundaries of
acceptable public behavior for women of her time, her determination to do what had to
be done, did indeed help to shift those boundaries (Lunardini, p.15).
What is actually known about Abigail and John Adams relationship came from
letters written by Abigail over the course of her life, both personal and political. The
political was filled with observations on the status of women in the eighteenth century.
She was very opinionated in her veiws about the wrongness of slavery. When a young
African-American servant boy requested to learn to read and write, Abigail sent him to
the local school (Lunardini, p.16).
Abigail believed as strongly in equal education for girls as she did in equal
education for African-Americans. She wrote often about her belief that girls should be
offered the same education as boys. She was critical of the legal and social status
ascribed to women. This was clearly part of her admonition to John to Remember the
Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put
such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember, all men would be
tyrants if they could. At the same time, it was not a plea to include women in public
life, rather to redistribute power within the family. Emancipating all nations, you insist
upon retaining absolute power over Wives. She went on to say that If particular care
and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will
not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation
Abigail Adams undoubtedly thought it humorous to use the same rhetoric that
the Americans used in complaining to the English government, at least to one of the
founding Fathers. But her concerns about the right of women within the family were
serious, and reflected the concerns of may women in the revolutionary era (p. 16).
Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Smith Adams never changed in their dedication
to the principles of freedom, to the rebellion against British oppression, despite the
ravages and sufferings of war. Mercy wrote to Hannah Winthrop in 1778 that the
capital friends of America in every colony look with indignation and disgust on a man,
whose prime object is the applause of the multitude, and whose vanity leads him to
sacrifice the best interests of his country at the shrine of flattery…While Caesar meditated
triumph over the citizens, and trampled on the liberties of Rome, he squandered gratuities
and scattered largesses among the people…Is not America tainted with all the vices that
stained that ancient Republic (Evens, p. 30)?
Not many women are known for their heroic roles in America s history. There
were many more whose acts have gone unmentioned. All of the women that have
contributed in the effort to bring independence to our country will never receive the
recognition that they were entitled to. Nevertheless, the ones who were documented will
always be prime examples of women s strength, courage, and will to survive.