Connie R. is the winner of one title from Joan Hochstetler's American Patriot Series in her May drawing! November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Women Soldiers, Combatants, and Spies in the American Revolution

When I began writing my American Patriot Series, I realized that the storyline I envisioned would require my heroine, Elizabeth Howard, to do many things one doesn’t usually associate with 18th century women at the time of the American Revolution. I wanted the story to be as authentic as possible—no modern-day women in historical clothing! When I started doing research, I discovered that, in fact, women were involved in a whole lot of activities during the Revolutionary War that most of us have never heard about. So here are a few brief accounts of some of the ways women became directly involved in fighting for our independence.

Sybil Ludington Statue
On April 26, 1777, two years and eight days after Paul Revere made his famous ride, Sybil Ludington, the daughter of Col. Henry Ludington, a New York militia officer and later an aide to General George Washington, did essentially the same thing. Except that she was 16, a girl, and she rode more than twice the distance Revere did. Not to mention that her route was a whole lot more daunting, and much of the way it rained hard. Learning that Governor William Tryon’s troops were marching on Danbury, Connecticut, 15 miles away, to carry off the militia’s munitions and stores, Sybil immediately jumped on her horse and took a 40-mile jaunt to rouse the countryside, while her father mobilized the locals. She left her home at Fredericksburgh, NY, at 9:00 p.m. and arrived back home at dawn. By then almost the whole regiment of 400 soldiers had mustered due to her warning. They were on the march within a couple of hours and engaged the British at the Battle of Ridgefield. Although they arrived too late to stop the sack of Danbury, they drove Tryon’s forces back to Long Island. After the war, in 1784, then twenty-three year-old Sybil married Edmund Ogden, a farmer and innkeeper. They had six children and in 1792 settled in Catskill, NY, where they lived until Sybil’s death on February 26, 1839, at the age of 77. She is buried near her father in the Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, NY.

Frontispiece of The Female Review: Life of Deborah
Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution
There’s no way to know how many women actually served as soldiers during the war by disguising themselves as men, but we do know about 4 who did. Probably the most well-known is Deborah Sampson. Born in 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, she enlisted in Captain George Webb’s Company of the 4th Massachusetts in 1782, calling herself Robert Shurtleff. By all accounts she performed her duties admirably and  achieved the rank of corporal. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, NY, she took two musket balls in her thigh and suffered a cut on her forehead. She managed to avoid detection then, but later was discovered to be a woman. Honorably discharged, she was later granted a pension for her services. The Massachusetts legislature issued a declaration stating that she “exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier.” Sampson later talked about her experiences in the war as a lecturer, saying that she enlisted because of the unjust deaths of colonists at the hands of British soldiers.

Detail of Battle of Germantown by Christian Schussele
Anna Maria Lane probably married her husband, John, before he enlisted in the Connecticut line in 1776 under General Israel Putnam. It isn’t clear if she also disguised herself as a man or just accompanied him as a camp follower. We do know that by the Battle of Germantown she was wearing men’s clothing, though that may have been for convenience. The records of Virginia’s General Assembly state that she “with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military services, and received a severe wound at the battle of Germantown.” Following the war, the Lanes moved to Virginia, and both drew pensions for their service.

Two other women are known to have fought in the Revolution. Sally St. Clare was a Creole girl who lost her life in the war. Another known only as “Samuel Gay,” was discovered to be a woman and discharged. It’s likely others also served in the army as men but were never detected.

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth,
engraving by J.C. Armytage, c. 1859
Still other women became combatants when need arose. You’ve undoubtedly heard the name “Molly Pitcher,” which was attached to a woman who stepped in to service her husband cannon after he fell. There’s some evidence that at least two women performed such duties. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley accompanied her husband, John, who served with the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. During the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778—which will be portrayed in book 6 of my series, Refiner’s Fire—she was hauling water to her husband’s cannon for the sponger to swab out the barrel, when John collapsed, either because of a wound or the day’s extreme heat. Mary immediately stepped up and took his place, assisting the gun crew for the rest of the battle.

Corbin Memorial, West Point Cemetery,
United States Military Academy
Margaret Cochran Corbin was married to John Corbin, another artilleryman, who was killed in the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776. She also filled her husband’s place at the cannon, assisting in sponging and loading, and received grape shot wounds in the arm and chest. Disabled for the rest of her life, she was an original member of the Invalid Regiment that Congress created in 1777 to care for disabled soldiers. In 1779 Corbin was granted a stipend of $30 and a lifelong pension of half a soldier's pay. She was the first American woman to receive a disabled veteran's pension.

Women also served as spies during the Revolution. A laundress at British headquarters in Philadelphia alerted Washington to British General Henry Clinton’s withdrawal from the city, and many others served in the shadows, like Lydia Darragh. British officers occupying her house in Philadelphia used a large upstairs room for their secret conferences. Lydia would slip into an adjoining closet and take notes on their plans, and after her husband transcribed the intelligence in a form of shorthand on tiny slips of paper, she enclosed them in fabric-covered buttons, which she sewed onto the coat of her fourteen-year-old son, John. When he visited his elder brother, Lieutenant Charles Darragh, serving with the Continental Army outside the city, Charles would snip off the buttons, write out the notes, and send them to his superior. Lydia also supposedly concealed other intelligence in a sewing-needle packet she carried in her purse when passing through British lines.

Major John André
One of the most well-known female spies today was a member of the famous Culper Ring in the New York City area, who was known only by her codename “355,” which stood for “lady” in the Culper code. Her background is unknown, but it’s speculated that she may have come from a prominent Tory family with access to British commanders. She was one of several young, attractive, and intelligent women surrounding dashing British Major John André. When he was arrested by the Americans and executed as a spy in October 1780, Benedict Arnold, one of Washington’s officers who had defected to the British, questioned everyone associated with him. Agent 355 was pregnant at the time and refused to identify the child’s father, arousing Arnold’s suspicions. He had her arrested, and she was held on the infamous prison ship Jersey, moored in the East River. She bore a son there and died shortly thereafter, never identifying the child’s father. But, tellingly, she named him after Robert Townsend, another member of the Culper Ring.

Yet other women followed Washington's army for safety and subsistence. Many provided services such as cooking, washing and mending clothing, and nursing, and consequently received rations and sometimes pay. In my next post, we’ll take a look at the life of camp followers.

How many of these women have you heard of? Which one do you find most interesting or appealing?
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, releases in April 2019. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.


  1. Great post, Joan. I knew about several of these girls/women efforts on behalf of the Patriot cause. Makes me wonder how many more ladies served.

    1. Janet, I'm sure there were many more who remain anonymous to history. We are greatly indebted to them for their service!

  2. Other than Molly Pitcher, I haven't heard specifically of these women. I didn't realize until recently that some women accompanied their husbands to war. Thanks for the post!

    1. Connie, Molly Pitcher is the one you most frequently hear about. Many women did accompany their husbands to war and served in all kinds of capacities essential to the army. In my next post I'm going to talk about what the life of a camp follower looked like in the 18th century, so stay tuned!

  3. Great post! I've heard of many of them, but a few I have not. I'm pretty familiar with the Culper Ring. (I've read Roseanna White's books.) The Culper Ring is something that really interests me. I knew there were spies back then, but had no idea it was to that extent. It seems to me that there would be spies in every war.

    1. Bev, I'm sure you're right about their being spies in every war. Armies can't function without intelligence about the enemy, and many times women are very good at collecting and transmitting information without being suspected.

  4. I wasn't familiar w/ any of these ladies, and didn't know that women accompanied their husbands to war...I knew many stayed back home & took care of the home/farm, children, etc!

    1. Barb, probably most stayed home, and they performed heroic roles in maintaining businesses and farms and taking care of their children while their men were gone. But for various reasons many did accompany husbands serving in the army. We're going to talk more about what that looked like in my next post, so stay tuned!

  5. Great post Joan.
    They are all interesting. I have heard of Molly Pitcher but not the other ladies.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Tina, I really enjoy digging out stories about people who've been overlooked in history! I'm glad you enjoyed learning about these intrepid ladies!

  6. I enjoyed learning about all of these women. Molly Pitcher is the only name I know.


Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!