31 March 2014


Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty

Excerpted from Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women
June, 2001

Edenton Ladies Tea Party
One of the earliest organized political efforts of the Revolutionary War were the Edenton Ladies' Tea Party, so named by a British cartoonist. These North Carolina women took the lead in the boycott of English goods, signing a formal pledge to support colonial resistance to the tea tax.

Another organization, The Ladies' Association, was the first national women's group. Organized in Philadelphia during the war by Esther de Berdt Reed, it raised money for Washington's army and was derisively known as "Washington's Sewing Circle."

Women served as soldiers, hid fugitives and shot the British to protect their families. They also performed the traditional logistical support tasks of cooking, sewing, nursing and fixing weapons. But perhaps the most under-appreciated in history were the women spies who risked all in order to promote freedom.

Spies have been needed since prehistoric times, gathering information on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. Women have proved adept at this art form, often taking advantage of the preconceived notions of womanhood.

A harmless Quaker woman, the British thought as they commandeered the Philadelphia house of Lydia Barrington Darragh for secret war strategy meetings on the night of 2 Dec 1777. Her gentle religion forbade her an active role in the fighting; her prowess as a nurse and midwife also pointed to her dedication to life. So it was with trepidation that she considered the information she'd gathered while listening through the keyhole. It was her faith in God that steered her as she realized more lives would be lost to silence than action. The British, led by General William Howe, planned a surprise attack on General George Washington and his men at camp in Whitemarsh, eight miles away.

Keeping her intention secret even from her husband, Lydia obtained a pass to leave the city and obtain flour at the Frankford Mill. Once safely clear of prying eyes, she veered toward Whitemarsh. Along the road, she encountered a friend, Colonel Thomas Craig. He took the information directly to General Washington as Lydia secured her flour and hurried home. The British marched during the night of December 4th but were repelled by a fully armed and waiting Continental Army. They drove the British regulars back to Philadelphia, thanks to Lydia's timely courage.

South Carolinian Emily Grieger was a mere eighteen in June 1781, when
 she heard that the American General Greene needed a courageous messenger to ride through British lines. The British commander, Lord Rawdon, was in pursuit of his regiment. Two other American regiments, under the command of Generals Sumter and Marion, planned to join Greene and attack Rawdon, but they were unaware of the unexpected movement of the British forces.

When no man stepped forward for the task, Emily volunteered to ride from Broad River to the Watersee River, even though the distance was long and the danger great. Riding sidesaddle, her long skirt billowing in the breeze, she counted on her horse, which was strong and swift. She forded the Congaree River by the second day. Soon after, on the edge of a dried-up swamp, a small party of British scouts took her prisoner. A young girl on a dismal road, she was immediately suspected of spying for the Americans. Not far away was a deserted cabin where the soldiers questioned her. She revealed nothing, but they weren't satisfied. Emily gambled on a risky plan, challenging them to bring a woman to search her. They locked her in and posted a guard before leaving. Emily promptly memorized and ate the written dispatch she was carrying. When the matron arrived, she found nothing, and the British were forced to release her. At once, Emily mounted her horse and galloped off toward her original destination.

Although she made quick progress, her ride was again interrupted by arrest. Late in the afternoon, a group of Tories stopped her, took her to a farmhouse and confined her in a room by herself. The Tories were as bloodthirsty as the British soldiers were and known to have killed many a patriot. Emily quietly fretted while the sun set and the moon rose bright, illuminating the landscape. Waiting till midnight, when all others were asleep, Emily pried open the window and slipped out. The moonlight was all she needed to find a bridle and her horse, mingling with a herd of others. She mounted bareback and escaped into the night.

By dawn she had arrived at the house of a known patriot. He provided her with breakfast, a fresh horse and a guide. The guide led her to a shorter, safer route, then returned home. Emily urged her sweaty horse on. By early afternoon, she located a few of General Sumter's soldiers. So tired she could hardly speak, she nevertheless convinced them of the urgency of the message from General Greene. They took her directly to Sumter, where she was able to repeat the contents of the letter word for word. Sumter sent a fresh courier on to warn Marion, then joined Greene at Greenberg via an alternative route.

Kate Moore Barry
Another teenager, sixteen-year-old Betsy Dowdy garnered information that enabled the Americans to defeat Dunmore and seize Norfolk, Virginia. Other South Carolinian messengers who risked their lives included Kate Moore Barry, Jane Thomas and Dicey Langston. Deborah Champion rode from Connecticut to Boston to deliver her message. In 1777, Sybil Ludington, from New York, rode by night to warn the American militia.

The towns and countryside of the thirteen colonies have changed drastically in the two centuries since these women braved war and death in the cause of freedom, yet their courage lingers, inspiring others to fight on against overwhelming odds.

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