Heroines during the American Revolution

The American Revolution began in April 1775 and quickly turned from a small-scale armed conflict into a full-on war between Great Britain and the residents of its 13 North American colonies. In fact, it was still underway in several colonies when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

While the War of Independence was mostly fought by men, there were Revolutionary War heroines — from soldiers and spies to nurses and cooks — whose lesser-known stories are worth remembering and shining a light on. (Note: This is not an exhaustive list, but rather an attempt to mention a handful of women whose contributions might not otherwise be known.)

Mum Bett aka Elizabeth Freeman

Image Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston

While born a slave during the colonial era, Mum Bett fought for and won her freedom by the end of the Revolutionary War. Inspired by the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution she heard read in public in 1780, she became the first African American woman to successfully file a lawsuit for freedom in the state of Massachusetts, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Upon gaining her freedom, she took the name Elizabeth Freeman. Her stance against slavery led to a 1781 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that declared slavery was no longer legal in the state.

Elizabeth Burgin

In 1779, Elizabeth Burgin secretly helped American prisoners of war escape while they were passing through New York City. When the British suspected her for aiding the escape of the POWs, they offered a reward of £200 for her capture. She fled, ending up in New Jersey based on a letter she wrote November 19, 1779, where she requested assistance because she was a refugee from New York City. Gen. George Washington learned of her situation and wrote to Congress on her behalf, stating that “from the testimony of different persons, and particularly many of our own officers who have returned from captivity, it would appear, that she has been indefatigable, for the relief of the prisoners, and in measures for facilitating their escape.” In response, the Board of War in Philadelphia gave Elizabeth free lodging and food rations. (Elizabeth penned a letter to Washington thanking him.) Not content with being an expense to the United States, she petitioned Congress on July 2, 1781 to employ her in cutting linen into shirts for the army. Instead, Congress voted to pay her a pension for her wartime services.

Margaret Cochran Corbin

When Margaret’s husband John Corbin joined the Pennsylvania militia in 1775, she joined her husband as a camp follower. In 1776, the British Army attacked Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. John was responsible for loading the cannons, and upon falling in action, Margaret — donned in men’s clothing — took over and began firing the cannon against the British, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Margaret herself was wounded by British fire, with injuries that would ail her for the rest of her life. In recognition of her service, the Continental Congress awarded Margaret a lifetime pension (although half that of male combatants) on July 6, 1776.

Source: King of Prussia Historical Society

Polly Cooper

Polly Cooper was an Oneida woman who traveled to Valley Forge with 40 Oneida warriors to aid Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army during the brutal winter of 1777-1778. Sent by Oneida Chief Skenandoah, Polly and the rest of the expedition traveled over 400 miles to deliver 600 baskets of corn to the starving army in Pennsylvania. Polly remained at Valley Forge, acting as a nurse and cook and teaching those in the camp how to properly prepare the corn for consumption. Gen. George Washington attempted to pay Cooper, but she refused. “The Oneidas’ efforts underscored the alliance between the Oneida people and patriot forces,” wrote Jennifer Wells, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Texas A&M University.

Mammy Kate

When her master Stephen Heard was captured and imprisoned by British soldiers, Mammy Kate set out to rescue him in 1779. Under the guise of a washerwoman, Mammy Kate offered her services to the redcoats, gaining their trust and eventually asking if she could also wash Heard’s clothes, wrote Wells. After the British troops agreed, Mammy Kate brought Heard “clean garments in a large basket balanced on top of her head that she exchanged for dirty ones.”

Source: Texas A&M University

But one day, rather than its usual contents, Heard squeezed himself in the basket. Fantastically strong, Mammy Kate strolled away with troops none the wiser. 

Once outside British surveillance, Mammy Kate lowered the basket, and the two fled on horses that she had secured. Upon his rescue, Heard freed Mammy Kate and gave her a small plot of land and a home. 

Mary Ludwig Hays aka “Molly Pitcher”

Nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” for reportedly bringing water to the troops at the Battle of Monmouth, Mary went to war with her barber husband William Hays, who had enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery and was then serving in the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War began, according to the National Women’s History Museum. When her husband was wounded during the Battle of Monmouth, Mary took his place at a cannon and began firing. “In 1822, the Pennsylvania State Legislature awarded Hays a pension of $40 per year for her service and heroism in the war,” states the National Women’s History Museum.

Nanyehi aka Nancy Ward

Nanyehi was a Cherokee woman who married an English trader named Bryant Ward in the late 1750s. She held leadership positions in the Cherokee Nation and served as a negotiator when treaties were made, attempting to ease tensions and promote harmony between the American settlers and Cherokee. “In the years after the Revolution, Nanyehi acted as a diplomat for the Cherokee on several different occasions,” according to the Fraunces Tavern Museum.

Esther de Berdt Reed

Image Credit: Portrait of Esther de Berdt Reed by Charles Peale

Esther was English by birth but married an American and settled in Philadelphia. (Her husband Joseph Reed would go on to become the governor of Pennsylvania.) In 1780, Esther formed the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to help raise funds for the Continental Army. She also wrote “Sentiments of an American Woman,” in which she discussed ways other like-minded women could organize and support the troops. After the association’s canvassing raised more than $300,000, Esther hoped the funds would be divided among Gen. George Washington’s troops. Instead, Washington noted his men had a great need for clothing, so the money was used to buy linen and other material, with the ladies sewing over 2,000 shirts, according to the Fraunces Tavern Museum.

Deborah Sampson

After disguising herself as a man, Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army. Under the alias of Robert Shurtleff, Deborah was tasked with “scouting neutral territory to assess British buildup of men and material in Manhattan,” according to the National Women’s History Museum. While she remained undetected for around two years — she even extracted a bullet from her thigh by herself — Deborah was ultimately found out after she became ill and was taken to a hospital where she lost consciousness.

In 1783, Deborah received an honorable discharge from the army and a military pension from the state of Massachusetts. According to the National Women’s History Museum: …”[I]n 1802 she began a year-long lecture tour about her experiences — the first woman in America to do so — sometimes dressing in full military regalia.”

Anna Smith Strong

Anna was the only female member of Gen. George Washington’s spy ring known as the Culper Spy Ring, headed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge and based in Long Island. She used her laundry as a code to indicate when information on British soldiers was ready to be delivered to the next agent — a black petticoat on the clothesline meant the message was ready and the certain number of handkerchiefs on the clothesline indicated where the message was hidden among the six coves designated along the shore of Long Island as dead drop locations.

According to the National Women’s History Museum: “This messaging system was never broken throughout the entire Revolution and no one in the Culper Ring was ever caught.”

Phillis Wheatley

Born in Gambia around 1753, Phillis was captured as a child in West Africa and taken to Boston by slave traders in 1761, where she was enslaved by John Wheatley, a tailor in Boston.

Phillis was educated in the Wheatley household, reading the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature within 16 months of her arrival in America, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She published her first poem shortly after, becoming the first African American woman to publish a book of poems. In 1773, Wheatley freed Phillis. Her 1776 poem “To His Excellency General Washington” is an example of how early the celebration of Washington began and how widely admired he was. Phillis sent the poem to Washington on October 26, 1775, and he replied in a personal letter on February 28, 1776.

“In addition to making an important contribution to American literature, Wheatley’s literary and artistic talents helped show that African Americans were equally capable, creative, intelligent human beings who benefited from an education,” noted the National Women’s History Museum. “In part, this helped the cause of the abolition movement.”


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