Sisterhood of Suns

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The American Colonies and the Revolution

Life on the new American frontier was not easy, nor peaceful. Angered by White expansion into their territories, native tribes resisted, and bloody wars broke out. Women, who had come west to settle with their husbands and families, were not exempted from the violence, and many found themselves forced to participate in ways that their eastern sisters could ever have imagined. Many fought alongside their neighbors to resist attacks on their communities, and some like “Mad Anne” Bailey, went even further by risking their lives as frontier scouts and couriers. Even though these territorial conflicts eventually subsided, peace did not last long. The 13 colonies, angered by abuses by the English Crown, rebelled, and women took part in the protests in many ways—some of which were quite colorful (such as those that emptied ‘piss-pots’ on the heads of British Troops as they passed by).

When the Revolutionary War finally ignited in earnest, women joined the ranks of the Continental Army in a variety of roles. Just as in the Civil War of 1861-1865, war was considered to be the province of men, and initially, General George Washington forbade women from his army’s camps or taking part in the war, considering them to be nothing more than a nuisance and contributing to 'loosening of the morals of his male soldiers'. This did not stop females from taking part however (such as the case of the famous Nancy Hart who killed two British soldiers with their own muskets ,and later disguised herself as a 'crazy man' to spy for the American cause). As the war progressed, and the vital assistance that women rendered to his troops became blatantly evident, Washington relented, and exhorted his army to treat the female volunteers with the same respect due regular soldiers. While a vast number of the women in this conflict could be properly considered wives of his officers and classic ‘camp followers’, some showed signifigant heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, such as Mary Hays McCauly, who tended to the wounded and brought them water while under fire (leading to the term “Molly Pitcher” or “Molly Bucket” to refer to all female water carriers in the war). Later, and in the same battle, McCauly reportedly manned a cannon when its male artilleryman fell and helped the American forces to win the day (a distinction that some historians feel that she shares with another woman, Margaret Corbin, who served in the same regiment and performed the same action).  Other women went further than this and opted to openly don uniforms. They served in the artillery and in medical units (despite the fact that military regulations forbade them to wear it). In such cases, they were subject to the same military discipline as their male counterparts, and when they violated it, could be court-martialed (such as Mary Johnson who was reportedly prosecuted at Valley Forge).

After the war, many of these same women found themselves unable to collect their military pensions, and society turning its back on them as people that it wanted to forget. There are only a few exceptions to this, such as Mary Hays McCauly and Margaret Corbin (mentioned above), who were both acknowledged and rewarded for their service. Corbin in particular, also has the singular honor of also being the only Revolutionary War soldier to be buried at West Point. Another woman who received her pension and some thanks was Deborah Sampson, who enlisted under the name Robert Shurtleff in the Fourth Massachusetts Regimen. Because of her complexion and high voice, she was nicknamed “Molly” by her fellow soldiers (which in the 18th century was both a diminutive form of Margaret, but also a slang term for an effeminate man or homosexual). In the course of the war, she was wounded twice; once by a sword cut to the head and later, by a bullet that struck her shoulder. Her true sex remained undetected however. But then, when she came down with brain fever, she was discovered, and instead of reporting her right away, sent he to deliver a message to General Washington. Knowing that the game was over, she reported as ordered. Washington said nothing, but simply sent her away with an aide to fetch refreshments. When she returned, he gave her a discharge from service, a few words of advice and some money to see her home. Later, and after she had successfully petitioned for her pension, she supported herself by giving public lectures on her experiences and apologizing for “swerving from the flowery path of female delicacy.” On May 23, 1983, Governor Michael Dukakis declared Sampson the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This was the first time in US history that any sate proclaimed someone an official hero or heroine.

(Images: Sybil Ludington, the female Paul Revere, Nancy Hart, A reenactor playing "Mad Anne" Bailey)

Spotlight: “Mad Anne” Bailey


Perhaps one of the most colorful women to serve in the American Revolution was Anne Trotter Bailey. Born in Liverpool England in 1742(?), Anne came to the Shenandoah Valley at the age of 19 and married Richard Trotter. But when her husband was killed in a battle against the Shawnee leader, the direction of her life changed dramatically. Leaving her son in the care of her neighbors, she taught herself to shoot and became a skilled frontier scout, and abandoned her dresses in favor of buckskin, a hatchet and a long knife. Bailey later remarried, wedding John Bailey, himself a seasoned frontiersman and army ranger (the precursor to today’s special forces). It was after they had moved to Clendenin's Settlement in the Great Kanawha Valley, and during bloody wars with the local Indian tribes, that Anne became famous for a 100 mile ride through the wilderness to deliver gunpowder to the forces at Fort Lee, saving her settlement. Her feat became commemorated in the 1861 poem, “Mad Anne’s Ride.” This was by no means the only time that Anne bailey would face danger, or display great daring. On another occasion, she was chased by a band of Indians, forced to dismount and hide herself, leaving her prized horse for the warriors to capture. But later, when the Indians had made camp for the night, she entered it and retook the animal, riding off with it with whoops of defiance. Eventually, Anne gave up her wild adventures, and moved to Ohio, where she died in 1825.

Spotlight: Sybil Ludington

Every schoolchild knows about Paul Revere and his famous ride. But few Americans are aware that another person---a woman—also made a ride to warn the colonists of the British advance. Her name was Sybil Ludington, born in Paterson New York in 1761. One night in 1777, when Sybil was only 16, a messenger came to her home to warn that the British were burning the town of Danbury, Connecticut, which was the supply center for the local militia. With the messenger too exhausted to go any further and her father in charge of the militia forces, it fell to Sybil to carry on. Jumping on her horse Star, she began a harrowing 40-mile trip (twice that of Revere’s journey). Reaching the town of Shaw’s Pond at 10pm, she used the town’s bell to rouse the populace. Then she rode on. At one point, she spotted British soldiers traveling in the opposite direction and hid with her horse behind a tree. At another, she was assailed by a highway man, whom she fought off using her father’s musket. By dawn, soaked by the rain and exhausted from her ride, she had managed to muster over 400 men to stand against the enemy troops. However, despite her bravery, she is only remembered today as a “contributor to the cause”, although a postage stamp and a local statue were created in her honor. She lived to the ripe old age of 78.



Anne Bailey: 

Sybil Ludington:

Famous Women from the American Revolution:

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