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Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty

by Loretta Kemsley

The rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air are prettiest over water. What better place to celebrate the birth of a country than Boston's Independence Day party - a full week of celebration centered on Boston Harbor.

However, the struggle for America's independence didn't begin or end on July 4, 1776. The entire East Coast of the United States saw skirmishes and heroes - including many who wore skirts.

At the corner of Tremont and Hollis is the old house I seek. Here lived Nathaniel Bradlee. His carpenter shop and kitchen were gathering places for the American patriots of Boston. As I stand at the curb and gaze at the house where his descendants still live, my thoughts are not on him but on his sister, Sarah Bradlee Fulton, the "Mother of the Boston Tea Party."

The Boston Tea Party. The idea of patriots slipping through the cold, misty night and dumping 342 chests of English tea into Boston Harbor has long captured my imagination. John Adams expressed it best, "There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots that I greatly admire."

Cloaked in secrecy, the safety of the patriots was entirely dependent upon the effectiveness of the handiwork of Sarah. On that infamous night of December 16, 1773, Sarah and her brother's wife - whose name is lost to history - sent them forth as Mohawks to protest King George's Townsend Act. Parliament had stayed most of his new taxes but refused to eliminate the duty on tea. Samuel Adams was the instigator of the mischief on Griffin's Wharf. However, their success relied upon the expertise of Sarah, who stayed behind heating water in the great copper boiler so as to remove the war paint that kept their identities secret.

Sarah lived in Medford where, a year and a half later, she witnessed the desperate ride of Paul Revere as he galloped across the bridge into Medford town

During the battle of Bunker Hill, Sarah watched with an anxious heart along with the rest of Medford. She led the women as they established a makeshift hospital in the open space by Wade's Tavern between the bridge and South Street. With a shortage of surgeons, Sarah removed a bullet from the cheek of one soldier and helped the women rally to nursing duty.

The British laid siege to Boston. Using their ships as protection, they often rowed across the river to seek fuel in Medford. Seeing British soldiers in town and aware that a shipment of wood meant for the American troops at Cambridge was about to be delivered, Sarah sent her husband to meet the team and buy the wood. She hoped the laws regarding personal property would be respected, but this was not to be. The British confiscated the wood as Mr. Fulton approached town. Sarah grabbed her shawl and went in pursuit, soon overtaking the party. Grabbing the oxen by the horns, she turned them around as the British prepared to shoot.

"Shoot away." Her defiance astonished the soldiers into surrendering the wood without further resistance.

Sarah rose to the occasion yet again when her husband could not. Dispatches from General Washington needed to be delivered behind enemy lines. She set out on foot in the long and dangerous journey to the waterfront of Charlestown. Once there, she secured a boat, rowed across and cautiously found the place to deliver the dispatches. The return trip was just as lonely and dangerous, but by dawn, she was home once again.

Sarah was one among many feminine revolutionary heroes. One of the earliest organized political efforts 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 December 2, 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 Irish-born 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.

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 here, inspiring others to fight on against overwhelming odds. This Fourth of July, we should remember the women who served in the American Revolution - feminine heroes all.


Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:

"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.

When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."

You can write to Ms. Kemsley at LKemsley@travelwriters.com or LKemsley@moondance.org

 

[ I Say Tomato! ] [ In the Still of the Night ]
[ Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty ]
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