Women in the American Revolution
In March of 1776, Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John: “I desire you would remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Until the 1970s women’s history was not widely studied in school and nor remembered much at all. However in 1981, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that established National Women's History Week. Congress changed the resolution to a month long event in 1987, and ever since, Presidential proclamation has declared March as Women’s History Month.
Women made substantial contributions to the American Revolution on the home front and on the battlefields. Many people remember Martha Washington, the wife of General George Washington and the first, First Lady. But few realize that she was also a wealthy landowner (from her first husband’s property) in an age when few women were even allowed to own property. When men went off to war, women not only had to continue their own chores, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children, they also had to plow fields and harvest crops. Many women even ran respectable taverns alone, which was basically housekeeping but on a larger scale.
Women often followed their husbands to war. It was a hard life, but they did so to keep families together and safe. Many camp followers washed clothes, cooked, sold cider and rum, and were nurses. They were given half rations and sometimes paid for their work. Children also helped the army by collecting wood, carrying messages, and playing the fifes and drums during marches.
Often women took on non traditional roles during the American Revolution. Many served the armies as soldiers and spies. Margaret Corbin took over her husband’s cannon after he was killed at Fort Washington, New York in 1776. She was wounded and was the first woman awarded a pension by Congress for her service.
Mary Ludwig Hays also took her husband's place at a cannon after he was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in 1778. In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania awarded her a pension, not for her husband’s service but her own. Molly Pitcher was a nickname for women who carried water to the battlefield. Both Mrs. Corbin and Mrs. Hays are rumored to be the real “Molly Pitcher” of legend, however many believe that the legend comes from several real women who served on the battlefields. Deborah Sampson disguised herself as Robert Shurtleff and enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in 1778. She fought in several skirmishes and was even wounded. Instead of having doctors discover her secret, she removed a musket ball from her own leg. Her husband was the only man during the American Revolution to receive a widower’s pension.
Locally, several women also contributed to the Revolution. Emily Geiger supposedly was a messenger for the American General Nathaniel Greene after the Patriots had retreated from the town of Ninety Six, South Carolina. Rebecca Motte lived near Charleston, SC, but the British took over her home and fortified it, calling it FortMotte. Rebecca actually helped to burn her own home to help the Patriots regain control. When Loyalists invaded her Georgia home, Nancy Morgan Hart supposedly killed one and captured several others. Grace and Nancy Martin were sisters-in-law who captured a British dispatch rider, and took his message to General Greene during the siege at Ninety Six.
During Women’s History Month, “remember the ladies” who throughout history have served their country from the home front to the battlefields. Books on traditional and nontraditional women who served during the American Revolution, such as Awesome Women by Nicki Sackrison, are available at the Ninety Six National Historic Site’s Bookstore.
Last updated: April 14, 2015