Femme Fatales: Female Espionage in the American Revolution

Aly Riley

Performing Espionage in the Face of Danger

For many years, it was the male soldiers on the battlefield given credit with the colonies winning the war for independence. While we commend their courageous efforts and sacrifices, we must wonder about the women. There were a number of ladies being the scenes and with the sleekest possible way of going behind the backs of the British and helping the Americans come out victorious. Who were these amazing women? How did they help the outcome of the Revolutionary war without anyone suspecting a thing? There were four American women who bravely fought for a cause they truly believed in, which was making sure the Continental Army came out on top against a rough and tough British brigade. Sarah Bradlee Fulton, Anne Hennis Trotter Bailey, Lydia Darragh, and Anna Strong were fierce women who stopped at nothing to make sure that they could not only find a way to fight in the conflict, but also lead the way to victory as well. Sarah and Anne’s stories actually happen just prior to the American Revolution. Sarah Bradlee Fulton was known as the “Mother of the Boston Tea Party” for helping soldiers during that December 1773 event and along with her sisters, they were able to help those in danger and turn Boston Common into a field hospital where those who participated in the event were able to be treated. Anne, on the other hand, was located in Virginia and was seeing revenge on Lord Dunmore on her husband’s behalf. She was able to report on the movements of Indians during surprise raids. These two women risked their lives to ensure those around them were safe and that takes immense courage, and for that, we owe them a huge thanks. In terms of once the war begun, Lydia Darragh and Anna Strong’s stories were similar in the ways they performed espionage although their work was done a couple of years apart. Lydia was located in Philadelphia in 1777 during General William Howe’s invasion of the city while Anna was on New York’s Long Island in 1778. Both women were wives and mothers that had to protect their homes and children all why the British were invading them. The British had no idea that these ladies were sneaking around and informing their fellow American counterparts of what was going to happen. For Lydia, she hid in her linen closet and wrote down what she had heard in regards to Howe’s plans to attack the Americans at Whitemarsh and the following day, the British soldiers allowed her to pass through enemy lines on the perspective that she was getting flour for her family. She was able to find her son at General George Washington’s camp, pass him the note to warn his soldiers, and she even stopped at the flour mill on her way back home. The British later found out what Lydia had done, but it was too late because her son and the Continental Army were able to escape before the ambush happened. On Long Island, Anna’s home was also invaded by the British and she wondered if there was a way to help the Americans. A couple of Long Island residents formed a secret spy ring just prior to the home invasion, and Anna’s home happened to look out to the Long Island Sound. Caleb Brewster, one of the members of the ring, sailed across the water and was able to see Anna’s home. She ingeniously used her laundry line to send signals to Brewster and to the British, they thought nothing of it because she had a big family. Her petticoats were used as signs and told Brewster what cove to go to in order to prevent an attack from happening. The idea of using her laundry line was perfect and not one British officer suspected anything. The espionage activity these four women performed were unique to them, smart in helping the colonial cause, and prevented the Americans from being wiped out completely. The bravery they showed by risking their lives to help those they loved and help their homes from being destroyed showed that if the men can fight on the battlefield, women can take care of things at home. While we are truly grateful for the men sacrificing their lives in the name of freedom, if it wasn’t for the women and their incredible efforts and success of spying, we would most likely not be the United States of America.
Femme Fatales: Female Espionage in the American Revolution
Lydia Darragh Confronting Sir William Howe At Her Home

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Femme Fatales: Female Espionage in the American Revolution

Aly Riley

I am a historian who specializes in early American history through the settling of Roanoke to the end of the Civil War, with a strong emphasis on the colonial era. I am a 2021 graduate of Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey with my MA in History. I just released my first book, "She Spies", on Amazon which talks about women's roles and spying activity during the Revolutionary war! Please connect and follow me on Linkedin for all things history, appearances, my book and more!
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