The Revolutionary War and the Quakers
As I rub imaginary elbows with the men and women who fought the Revolutionary War, I am constantly amazed at the variety of people who joined in the conflict. They were ordinary every-day citizens of our country who happened to be living in extraordinary times. Some of the names are well-known–George Washington, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Paul Revere–to name a few. While these names are familiar, and there are statues, monuments, and parklands around the country named for them, there were thousands of others who participated in one form or another, but whose heroics are not so well known. Allow me to introduce you to two of them.
Lydia Darragh, Quaker Pacifist
Alas, no statues exist for Lydia Darragh. She was a Quaker woman, living in the Philadelphia area during the war. Born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland, she emigrated to America around 1756 with her husband, William. He worked as a tutor and she was a midwife. She gave birth to five children in America, and had four others, who died in infancy. Although the family were Quakers, her eldest son, Charles, enlisted with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment in the Continental Army. When the British troops took over a house opposite the Darragh home, Lydia began providing her son with information regarding the enemy’s plans, gathered from eavesdropping on conversations.
In October 1777, the British troops occupied Philadelphia, and General Howe took over a large parlor room of the Darragh home for his staff meetings. In December 1777, Lydia was told of a major meeting that would take place that evening, and that she should retire early. She was allowed to remain in her home during the meeting, though, since the Quakers were known to be unsupportive of the war. But the British didn’t take into account she was also a mother.
Instead of going to sleep, Lydia listened through the door and learned that the British troops were being ordered to leave the city in a few days to make a surprise attack on the Continental Army camped at White Marsh, under the guidance of George Washington. She scurried back to bed when the British disassembled, and had to be roused to follow them out, lock the door and extinguish the candles.
The following day, Lydia was given permission to cross British lines in order to buy some flour. She dropped off her empty bag at the mill and headed to Washington’s camp. She delivered the message about the impending attack on their encampment and returned to the mill for her flour. When the British attempted their attack, the Americans were ready for them, and they were repelled, resulting in a Patriot victory. Even though the British questioned Lydia about the leak in their plans, they did not suspect her of spying, since she was a pacifist.
In 2013, the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution created the Lydia Darragh Medal, which may be awarded at any time to any lady who works behind the scenes to support the causes of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Martha Bell, North Carolinian Revolutionary War Heroine
Much like Lydia, Martha’s story also evolved around a gristmill.
Martha McFarland was born in 1735 in North Carolina. In 1759, she married a local farmer, John McGee. They had five children together prior to his death. John left the family quite well off, and Martha carried on the family farm business. In 1779, she married William Bell and moved to his home on Deep River, where he owned and operated a gristmill and store. Martha traveled about the county, acting as a midwife and nurse. Mr. Bell became a well-known political figure and spent a great deal of the war away from home, under the protection of the local militia. It was left to Martha to keep the mill and store running profitably, while caring for her family.
British General Charles Cornwallis and his troops, camped out at the gristmill owned by Martha and her husband, following the battle of Guilford Courthouse. Martha and her husband were adamant supporters of the Revolution, and their mill was a gathering place for local patriots. On occasion, the mill stored Continental Army supplies. The British General and his forces confiscated corn to be ground into food for his troops, some of whom were wounded. They stayed at the mill for two days before moving on to his encampment. Bell tended to the wounded while her husband milled the corn, in exchange for the General’s assurance that no harm would come to their property. She told him, ‘Had your lordship said that you intended to burn our mill, I had intended to save you the trouble by burning it myself before you derived much benefit from it; but as you assure me that the mill shall not be burned, and that you will be a protection to me, and to the property about the house, I will make no further objections to your using our mill, and making my house your headquarters.’
Shortly after the British departed, General “Lighthorse” Harry Lee arrived at the mill. He encouraged Mrs. Bell to visit the British camp under the guise of discussing some property damage. She did so, and spied on the British encampment, relaying the details about the number of troops and the supplies back to General Lee.
A monument was erected on the grounds of the Guilford County courthouse National Park to commemorate Mrs. Bell’s contribution to the war effort. Sadly, the remains of the mill are now under Randleman Lake.
Had I lived during the Revolutionary War, I would have been behind the scenes, forging bullets from silverware, dumping tea into the harbor, and doing my part to help free America from tyrannical rule. But since I didn’t live then, it gives me great pleasure to be able to imagine myself there now in my new Revolutionary War series.