Women of the American Revolution: A Powerful Archive

From uncovering spy plots, to forging spoons into bullets, burning fields, hiding Continental soldiers, fighting off Native American attacks: the original manuscripts that recorded the exploits of our Founding Mothers

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Nearly 200 handwritten letters from descendants of heroines of the American Revolution, many from well known figures like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, & Washington Irving

Many unpublished letters documenting heroic acts of women throughout the Revolution

A remarkable archive showing the earliest such example of...

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Women of the American Revolution: A Powerful Archive

From uncovering spy plots, to forging spoons into bullets, burning fields, hiding Continental soldiers, fighting off Native American attacks: the original manuscripts that recorded the exploits of our Founding Mothers

Nearly 200 handwritten letters from descendants of heroines of the American Revolution, many from well known figures like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, & Washington Irving

Many unpublished letters documenting heroic acts of women throughout the Revolution

A remarkable archive showing the earliest such example of historiography

In the late 1840’s, the Revolutionary War was sixty years in the past, and the men and women of the day looked back at their parents and grandparents, those who had fought, won and experienced the tumultuous era as a “Greatest Generation.” Even as they venerated the actors in the revolutionary drama, the survivors were rapidly decreasing in number and the incidents of the war were receding into memory. Volume after volume had been produced detailing the exploits of men, but notable by its absence was any treatment about the experiences and contributions of the women. In fact, only the letters of Abigail Adams and Mercy Warren had been published, and virtually nothing was known about the sacrifices and heroism of both prominent and average women.

Elizabeth Ellet, an author, poet and friend of Edgar Allan Poe, was a supporter of the newly-arisen women’s suffrage movement and acutely aware that that the role women had played in achieving independence was relevant to their present political goals. Inspired by this, she had the idea of salvaging the memories of women in the Revolution while there was still time. She conducted personal interviews, reviewed original materials still retained by families, and engaged in a significant correspondence, mainly with descendants who shared the memories, the personal triumphs and tragedies, that their parents, grandparents, relatives and friends had related to them. The stories were harrowing, thrilling, humorous, interesting and inspirational – all that and more. Ellet gathered the narratives into her landmark three-volume set of books – “The Women of the American Revolution” – that were published between 1848-1850.

More than 175 women’s exploits were covered, about one-third receiving lengthy treatment with the rest being the subject of what Ellet termed “anecdotes.” Wonderful stories abound of women of every class and position in society. There are scores of prominent women, among them Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Warren, Catharine Greene (wife of Nathaniel) and Lucy Knox (wife of Henry), Annis Stockton (wife of Richard Stockton), Sarah Bache (daughter of Benjamin Franklin), Dorothy Hancock (wife of John Hancock), and Catharine Schuyler (wife of Philip Schuyler). Then there are stories of women whose names are unfamiliar but who came to notice because of their relationship to men prominent in Ellet’s day, such as Sarah Caldwell (mother of John C. Calhoun) and Elizabeth Clay (mother of Henry Clay). Just as importantly, however, are the myriad tales of average women, whose names nobody would recognize but whose experiences are in every way worthy to be recounted.

Ellet corresponded with well over 100 persons during her research, receiving letters from such notables as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Francis Adams and Francis Pickens. In addition to relatives relating stories, she received interesting letters relating to her topic from historians such as Jared Sparks and William Prescott, as well as from well-wishers including Dolley Madison. She retained these letters, which in some cases constitute lengthy manuscripts from which she took entire chapters, in some cases they contain material never published in her books, while in others the stories told are of the experience of families and not just the women.

More than 120 people corresponded with Ellet sending nearly 200 letters. This is Ellet’s letterbook, retained for more than 150 years by her descendents, containing the correspondence she received and comprising a significant portion of the content of the books.  Because Ellet used editorial judgment in selecting parts of the letters to use, some of the material is unpublished.

A selection of quotations offers a keen sense of the importance of the correspondence. In all cases, the author of the letter was the heir of the person or heard the story from the heir. In some cases, we have noted the author of the letter.

Martha Washington at Mount Vernon

“During the last decisive action of the war, the siege of Yorktown, my mother remained with Mrs. Washington at Mount Vernon…Often have I heard her describe the agitated life they then led – the alternations of hope & fear, the trembling that seized them on the arrival of the daily express…Mrs. Washington…was called upon to…mourn the loss of her beloved & only son who died with fever during the siege of Yorktown…” – Lucy Knox Thatcher

Mrs. John Walker Delayed the British Troops to Gain the Rebels Time

“ At the time that Tarleton with his corps of cavalry making a secret and forced march to surprise and capture the Governor and Legislature of Virginia then holding its session in Charlottesville one of the members chanced to be at the house of John Walker distant some twelve miles from the town. This was directly on the route and the first intimation the family had of the enemy’s approach was the appearance of Tarleton’s legion at their doors. Walker was at the time on service with the troops in Lower Virginia. Having made prisoners of one or two members of the Legislature Colonel Tarleton ordered breakfast for himself and his officers and men. Mrs. Walker who was a staunch Whig knew well that the design of her unwelcome guest was to proceed to Charlottesville and plunder and destroy the public stores there collected. She delayed as long as possible the preparations for breakfast for the purpose of enabling the members who had escaped to reach the town and to remove and secrete such portions of the stores as could be saved. Her patriotic stratagem gained time for this Tarleton remained but a day or two at Charlottesville and then hurried back to join the main army under Cornwallis”

The Death of Patriot Hannah Ogden

“After my father’s house and church were burnt at Elizabethtown and owing to the frequent predatory incursions of the British in that part of the state, he deemed it necessary to remove his family to Springfield, in a less exposed situation.  Finding this an inconvenient arrangement being at too great a distance from his church, he removed again to ‘Connecticut Farms’ four miles from Elizabethtown.  Whilst there the British army under General Kusphausen approached Conn Farms about daylight June 7th 1780.  My father being informed of the approach of the enemy and being in possession of a baggage (as he acted as commissary of the army) he availed himself of this put the elder children in the wagons sent them to Battle Hill and Chatham to be among friends for protection.  Three of the younger myself, Elias and Maria the infant were left with our mother.  Here my recollection is perfect. On the approach of the British army about sunrise I went into the street found the people driving off the cattle to Springfield I joined them reached Springfield went into the house from which we had not a year since moved got my breakfast….In a day or two I started out on foot accompanied by my little sister Hannah to see our mother who was at Conn Farms. On our way near Springfield we met the other children Elias and Maria without nurse Katy in a chair belonging to my father.  The nurse immediately told us of the death of our mother and insisted upon our returning with her.  This I strongly refused. My sister yielded… I continued on my way to Conn. Farms…On reaching there, I found the house destroyed by fire and my mother’s remains deposited in a house across the street.  I went to the house found my father who had just arrived, standing by the bedside where lay the body of my mother. He seemed to feel deeply the great and unexpected loss.”

Mrs. Caldwell, Mother of John C. Calhoun

“…My mother was high-spirited and patriotic, and was exposed to many of the dangers and subject to many of the sufferings incident to the most trying scenes of the Revolution…Of her four brothers, the eldest, Major John Caldwell, was hacked to pieces by the Tories in his own yard and in the presence of his family, followed by burning his house and outbuildings. Her next eldest, William, was interned for 9 months in the dungeon of St. Augustine without once seeing the light of day. The next, James Caldwell, a stripling, fell covered with wounds at Tarleton’s defeat at the Cowpens…” – John C. Calhoun

Catharine Greene: “Women [will] find someone to tell the story of their sacrifices and their self-denials”

“There never lived a more joyous, frolicsome creature than Kate Littlefield…In person, she was singularly lovely…My grandmother, like the good country ladies of her time, knit stockings and mended her husband’s clothes, did the work in her own kitchen and by way of variety rode to meeting on horseback…I am very glad that you are going to do justice to admirable country women of the revolution; a period which will never be appreciated as it ought until the women find someone to tell the story of their sacrifices and their self-denials.” – George Washington Greene, historian, grandson of Major-General Nathaniel Greene

Mrs. Boudinot: “These ladies of the old school…

“My venerable mother, now in her 81st year still survives and retains in extraordinary degree her mental faculties.  She would by no means allow that any public notice she could prevent should be taken of her, and I am not able to see that during her life, her son should venture to disobey her in a matter so eminently personal to her… These ladies of the old school consider personal notoriety in the light of high misfortune, an imputation on their delicacy and claims to privacy and amongst them, the ladies of those old Virginia families, that are unhappily nearly all gone, exhibit this feeling in the highest degree.”  – James Boudinot 

Mrs. Elmendorf’s study of medicine

“The mention made of Mrs. Elmendorf’s study of medicine of which I was not fully aware still brought forcibly to mind the repeated interviews and long continued discussions to which in my boyish days I have been a witness between her and Dr. Audius Dewitt, the father of the former surveyor general, on the medicinal qualities of sundry herbs, plants and drugs in which the Doctor dwelt much on what he termed the arena of medicine. These conversations frequently lasted until midnight.  I well recollect too her excursions of some miles in the country on visits to the sick.”

Anna Warner’s (Bailey) heroics

“The morning of the massacre at Groton Ford she left her home for 3 miles to stay in search of her uncle who had joined the volunteers on the first alarm of invasion and was known to have been engaged in the conflict. She found him in a house near the scene of slaughter, his wounds have been dressed but it was evidence that he could bear know for the removal and that life would soon be extinguished. With dying energy, he entreated that he might see once more his wife and child. The kind-hearted Anna hastened home, caught and prepared the family horse and placed upon it the more delicate wife while she bore the young child in her own arms to receive the last blessing of a parent.”

These two women ministered to the wounded

“Thirty five men covered with blood and wounds trembling with cold and parched with thirst lay all night on the bare floor in a state of inexpressible anguish. The ministering angels who came to the relief with the first race of the morning light was Miss Fanny Ledyard a nearest relative of the brave Colonel William Ledyard….She went from one to another like an angel of mercy administering cordials and breathing the softest words of sympathy and encouragement. She was assisted in these labors of love by another relative of the commander Mrs. Jon Ledyard who lavished both her personal attention and her household stores on the sufferers. Those who recovered from their wounds were a custom to speak of these ladies to their dying day in terms of for an acknowledgment and glowing praise.”

The scorched earth tactics of Mrs. Schuyler

“When the Continental Army was retreating before Burgoyne from Fort Edward, Mrs. Schuyler went up from Albany in her chariot to Saratoga to remove her furniture. While there she received directions from General Schuyler to set fire with her own hand to his extensive fields of wheat and to induce his tenants and others to do the same rather than suffer them to be reaped by the enemy.”

Alexander and Eliza Hamilton

“I will mention one little anecdote showing her devotion to her husband [Alexander Hamilton]. He was recovering from the yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1791 or 93, extremely debilitated and unable to sleep. The physician knew not what to do. ‘Hamilton,’ she said, ‘let me go to bed to you and take you in my arms. Perhaps he will sleep.’

“‘No Eliza you will take the fever.’

‘I have never left your side during your whole sickness. I do not fear it.’ She did so with him to sleep. He was refreshed was out of danger and she took the fever.”

A pioneer woman “in the footsteps of Daniel Boone”

“I listened to her account of the time when she accompanied my father in the footsteps of Daniel Boone to the bloody land of far off Kentucky. The risks they ran, the hunger, thirst, hardships, exposures they endured…. The necessity of bolts and bars upon their cabin door at night, and in the morning until my father with his rifle in hand would look through the adjacent woods to prevent surprise from outlying cunning savages who then infested the country from Ohio to the Tennessee River. Although there were no Indian towns within our limits. How her own riding horse was shot down under my eldest brother while he and my father were out on a trapping excursion within two or 3 miles of their dangerous home. Her apprehension and precautions against the Indians when they [her husband and son] did not return as expected and she was left for more than a day and night alone in their cabin with her two or three little children.”

The love of George Washington for his mother

“Washington ever acknowledged that he owed everything in the elevation and habits of his early life to his stern yet admirable parent.  She was indeed a mother formed on the Spartan model and by her force of character.  Her matchless discipline and example fitted to build the foundations of the greatness of him who towered beyond all Greek and beyond all Roman fame.” George Washington Custis

The 19 year old wife of Israel Israel

“A detachment of [British] soldiers were there in order to drive the stocks grazing in a meadow down to the river and slaughter them in the face of their prisoners. The wife of one of the prisoners not over 19 years of age always on the lookout saw them land from the ships, shoulder arms and advance towards the meadow.  In an instant her resolution was taken in, and with a boy of eight years old determined to save the cattle at the peril of her life. She started at full speed although advanced in pregnancy with her first child, the little fellow following after.  The soldiers ordered her to desist where they would die.  Down went the both and every effort made to drive her to the opening.  Give way said she and they did.”

Susannah Elliot, hiding Continental from British soldiers

“My grandmother ever on the alert and active in the cause whilst on her…which place we still own had three American gentleman staying with her. The British very unexpectedly were seen advancing. There was no time for retreat. She immediately herded them into a closet and opening a secret door disclosed to them a large opening back of the chimney. The secret place was known only to herself and built expressly I believe for a hiding place. She advised them to enter immediately. Two of them did but the third said he would trust to the fleetness of his horse and his knowledge of the woods but poor man in keeping as such he was overtaken and immediately cut down and killed while inside of the house. The British then searched the house in vain for the other two.  But no threat could reveal their hiding place. They then demanded her silver and pointing to several mounds of earth not very far off asked for what that was. She replied the graves of several British soldiers who died at her house.  They would not credit her word and ordered two of their soldiers to dig and see. They dug up the coffin but on opening it the effluvia was so offensive that they almost died, the third was sent to see the cause but when he got near he swooned away and after some time revived and recovered. No one now ventured to approach and the other graves were unmolested.. It was sometime or the bodies could be approached to be entered. The British very soon took their departure and my grandmother went to the secret door and released the two gentlemen…”

General Lafayette

“With our country’s friend and benefactor Lafayette she was conversant from the beginning. And although history has preserved all the prominent events of his life, traits and his character yet they were doubtless many minute minutia relative to both which could only be known by those in the habit of frequent intercourse with him. On the last visit of this interesting man to our country I can testify to the strong regret he expressed that he would not have the satisfaction of renewing his acquaintance with my mother who had been removed to another world the year previous. It was to me a great satisfaction to Converse with him of my parents and to listen to his expressions of interest in those so dear to me in memory was truly wonderful, it would seem that he never forgot any person or event whom or which had once come into his knowledge… He reminded me of his having on a former visit officiated as godfather to my brother under someone peculiar circumstances, himself being a Roman Catholic. General Greene the other godfather… My mother in an Episcopalian, my father a Protestant. This variety of denominations combined in the ceremony had probably impressed it on his mind. I asked him on this occasion if he was worried with the perpetual motion in which they kept him, oh no said he. My mind is so happy laying his hand on his heart, that I am unconscious of fatigue. Truly never had a man more cause to be gratified to the spontaneous homage of a nation, which seemed to write as one man in offering the tribute of affection and repeating the often repeated assertion on the republic.  He told me also during this interview that it was his wish and intention to return and finish his days among the people to whom he was so strongly attached but a different destiny awaited him. His public services were not get terminated and he believes himself to be conferring a blessing upon his native land in promoting the elevation of one whom he hoped and believe would be a citizen King. If the result disappointed his expectations the fault was not his. His motives were undoubtedly pure and patriotic. He wished but to carry out the principles of liberty which he believes so essential to the welfare of mankind, to establish which indeed his life was elevated, for the success of his efforts he would not be held answerable.” – Lucy Knox Thatcher, daughter of Henry Knox

Mrs. John Buchanon made spoons into bullets during a Native American attack

“About 800 Indians surrounded a block house in which her husband lived. Her husband, a brave man and true, her brother her sons and two other men being about a dozen, occupied the house and were roused from their slumber by savage rifles yells about midnight. The fight lasted several hours the Indians attempting to cut the door down with their hatchets and putting the muscles of the rifles through the portholes in order to reach the inmates.  During this time the bullets of the defenders in the blockhouse gave out but Mrs. B was already molding her spoons and plate into bullets of which she made not less than 300 during the flight. After much loss on the Indian side they retreated leaving Mrs. B in her family to mourn the loss of her son and brother.

The secretive and seductive female British spy in the American ranks

“The house was full of company while she was there. Among the company there was always a goodly number of young American soldiers, most of them were perfect slaves to the charms of Miss Montcrief. And several were over head and heels in love with her. One morning when she was taking her customary ride her horse, became frightened by a dog running out from the farmhouse. She was thrown to the ground and so as to render her insensible. There being no man about the house the women ran out and carried her in to restore her. While she was lying up on the bed one of the girls unbuttoned missed Moncrief’s waistcoat to allow her to breathe more freely. A letter dropped out which the woman placed on the table. She was soon restored and the man of the house just then came in. When she came freely to herself she sprung up and seizing up on the flaps of her vest cried out who unbuttoned my waist coat? I am lost, lost! Where is the letter? One of the females picked the letter up to return it but the man, suspecting something to be wrong, sprung forward and seized it. It was directed to New York. He refused to give it up. Miss M bagged and implored but it was of no use. … She immediately packed her things to start back to the city but before she got ready a party of the military arrested her and took her across the river to a public house where guard was kept over her. It turned out the letter was full of information respecting the intended plans of the Congress soldiers. She used to get her intelligence from the young officers who came to see her. She had such a great influence over some of them that they confided to her the most secret plans of the Americans, she all the time professing to be a warm friend of the Whigs. It came out that she had been regularly reporting everything to the British. When she wrote a letter she concealed it under her vest and in the rides dropped it at a certain place in the road. Directly a man who was waiting concealed in the bushes cautiously picked it up and carried it off to another secret agent down the river who sent it forward to New York.”

The great historians of the age – a milestone in historiography

Henry Onderdonk Jr

There is a large and important group of letters of Henry Onderdonk Jr. with important and unpublished writing on the study and recording of history. Onderdonk was an important historian during this period of the American Revolution.

Washington Irving to Ellet

“I have read with lively and unflagging interest your domestic history of our revolution. It…carries us into the bosoms of families, and as it were, into the hearts of individuals throughout the land during that great and glorious struggle, showing how truly it was a revolution of principle and feeling, springing from the noblest instincts and impulses of our nature. The pictures it presents of devoted patriotism and self-sacrifice in both sexes and in all ranks and conditions in life, while they hold up examples for our imitation, are calculated to make us prize more dearly the blessings secured at such cost…”

Jared Sparks to Ellet

“I have been much gratified with your narrative, clear in style and comprising a great many incidents, very interesting in themselves, but which have not found a place in more formal histories. The work exhibits striking evidence of your diligence in collecting facts and skill and good judgments in weaving them together. It presents a picture of revolutionary times, which must be attractive to all readers…Your researches in South Carolina seem to have been crowned with unusual success and you have brought to light many new proofs of the patriotism and devotedness to the cause, which prevailed among the citizens of that state. In short, the zeal with which you have labored to procure new materials and to construct your work upon a plan suited to all classes of readers, may justly claim the thanks of the public.”


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