There are a plethora of examples of women who assisted the efforts of rebel forces during the American Revolution. There were wives who inspired their husbands to envision a land in which their children and grandchildren would grow up free to pursue their dreams. There were ladies who used their formidable hostessing skills to lend necessary diplomacy to the political affairs of their spouses.
There was even at least one woman, who, despite her husband’s desire that she remain silent regarding the affairs of the day, hastily admonished him and his cohorts to not shrink from danger and continue to fight ardently for the cause of liberty. But today is a day to laud the courage of a mother and housewife who used her considerable scruples to spy on the enemy, obtain valuable information and warn General Washington of a surprise attack.
Lydia Darragh, born in Dublin, Ireland in 1729, came to live in America with her husband soon after they married. They resided in the city of Philadelphia. Interestingly, while the Darraghs were Quakers who are generally pacifists, this particular couple covertly supported the rebel cause. They had a large family and Lydia practiced midwifery.
As fate would have it, British General Sir William Howe set up camp directly across from the Darragh house, lending Lydia a bird’s eye view of the comings and goings of the British officers. Needless to say, she quickly took to spying on their every move. As soon as she had obtained information she thought valuable to the rebel cause, she would send her encoded observations with her teenaged son to his older brother who was serving in the Continental Army.
In the autumn of 1777, the British attempted to take over the Darragh home so that it could be used as a meeting place. Lydia shrewdly convinced the troops that she and her older children be allowed to remain in the house while being occupied by enemy forces.
During one critical meeting, the officers insisted that the family be sequestered in their bedrooms, but the always clever Mrs. Darragh elected to hide in a closet so as to be privy to the details of an impending “surprise” attack on Washington’s forces at Whitemarsh.
Sensing the urgency to elicit a warning to the rebels, Darragh requested a pass from British General Howe so that she could depart to shop for needed food items and see her younger children who were living elsewhere due to the British occupation. After obtaining some flour from a local mill, Lydia ventured to the Rising Sun Tavern where she knew her information would be welcomed by Patriot forces.
There remains some dispute as to just how Mrs. Darragh communicated the dire warning of a surprise attack. But whether she quietly whispered the information to an American soldier or perhaps wrote a message and tucked it into a needle book, it was nonetheless an act of incredible bravery on her part!
And thanks to the quick-witted actions of Mrs. Lydia Darragh, General George Washington did indeed have time to prepare for what was intended to be a sneak attack.
Once General Howe returned to Philadelphia, an investigation ensued and although Darragh was interrogated, she once again outwitted her foes by insisting that everyone in her household was fast asleep during the ill-fated military strategy meeting. And lo and behold, they once again believed her.
How exactly Lydia Darragh managed to stay one step ahead of the seasoned British military, is perhaps hard to know. But the fact remains she set aside thoughts of her own safety for a cause she deemed fully worth the risks she faced. And herein is the lifeblood that seems to run through the heart of all of good patriots.