Years: the American Revolution
"Amidst the distress and sufferings of the
Army, whatever sources they have arisen, it must be a consolation
to our Virtuous Country Women that they have never been accused
of with holding their most zealous efforts to support the cause
we are engaged in,. . ." General George Washington wrote to
Sarah Bache in 1781. Bache, the illegitimate daughter of Benjamin
Franklin, led an association of women who purchased drygoods with
their own money and sewed shirts for soldiers.
||Monument to Margaret Corbin
at the US Military Academy, West Point. Corbin was wounded while
firing her husband's cannon on British troops after he was killed.
After that battle in New York in 1776, Corbin became the first
woman to receive a military pension for disability.
In 1775, Sarah Shattuck, Prudence Wright and
other women of Groton, Massachussetts, put on their husbands' clothing,
armed themselves with muskets and pitchforks and defended the Nashua
River Bridge. They captured a notorious Tory carrying dispatches
in his boots to the British in Boston.
In Philadelphia, Mom Rinker was a
tavern keeper whose work put her in the company of British soldiers.
She was also a spy. Rinker often spent her days in a town park where
she sat up on a high rock, knitting copious numbers of garments.
As she knit, she concealed messages in balls of yarn and then dropped
them to American couriers below.
Colonial Records of Pennsylvania tell another story:
An order was drawn upon the Treasurer
in favor of Miss Eleanor Hitchcock, for the sum of 12 lbs, in
full of her account for her services in the years 1775 and 1776,
in erecting at Cape Henlopen a large pole, and hoisting thereon
from time to time two flags, as signals to vessels belonging to
the bay and river Delaware, of the approach of the enemy, pursuant
to instructions from the Committee of Safety...
These are among American women who have served
in defense of the nation from its earliest years. Most early patriot
women participated in the American Revolution in unofficial capacitiesyet
they were essential to providing support services for the troops,
opening their homes to the wounded, feeding and clothing the Army,
taking up arms to defend person and property when the occasion demanded,
and occasionally serving as spies or soldiers in disguise. (Read
the story of Deborah Sampson.)
||At the battle
of Monmouth in 1778, Molly Pitcher (so-named because
she brought pitchers of water to soldiers on the field) became
the second known woman to man a gun when her husband fell in
battle. For her heroic role, General Washington awarded her
a warrant as a noncommissioned officer.
Women of the American Revolutionary era set a
precedent for service that would be repeated again in the Civil
War and in the Spanish-American War until the military acknowledged
the need and desirability to maintain a permanent women's nursing
corps in the Army (1901) and Navy (1908). (Permanent status for
other women in the US Armed Forces would not occur until passage
of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948.)
General George Washington confronted the issue
of using women in the war effort early in the Revolution. He needed
to meet the demand for medical care for his soldiers and too few
men were available to serve as medics and nursesand he wanted
to find useful employment for groups of women hanging around soldiers'
encampments as well.
Some of these camp followers were women of loose
morals. Many were wives, daughters and mothers of soldiersoften
poor, but of good reputation who followed the Army because they
were unable to support themselves after their husbands left for
Washington's solution was to attach some women
to the Continental Army as nurses, and others as cooks, laundresses,
and water bearers. They became the earliest American examples of
women who supported the military to free a man to fight
as they performed jobs usually done by male soldiers.
The medical corps was authorized to employ one
nurse for each ten sick or wounded. Since most medical care at the
time was provided in the home by women, training for nurses was
nonexistentwhatever skills they brought to war nursing came
from home experience or learned as needs arose. The nurses were
paid, at first earning two dollars per month and one daily ration,
and by 1777, eight dollars per month and a daily ration.
The significance of these early patriots is difficult
to define. Some historians believe that women's participation in
the American Revolution contributed to the emerging role of Republican
Motherhood which assigned women the responsibility for the moral
training of their sons for citizenship and which led to the expansion
of educational opportunities for women. Certainly their participation
set a small, but significant precedent for further participation
in the nation's war efforts.