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Early 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 capacities—yet 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 nurses—and 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 soldiers—often poor, but of good reputation who followed the Army because they were unable to support themselves after their husbands left for war.

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 nonexistent—whatever 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.

Women in the US Military - American Revolution