Happy March! What happened to January? And February? It seems like just yesterday, I was celebrating New Year’s Eve, and now March and Women’s History Month is upon us.
The publicity surrounding the revival of the musical 1776 this past year made me think about women wearing men’s clothes in the American Revolution. The best part of the show for me was its costumes that transformed actors identifying as women, nonbinary, and trans to men (in the words of AmRep).
Dressing my Characters
When I dress the characters in my writing, I always think about how they would feel wearing a particular clothing item or outfit. One theme of my yet-to-be-published novel, A Little Rebellion, is how several people might feel wearing a British Red Coat. They include a free Black teenage boy who enlists with the British, a self-proclaimed pacifist Quaker boy, and a non-traditional girl.
I had plenty of material to work from. Novels and true accounts of the American Revolution include a number of women/girls who dressed as men/boys. Whether they did so out of necessity or desire is speculation. But think about how they felt. Here are eight and a few books you might enjoy:
- Let it Begin Here: Deborah Samson
Perhaps the best known of the group, she disguised herself as a young boy to join the Continental Army in New England at the height of the American Revolution. Revolutionary by Alex Myers describes the effect wearing men’s clothes had on the wearer: “She shook off the stray strands and then walked across the chamber, watching herself in the glass, seeing how her stride had stretched out, how her arms swung loose at her sides. She looked just like a young man. She stared and stared, trying to believe this wasn’t someone else. This was her reflection. This was Robert Shurtliff. If you want to meet Deborah Samson/Robert Shurtliff you’re in luck. History at Play (Judith Kalaora pictured above) performs live and online each year, telling Samson’s story.
- A couple of Male Soldiers: Anna Maria Lane and her husband
Virginia’s only female soldier in the Revolutionary War, Anna Maria Lane joined the Continental Army in 1776 along with her husband. Dressed in men’s clothing, she performed the duties of a soldier in battles in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. At the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, Anna Maria received a leg wound that left her with a life-long disability. She was later awarded a pension for her courage. I haven’t found any novels about her; let me know if you do!
The Teen Corner
- Sybil Ludington: A Girl Paul Revere
On April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington rode her horse, Star, astride in borrowed wool breeches during a driving rainstorm. She travelled 40 miles to warn local residents that the British were planning to raid the Continental Army’s stockpile of provisions in Danbury, Connecticut. Not unlike Revere, who two years earlier alerted the communities outside of Boston to British troops on the march to seize arms, Ludington raised the alarm in Putnam County, New York. While the British were successful in their raid, the Patriots, alerted by Ludington’s alarm, encountered the British at nearby Ridgefield, Connecticut. They successfully drove them back to Long Island Sound.
- Betsy Dowdy and the Best Pony Ever
On the night of December 6, 1775, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, news reached the Dowdy family. 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy overheard the story that British General Dunmore had captured Great Bridge, closing off the islands from trade goods. Dowdy made up her mind to go to American General Skinner herself on her pony, Black Bess. After swimming across Currituck Sound, she rode through the Great Dismal Swamp, Camden, and then Elizabeth City. Galloping more than 50 miles, she finally reached the outskirts of Hertford, where she told General Skinner about Lord Dunmore’s plans. Calling his men to arms, the troops marched north just in time for the Battle of Great Bridge.
- Susanna Bolling and her Midnight Ride
Susanna Bolling, a 16-year-old from Hopewell, Virginia also outsmarted the British on horseback. In May of 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis and his troops invaded Susanna’s family’s land at City Point. Overhearing Cornwallis’s plan to capture American ally General Lafayette, Susanna decided to act. Dressed in her brother’s clothes, Susanna rowed alone across the Appomattox River. Borrowing a friend’s horse, she raced 10 miles to warn Lafayette, allowing him to escape and carry on the fight against the British.
- Dicey Langston and a Difficult Horse
15-year-old “Dicey” Langston, who lived during the Revolutionary War, was a Patriot who carried messages from the Loyalists. By doing so, she saved many lives and helped to win the fight for freedom. Overhearing that a band of Loyalists known as the “Bloody Scouts” were going to attack the Elder Settlement at Little Eden, South Carolina at dawn, she put on some of her brother James’s clothes. Why? She did it to smell like her brother and to ride a stallion that would only let her brother near him. Crossing a swollen river, she nearly drowned, but made it in time to warn James so that he and his men could warn the Settlement. When the Bloody Scouts arrived the next day, the Settlement had been evacuated.
An Army of Women….
- Prudence Wright and her female militia: why not?
A patriot, soldier, and hero, Prudence Cummings Wright defied traditional gender roles to protect her town during the American Revolution. Her husband, David, along with other patriotic Pepperell, Massachusetts men, responded to the war’s first shots at Lexington by marching to a nearby town to intercept advancing British troops. Prudence then came up with an idea for the women left at home: a female militia. They dubbed themselves the “Minutewomen.” Prudence, who had been elected the militia’s captain, and about 30-40 other townswomen dressed as men, shouldered muskets, wielded pitchforks, and marched to Jewett’s Bridge. It was here on the Nashua River that the “Prudence Wright Guard” planned to intimidate the approaching Redcoats. The courageous women successfully stopped the British, captured several soldiers, and intercepted vital dispatches regarding troop movements.
- The Widow of Mount Holly: Betsy Ross??
David Hackett Fischer writes in Washington’s Crossing, of a “mysterious widow” who may have played a crucial role in the victory that George Washington and his troops won at Trenton, New Jersey, on the day after Christmas in 1776.
During the fall of that year, Washington and his army had been chased across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania by the British Army. The commander of the British-allied Hessian forces was Colonel Carl Von Donrop. Having come to Mount Holly, he decided to stay and to keep most of his troops with him despite the fact that he was far from the action in Trenton. Why? Because of an “exceedingly beautiful young widow,” according to his contemporaries.
Donrop stayed the night in Mount Holly on December 23 and then through Christmas. When Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and attacked the troops at Trenton early the next morning, Donrop was not close enough to offer support.
Fischer speculates that the widow may have been Betsy Ross. She had family in the area, and her husband John Ross had died earlier that year. While entertaining Donrop, the Widow probably wore women’s garb, but in the book The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, the Widow shows up in a variety of disguises, including that of a young boy stablehand, as well as a generic “man.”
Of course, women fought and helped in many other ways during the War for Independence. I know I’ve left a lot of heroines of the American Revolution out, but please let me know if you’re a fan of any others!
P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to read my short story, “Welcome,” yet, I’ve recently added a Writing Page!