Move Over 007!
By Karen L. Hayden
Being a woman can be to your advantage.., especially if you are a Revolutioanry War Spy. Since most men believed that women were not interested in war, political debate, or business considerations, it was easy to play the part.
Female spies that made it into the History books were from age 15 on up. They were often the daughters and sisters of patriot soldiers who had the most important reasons to help - keeping their loved ones safe.
Perhaps the British officers were a long way from home, but it seems they were easily distracted by invitations from ladies to tea. One such invitation issued by Mrs. Murray of New York City saved George Washington from cature. Her actions, immortalized in a painting, detained General Howe for nearly three hours, allowing the patriot army to escape.
Two young women saved the day by taking messages to the Patriot camps in their areas. Twenty-two year-old Deborah Champion of Connecticut was chosen to take a dispatch to Washington outside Boston. En route, she was captured by a seventeen-year-old British soldier, who took her to his camp for questioning by his commanding officer. However, she was able to charm the young man out of "waking his captain" by convincing him she had to see a friend in distress immediately. He finally decided to wave her through saying, "Well, you are only an old woman." (Either she was really ugly or he was really blind!) Fifteen-year-old Dicey Langston spied on Loyalists camped beside her father's farm in South Carolina. She would note their numbers, supplies, and conversation to convey this information to the Patriot forces in the next county. Her efforts eventually saved her brother's regiment from a surprise attack After this, Dicey came under suspicion. She ended up challenging Loyalists to kill her instead of her aged father. They did neither and moved their camp.
Philadelphia's Lydia Darragh is well known for her efforts to pass information to the Patriot camps. When British officers commandeered her home and used it for strategy meetings, Mrs. Darragh, a Quaker, played the role of the pacifist and passive female. She used her domestic chores as excuses to leave the city. The British seemed unconcerned that she might betray them. This ultimately led to another thwarted surprise attack, credited to her bravery.
Undertaking spy missions was extremely hazardous to your health. Remember, these women risked hanging, firing squads, or imprisonment if they were caught. One member of the Culper Ring, operating around New York City, known only as #355, died on the prison ship, JERSEY.
What does this mean for re-enactors? On our encampment weekends, it could be advantageous to use some spy scenarios. For tactical battles, spies could be used to gather information for the officers. Occasionally, the capture and interrogation of a suspected spy could be part of the daily camp schedule.
So, move over 007!
(Sources for this article include: "Women in the American Revolution", Golden Owl Publishing of Amawaik, New York, "Founding Mothers" by Linda Grant de Pauw, and "Women of the American Revolution", Volume 1.)