I. The War for Independence
A. Formally at War, Formally Independent
With the publication of Common Sense, America jumped into the war with renewed energy. American forces scored a major victory at Dorchester Heights, near Boston Harbor. The British then evacuated Boston, sailed for Canada, and made plans for a massive invasion of New York City.
As the British regrouped and planned their assault on New York, General Washington and his army went to New York to prepare for the British invasion. A massive British war fleet arrives in New York Harbor consisting of 30 battleships with 1200 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 300 supply ships, under the command of General William Howe and his brother Admiral Lord Richard Howe.
As the British invaded New York, the Continental Congress moved to officially declare independence. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate to the Congress, presented a formal resolution calling for America to declare its independence from Britain. Congress postponed its decision on this until July until delegates could get information from their colonies on how they should proceed and because some of the delegates were absent at the time. On June 11, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The committee members included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee chose Jefferson to prepare the first draft of the declaration, which he completed in one day. Just seventeen days later, June 28, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was ready and was presented to the Congress, with changes made by Adams and Franklin. On July 2, twelve of thirteen colonial delegations (New York abstained) voted in support of Lee's resolution for independence. On July 4, the Congress formally endorsed Jefferson's Declaration, with copies to be sent to all of the colonies. The actual signing of the document occurred on August 2, as most of the 55 members of Congress placed their names on the parchment copy.
The summer and fall of 1776 were difficult for Washington’s forces. As the Americans had expected, General Howe led 15,000 British soldiers against Washington’s badly outnumbered army in the Battle of Long Island. Washington’s men suffered a severe defeat and scattered as they retreated to Brooklyn Heights. Washington’s men continued to engage the British, however, in the New York City area, by avoiding large-scale battles with the British through a series of retreats.
That September, Lord Richard Howe, the British Naval Commander, held a peace conference with American representatives. He offered them an opportunity to surrender, but the Americans refused.
The fighting continued in the New York City area; in September, British troops captured a spy from Connecticut, Captain Nathan Hale. Executed without a trial, his last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” inspired the war effort.
Yet as the fighting expands northward and westward from New York City, the Americans continued to lose—on Lake Champlain, at White Plains, at Fort Washington on Manhattan, at Fort Lee in New Jersey—in two battles alone, Washington’s army suffered 3,000 casualties. General Washington abandoned the New York area and moved his forces westward to the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border.
It had been a trying time. Among Washington’s troops was Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, who now wrote a new pamphlet, The American Crisis. In this new pamphlet, Paine severely criticized the “sunshine patriots” who supported the war and independence only as long as they were easy, and who abandoned their new country when things got difficult. Here is a quote from Paine:
...These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country: but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
On Christmas night, Washington took 2,400 of his men and recrossed the Delaware River in small boats, navigating through chunks of ice, and silently slipping back into New Jersey. The men then raided the town of Trenton, where British and German mercenaries had been partying. Colonel Rolle, the commander of the British and German forces in Trenton, apparently had advance notice that Washington was coming. Absolutely drunk, he refused to see the messenger, and when handed the note, stuffed it in his pocket and never read it. When the Americans assaulted Trenton, killing Rolle, the sealed note was found inside his pocket. The victory proved a much needed morale-booster to the Americans, a victory which they followed up with another huge win at Princeton, New Jersey.
B. American Success, European Support
In 1777, America got the much-needed break that propelled the French into the war on their side and proved a turning point: Saratoga. British General John Burgoyne, moving south from Lake Champlain, planned to march twenty-three miles through dense forests of upstate New York, to the source of the Hudson River. He would attack southward and General Howe (also British) would attack northward, thus seizing the entire Hudson River and virtually taking all of New York from American control. This would cut off supply lines to all the surrounding towns. Yet for Burgoyne, the trip was difficult. It took almost a month to travel, with 8,000 men and 2,000 camp followers—mainly servants and women. Though Gen. Burgoyne's troops stunned the Americans with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, after blasting its way through the forests of New York, suffering disease, exhaustion, and running out of supplies, Burgoyne’s army reached the Hudson in a much-weakened condition, and had to waiting for Howe to catch up. Burgoyne decided to send several hundred Hessians to Bennington, Vermont, to steal some horses. The Americans were waiting for them.
It had been a terrible summer for Burgoyne and things only got worse; General Howe decided NOT to attack northward, decided not to link up with Burgoyne, but instead figured Burgoyne could handle things himself. Howe went to Philadelphia instead. As Howe was capturing Philadelphia, the Americans defeated the British at Saratoga, as Gen. Horatio Gates and Gen. Benedict Arnold defeat Gen. Burgoyne, inflicting 600 British casualties. American losses are only 150. This victory at Saratoga convinced the French that the Americans were for real, and Louis XIV finally agreed to see Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, America’s ambassadors. Shortly thereafter, France would formally enter into a military alliance with the Americans, sending them much-needed weapons and troops.
That winter, as Washington’s forces camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for a bitterly cold few months, Baron von Steuben of Prussia arrives at Valley Forge to join the Continental Army. He then begins much needed training and drilling of Washington's troops, now suffering from poor morale resulting from cold, hunger, disease, low supplies and desertions over the long, harsh winter. At about the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, American and French representatives signed two treaties in February 1778: a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance. France now officially recognized the United States and began to supply Washington’s army. Both countries pledged to fight until independence was won. Neither country would sign a truce with Britain without the other’s consent. With the entry of the French in the war, French troops sailed to Newport, Rhode Island to await future orders from France.
In 1778-1779, the fighting reached a virtual stalemate; Americans recaptured Philadelphia but the British took Savannah, Georgia. After a severe winter, Gen. Washington faces a serious threat of mutiny at his winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey. Two Continental regiments conduct an armed march through the camp and demand immediate payment of salary (overdue by 5 months) and full rations. Troops from Pennsylvania put down the rebellion. Two leaders of the protest are then hanged. Benedict Arnold, an American general, and the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, turns against the Americans and defects to the British, becoming a brigadier general.
C. Civil War in the South, End of the War
British General Charles Lord Cornwallis and the British the British increasingly turned their attention to the South. Under the command of Henry Clinton the British crushed and captured Charleston, South Carolina. Gen. Nathaniel Greene, Washington's most able and trusted General, is named as the new commander of the Southern Army, replacing Gen. Horatio Gates. Greene then begins a strategy of rallying popular support and wearing down the British by leading Gen. Cornwallis on a six month chase through the back woods of South Carolina into North Carolina into Virginia then back into North Carolina. The British, low on supplies, are forced to steal from any Americans they encounter, thus enraging them.
In 1780-1781 the fighting focused on the South, where, especially in South Carolina, Americans loyal to Britain (Loyalists) fought American patriot troops, the British engaged patriot troops, and the British sometimes mistakenly attacked the homes of loyalists. In Virginia, British troops raided the home of Thomas Jefferson, but he escaped.
In August, 1781, after several months of chasing Gen. Greene's army without much success, Gen. Cornwallis and his 10,000 tired soldiers arrive to seek rest at the small port of Yorktown, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. He then establishes a base to communicate by sea with Gen. Clinton's forces in New York. Gen. Washington abruptly changes plans and abandons the attack on New York in favor of Yorktown after receiving a letter from French Admiral Count de Grasse indicating his entire 29-ship French fleet with 3000 soldiers is now heading for the Chesapeake Bay near Cornwallis. Gen. Washington then coordinates with French Gen. Rochambeau to rush their best troops south to Virginia to destroy the British position in Yorktown. Count de Grasse's French fleet arrives off Yorktown, Virginia. De Grasse then lands troops near Yorktown, linking with French General Lafayette's American troops, to cut Cornwallis off from any retreat by land. The troops of Washington and Rochambeau arrive at Philadelphia.
Off Yorktown, a major naval battle between the French fleet of de Grasse and the outnumbered British fleet of Adm. Thomas Graves results in a victory for de Grasse. The British fleet retreats to New York for reinforcements, leaving the French fleet in control of the Chesapeake. The French fleet establishes a blockade, cutting Cornwallis off from any retreat by sea. French naval reinforcements then arrive from Newport.
In late-September, 1781 Gen. Washington, with a combined Allied army of 17,000 men, begins the siege of Yorktown. French cannons bombard Gen. Cornwallis and his 9000 men day and night while the Allied lines slowly advance and encircle them. British supplies run dangerously low. As Yorktown is about to be taken, the British send out a flag of truce. Gen. Washington and Gen. Cornwallis then work out terms of surrender. As their band plays the tune, “The World Turned Upside Down,” the British army marches out in formation and surrenders at Yorktown. Hopes for a British victory in the war are dashed. Loyalists began leaving America, heading north to Canada. The British withdrew from North Carolina, and the British Parliament votes to negotiate peace with the United States. The British continued to evacuate their forces from America, and left Savannah and Charleston in late-1782.
As representatives hashed out the details to the Peace Treaty, an anonymous letter circulated among Washington’s senior officers encamped at Newburgh, New York. The letter urged the officers to defy the authority of the new United States for failing to honor past promises (pay) to the Continental Army. The next day, Washington promised to hold a meeting to hear the officers’ complaints, but instead, the press reports that Washington has sympathized with the officers. Washington gathered his officers and talked them out of a rebellion, thus preserving the American democracy.
Congress then declared an official end to the war, though angry and unpaid veterans threatened to protest. In September, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed by the United States and Great Britain. In November, George Washington delivered his farewell address and the last American troops were discharged. Washington appeared before congress and resigned his commission, an unheard of event. This action by Washington showed that he was not power-hungry and that he had no intentions of becoming the dictator or military ruler of the new United States.
And yet, in 1784, with the war over, America faced several problems. Before we look at those, however, let’s stop to explore the lives of women and of African Americans during the Revolutionary era.
60-Second Quiz #1. What are some reasons we might consider the American victory unexpected? Which of the following statements about the war is LEAST true?
a. French military assistance was crucial to winning the war
b. American opinion on independence or loyalty to Britain was divided
c. American armies almost always defeated their British foes
d. American soldiers were often poorly equipped, poorly trained, poorly fed, and underpaid
II. African Americans in the Revolutionary Era
The war brought challenges and decisions, and in many cases, opportunities, for African American slaves. I’d like to focus on their experiences in Virginia, South Carolina, and the North, specifically during the war, and then to look at African American life as a whole, after the Revolution to see how it had changed.
A. African Americans in Revolutionary Virginia and the Chesapeake
In Virginia, in the earliest stages of the war, by July 1775, the British Navy was both encouraging and helping slaves to run away. Governor Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation on November 7, 1775 that encouraged all able-bodied blacks to join him, and immediately as many as 800 slaves joined Dunmore’s army in the early stages of the war. Dunmore’s order was less a general emancipation than an offer of freedom to the able-bodied and able to fight. Dunmore was no champion of emancipation.
Though Dunmore fled from Virginia in 1777, by that time, the British had a presence in Virginia and British raids liberated slaves and stirred up blacks. Slaves fled to Gen. Howe’s army, and in the area in-between Virginia Beach, Newport News, Norfolk, etc., British forces disturbed the plantation economy and plundered plantations of tobacco, animals and slaves. More than 30,000 Virginian slaves left their plantations by choice or by force; many white families along the route of Gen. Cornwallis’ troops removed their slaves and livestock to safety; others did not. Cornwallis had over 4,000 slaves with him. Slave society was disrupted and there was a labor shortage.
Virginia authorities, crippled by the loss of slave labor and fearing an uprising, imposed controls to minimize the possibilities for mass escapes and even individual defections. Citizen patrols, surveillance on creeks and rivers, a series of laws, and the Virginia Convention pardoned all fugitives who returned within ten days and approved death or deportation for captured slaves. Swift exemplary punishment, in the form of forced labor and fear, was used to intimidate other slaves from defecting. The Virginia Gazette published warnings to dissuade slaves from escaping. It is probable that owners read the papers to their slaves.
On the other hand, the British were racist toward Africans and African-Americans, too. Though they had a lot to gain, they seldom used blacks in combat. If they did use blacks, they did so at sea and on barges. How could the British woo slaves belonging to American rebels without attracting those belonging to loyalists? How could they induce fear in whites without permanently alienating them? How could they inspire enough black resistance without inciting rebellion against the slave system entirely?
British policy failed. Instead of calling slaves to arms, the British army summoned them to serve. Most blacks held a servile role, as servants and brute laborers, to build dams, clear trash, and to do other jobs that Europeans wouldn’t want. They dug outhouses, buried garbage, and did other straining work. Further, the British army pushed blacks to exert themselves more than usual. Disease, hunger, cruel and inhumane treatment—this was common. Perhaps 500 of Dunmore’s African American members died in seen weeks on Gwynne’s Island. Smallpox hit blacks hard, and Cornwallis had little concern for suffering blacks, especially because he was only concerned with the health of the white British army soldiers.
British armies in VA and NC (especially under Cornwallis) took runaway slaves (meaning they took the slaves from their American masters, to accompany and serve the British Army). Yet the British Army freed slaves (meaning they did not have to serve the British Army) only if they became too expensive to support or supply. The British still believed they needed the labor of slaves and gave them all sorts of promises as to their freedom or their lives after the war. These promises often never materialized, at least not until the end of the war, after the majority of blacks became servants, overworked, underfed, suffering from disease and hoping for a better life.
Dunmore actually disarmed blacks unfit for service, forcing many blacks to return to their owners. Cornwallis allowed whites to search for their slaves in his camp, but only the slaves belonging to Loyalists and passive citizens were given black; those belonging to active patriots remained in British camps. In some instances, British authorities abandoned blacks or turned them out at Yorktown.
Most Virginia slaves stayed on their plantations, but thousands—an estimated 30,000, ran away, expecting a better life. That this happened showed that in Virginia and throughout the Revolutionary War South, resistance to slavery was high. Besides the act of running away, we can also see black resistance to white rule and mistreatment in the realm of religion. In the Chesapeake, only by the late-century did a separate church movement begin. Richard Allen, a slave in Delaware who purchased his freedom in 1777 founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, fed up of the discrimination he faced at his own church.
B. The African American experience in the South
South Carolina and Georgia prohibited the enlistment of blacks in the militia and freed few slaves because they feared a conspiracy. In 1775, a free black harbor pilot in Charleston named “Jerry” or “Jeremiah” was accused on questionable evidence of collecting guns and urging other blacks to start a rebellion. He was quickly hanged and burned. As a result, by 1790, there were less than 2,000 free blacks in Charleston.
In South Carolina, many slaves fled during the war, but planters also stepped up discipline and resorted to brutal and extreme violence, fearing a slave revolt. Some planters relocated their slaves, some sold them West, and some separated men from women. Runaways led raids from Sullivan’s Island (held by the British) against low country plantations early in the way. Unique to South Carolina, slaves often fled in massive groups. Thousands went off on their own hoping to meet up with British troops. Some set up independent communities, others headed west and lived among the Indians. Many fled to Savannah or Charleston where they passed themselves off as free. But urban life for these was dangerous; malaria and smallpox claimed the lives of many slaves. Yet they could easily find jobs—no one questioned or asked them about their origins.
As in Virginia, South Carolina slaves worked for the British military, and often served as entertainers to the British. They worked in British camps as servants, wood choppers, took care of animals, and did cooking and cleaning. It was a difficult life, but many had the hopes of a better life after the war to keep them going.
Some, a minority, had the opportunity to fight. Yet the British were caught between the need to mobilize labor and the fear of alienating land owners who were still loyal to the Crown. There was really no consistent policy among the British. Some harbored slaves, others sent them back, others published lists so loyalists could reclaim them, and some slaves suspected of being runaways, perhaps about 5,000 were simply redistributed, or re-enslaved, to the loyalists Some planters sold their slaves others transported them elsewhere. Some joined bandit gangs. Many refused to leave their plantations because they didn’t want to deal with uncertainty or re-enslavement, or didn’t want to leave their families. For many, it was a difficult decision—did they want to leave their families, or extended families for freedom in Canada? Their homes, plantations, and gardens destroyed during the war, slaves who remained on the plantations often did so until they found themselves staving on the best crop land in North America.
During the war, the slave population decreased in South Carolina from 100,000 to 75,000, meaning 25,000 were lost, escaped, died, or went with the British. In fact, 10,000-12,000 alone left Charleston when the British evacuated. Some were sold to the West Indies, a minority went to England, others went to the loyalists or with the loyalists wherever they went, and others went free.
7,000 Georgia slaves escaped to the British, and others made it to the Spanish or Indians, but for those who remained slave patrols discouraged running away, and with their masters away, they found life on the plantations less intrusive. At the war’s end, the British evacuated Charleston and Savannah, taking with them 12,000 slaves whom they resold into slavery in the West Indies.
After the war, during the early years of the Republic, slavery in the South actually grew in size and strength, protected by the Constitution. Slavery then expanded into the cotton south in the early-1800s. Cotton expanded inland after 1790, and SC and GA slavery increased rapidly as a result.
At the same time, (when the Revolution was over), Americans quickly pushed out Indians and opened westward lands. Men brought slaves with them in the 1780s-90s to Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolina upcountry, and once Spain ceded Mississippi and Alabama, plantations opened there, too. The international slave trade reopened after the war in the South, and from 1788-1808, rapid (forced) immigration brought 100,000 Africans into South Carolina and Georgia. Congress ended the trade January 1, 1808.
When colonists began discussing the position of slavery in their new and democratic society, racism increased with arguments that blacks were biologically inferior. Northern and Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1789 were split; South Carolina and Georgia would not sign the Constitution if slavery were limited. In the final draft, delegates let the slave trade remain until 1808. They also included the 3/5 clause, meaning that states where slavery remained legal (mostly in the south) could count these populations of unfree people at 3/5 the rate of their free (white) populations, for the purposes of determining Congressional representation in the House of Representatives; this also applied for the Electoral College to select the President. Finally, the Constitution included the fugitive slave clause, whereby slaves who escaped from a state where slavery was legal, into a state where slavery was not legal, would still be considered a slave and had to be returned to their masters. As a sign of how divisive the issue of slavery was, there was no mention of the actual word, “slavery,” in the Constitution – they just use euphemisms like “person held to service or labor.”
In the 1790s, free blacks suffered also. Almost all of the northern and middle colonies-turned-states passed laws to eliminate slavery, leaving black populations there free (see below). There were also smaller numbers of free blacks in the southern states. As they became successful in freedom, this challenged racist views that they would never be able to thrive on their own. Several states passed discriminatory laws – special taxes, denial of army membership, denial of voting rights or the right to bear arms. So just because slavery ended in some areas does not mean racism ended with it. By 1800, racial segregation was firmly established, and African Americans were forced to deal with separate, inferior accommodations in churches, restaurants, taverns, schools, cemeteries.
C. The African American Experience in the Revolutionary-era North
In the North, the Revolution made it possible for some blacks to gain their freedom and put an end to slavery north of Maryland and Delaware. Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery when it freed its sixteen slaves in 1776. Yet the American Revolution was full of contradictions for African Americans. The clearest contradiction involved slavery and the ideology of the founding fathers used for breaking with England. A third of the signers of the Declaration were slave owners. Jefferson owed 200 slaves and observed that ending it would have brought political, social, and economic ruin to the slave-owners.
Men and women who were no longer slaves found themselves segregated and ostracized by the rest of society, especially in their churches. America became more racist. If all men were created equal, whites interpreted it as saying that all white men were created equal, and to most whites, all persons of color were less than whites, subhuman.
Before 1770, free blacks made up only 5% of the colonial African American population, and nearly all were in the North. Methodist and Baptist revivals in the 1770s and 1780s caused some guilt-ridden masters to free their slaves or let them buy their freedom. A few owners manumitted (freed) slaves on the condition that they enlist in colonial militia units and some of these northern blacks participated at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill. In 1781, several states granted freedom to slaves willing to serve a three year term and would even compensate their masters.
Many Northern slaves ended their bondage by siding with the British. They carried messages, prepared food, and served as sanitation workers. In 1783, when the British evacuated New York, they took 3,000 slaves with them. Boston King, for example, had served with Cornwallis, then joined a British naval vessel as a crewman, eventually made his way to New York City, and was one of the three thousand that the British took from New York to Nova Scotia.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court declared slavery unconstitutional in 1783 with Commonwealth vs. Jennison. Many states passed gradual abolition laws in the 1780s – New York held out, but the numbers declined. In New England, PA, NY, and NJ, slavery was essentially over by the early-1820s.
Black Society developed differently, but it was possible to see a distinct African American lifestyle emerging.
Most were employed as wage laborers; most stayed close to home at least for a few years.
Most could feel a difference—they felt like new people.
Many changed their names, and rather than nicknames, they adopted Biblical first names or English first and last names.
Many moved to Northern Coast cities for job opportunities. (From 1780-1800, the white population of Philly doubled while the black population increased 6-fold.)
There were more women than men; they worked as domestic servants.
Most men worked in the maritime industry, at shipyards and as dockworkers.
In the cities, a distinct African American culture emerged. There were community churches, clubs, and schools.
Many African Americans in the cities took in single boarders to help make ends meet.
60-second Quiz #2. How should we evaluate the African-American experience of the American Revolution? Which of the following statements it MOST true?
a. Slavery ended everywhere in the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War
b. Free Blacks at the end of the Revolutionary War enjoyed equal treatment under the law and equal participation in American society with whites
c. The British had a uniform policy of freeing any and all slaves they encountered during the Revolutionary War
d. White Americans’ racism toward African-Americans remained after the war, whether directed at slaves or free blacks
III. Women in the Revolution
Historian Linda DePaw’s Women in Combat: The Revolutionary War Experience gives us a similarly insightful take on how white women experienced the American Revolution. Like African-American men and women, white women did not gain as many benefits as white men (though white women were undeniably accorded more rights than African-American men and women). Here we see another point of tension between the stated goals of the American Revolution and its actual effects.
With their men away, new opportunities and responsibilities opened for women: to make crucial decisions and to run their husbands’ affairs. In the absence of their husbands, women assumed the responsibility for running the family finances and businesses. Yet when their husbands returned, the men expected things to revert back to how they had been, and the men felt they knew it all.
At home during the revolution, women faced the uncertainties of wartime—the threats of invasion and disease. Further, in New York and Philadelphia, women were forced to house British officers in their homes. Many loyalist women were forced to flee their homes or even the country, by their husbands.
As Historian Sylvia Frey has written, we do know that women participated in the Continental Army as “women of the army,” enlisted as regular troops, or served irregularly in local militia units or committees of safety, often in female units. Women were involved in war, and have been taken for granted or misrepresented in history.
Women of the army often served as cooks, nurses or laundresses, and while this was difficult work, it was often an opportunity to be with one’s husband. This sort of task might be reserved for middle aged women. Women were also essential to the war effort not only in a domestic way but as support units attached to the medical corps and the artillery. Historians have overlooked the role of female nurses in the Army. Also, “Molly Pitcher” never existed. As the myth goes, Molly Pitcher was a woman who carried water to the soldiers to drink, weaving her way through the battlefield at the Battle of Princeton. In fact, women carried water to gun crews not for drink but for use in swabbing the cannons. (After a round was fired, the gun barrel had to be swabbed to extinguish any remaining sparks, or else the powder charge loaded for the next round could explode prematurely.) Possibly, women could have stepped in to assist the artillery crews if a man became disabled. Nurses and water carriers found themselves in danger.
Some women served as regular troops—as regularly enlisted soldiers – in men’s’ clothing. This does not mean they were lesbians or cross-dressers; instead, like Massachusetts’ Deborah Sampson, they passed themselves off as men in order to contribute to the war. In fact, not all women tried to conceal their sex. If a woman made a good soldier, no one questioned her presence.
Women also saw combat as members of local militia units or committees of safety. We do know that women were active in small units, emergency militia, for example. A shortage of manpower necessitated women in combat. Prudence Wright’s Guard, for instance, guarded the bridge in Pepperell, Mass. with pitchforks and muskets and even detained a British messenger. Such women’s activities were common in the day-to-day experience of the war. Other evidence of small units organized and commanded by women can be found throughout the colonies.
Women were most active in military actions on the frontier, where warfare raged against Native Americans, especially in the South after 1780. Mrs. John Merrill of KY single handedly warded off an Indian invasion of her cabin with an axe. Women used a variety of weapons to defend themselves. There are many examples of women fighting off and wounding attackers. Apparently, hand-to-hand combat was not seen as unfeminine but became a necessary skill. Some women became heroines such as the Indian scout Mad Ann Bailey. Women served at stockades and forts as either women of the army or as members of militia units. As one witness said, women commonly risked their lives for the sake of the military. Thus, women contributed to the war effort in a crucial way.
60-second Quiz #3. How should we characterize white women’s participation in the American Revolution? Which of the following is MOST true?
a. White women only remained in the domestic sphere, unable to run their husband’s businesses or perform military service
b. White women were uniformly welcomed into the public sphere, able to run businesses and serve in the army, even after the war’s conclusion
c. White women enjoyed a temporary acceptance into the public sphere to run businesses and serve in the army during the crisis of the war
d. White women were relegated to only serving as nurses and supervisors of servants
Key for 60-second quizzes:
1. c. American armies regularly lost battles against their British foes; Washington’s ability to make the war drag out (despite losing battles) was important because, if they had wanted to commit more troops and resources to the war, the British could easily have won. But they decided it was too expensive and not worth it.
2. d. Slavery generally ended in the northern states but not the southern ones. Free Blacks at the end of the Revolutionary War faced legal and social discrimination. The British had no uniform policy on slaves – sometimes they freed them, sometimes they promised freedom in exchange for military or domestic service, sometimes they sent slaves back to their masters.
3. c. White women contributed to the war in many ways, sometimes as soldiers, sometimes serving the army by providing ancillary labor; they assumed much of their husbands’ work when the husbands were away fighting; but this period of gender equality (or semi-equality) did not last long past the end of the war.