She was dead for 38 years before the world learned of Lydia Darragh, the heroic woman who saved George Washington’s revolutionary army 231 years ago.
The archives of the University of California at Berkeley show only a few references to the incident in besieged Philadelphia during the bitter winter of 1777 when a delicate, righteous Quaker lady became one of the most unlikely spies of the Revolutionary War.
Philadelphia was in enemy hands the night of December 2. Washington and his ragged, starving men were shivering at Valley Forge when the Irish-born woman was called before the British officer who had requisitioned her house. Sternly, the unnamed adjutant general confronted the 48-year old woman who was known in the community as a skillful and tender nurse and midwife. But she had another reputation. Mrs. Darragh was under a cloud in the Society of Friends for her membership in the Fighting Quakers, a group which rejected the sect’s strict requirement of pacifism. The adjutant general informed her that she and her family were under orders to retire early that night because he and his staff were to have a council.
Accordingly, she and the family went to bed at 7 o’clock. Her curiosity aroused by the urgency of the general’s orders, Mrs. Darragh could not sleep. The minutes dragged by. Finally she slipped downstairs and pressed her ear to the keyhole of the council chamber. She overheard an order for all British troops to march two nights later and attack General Washington’s despairing army. She rushed back to her bedroom in turmoil over the threat she had overheard.
A militant believer in the American fight for independence, she decided on a desperate course of action. General Washington must learn of the British plan. The morning of December 4, she told her family they needed flour, and with this story she succeeded in getting a pass to go through British lines to Frankford. Not daring to tell even her husband of her mission, she went to the mill at Frankford, got the flour, then pressed on deep into American-held territory, where she met an officer she happened to know, Lt. Col. Thomas Craig of the Light Horse.
Taking him aside, the woman confided the momentous secret gleaned at the keyhole, after extracting a promise that her identity be kept secret. The startled officer sped off to Washington’s freezing encampment and told the commander in chief the British were planning a surprise attack.
That evening, General Sir William Howe marched out of Philadelphia with a strong force to destroy the American revolutionary army. As reported in the American Quarterly Review of March, 1827 from narrative accounts by Mrs. Darragh, a thoroughly confounded adjutant general later confronted her in her house. The woman’s blood ran cold with terror, fearing her secret was out.
Said the British general “...When we arrived near Whitemarsh, we found all their cannons mounted and the troops prepared to receive us. We marched back like a parcel of fools.”
Mrs. Darragh waited for the blow to fall, perhaps an order for her execution. As if in response to her unspoken thought, the general earnestly inquired whether any of her family was up the night he and the other officers had their meeting. Then he added: “I know YOU were asleep, for I knocked at your chamber door…I am entirely at a loss to imagine who gave General Washington information of our intended attack, unless the walls of the house could speak.”
The petite Quakeress went back to her kitchen, a tight smile on her lips.
Written by Jack Schreibman, Associated Press writer, 1938