December 2, 1777, a Quaker woman named Lydia Darragh went out for a bag of flour and saved the American Revolution.
A little background; early in the revolutionary war the Continental Army was batting about .500 but George Washington was hitting way below average. He worried about keeping the Army together. They were short of rations and pay and winter was coming. He had abandoned New York City to the British and now, in September of 1777, with William Howe, the Commander in Chief of the British Army, marching on him, he was about to give up Philadelphia too.
When Howe marched Philly it was a mess. The Continental Army had looted the city on the way out. The folks who stayed behind were welcoming enough; Loyalists and Quakers who were pacifists. But the population was 75% women and children, mostly poor, some infirm and everyone was short on food, fuel, clothing and medicine.
Still, Howe figured Philadelphia was as good a place as any to hibernate. There were some pretty sweet cribs abandoned by wealthy patriots as they fled and after a few British wins along the Delaware River, supplies were beginning to pour in. So word gets around, the Redcoats can go ahead and let their hair down and get this party started.
Still, Howe was uneasy. He was getting some pressure from the crown. The monarchy was disappointed he hadn’t wrapped this thing up. So, he decided to make one more run at Washington’s Army before settling in for the winter. He calls all his commanders together for a meeting. He commandeers a house to use for meetings. He knocks on the front door and says, “Hey, we need your ballroom to do a little planning.” The Lady of the house, Lydia Darragh says, “Sure. C’mon in. My daughters and I were going to bed anyway.”
Howe and his commanders concoct a plan to go after Washington’s cold, vulnerable, dispirited army. They decide to send 5000 troops, 11 caissons and 13 cannon. All the while, Lydia was hiding in a nearby closet writing 5000 troops, 11 caissons …
Now Lydia is a Quaker and a pacifist and probably would have stayed out of it if it wasn’t for the fact that her oldest son had gone full-on Patriot and joined the Continental Army. So she had a dog in this fight. Plus, she was a little disillusioned with the British Army. Quakers don’t gamble, drink, dance or go to shows but these British soldiers were doing all that and more.
This very brave young housewife says she needs a bag of flour and walks through several British checkpoints carrying documents that could get her hung and finds a well known sympathizer who hurries the intelligence to Washington who has time to mount a defense before the British march his way!
A British inquiry concluded, “One thing is certain, the enemy had notice of our coming, were prepared for us, and we marched back like a parcel of fools. The walls must have ears.”
The British investigators even questioned Lydia Darragh but in the 18th Century it was widely believed that women just didn’t have the head for all that complicated man business like spying and warfare. Besides, she reminded them, she’d gone to bed early. Lydia was never found out. Howe was relieved of his command and Washington marched off to spend the winter at Valley Forge.