Watching the “Story of Us,” I was reminded of the brave women who helped win our independence. One such woman was given a pension by George Washington because of her invaluable “spy network,” while she lived among the enemy that had occupied her lands. Anna Smith Strong devised, what became known later as, “wash line signals,” ways to send signals across the bay.

Anna Strong, Agent 355, hung laundry on the clothesline in a code formation to direct Abraham Woodhull to the correct location. A black petticoat was the signal that Caleb Brewster was nearby, and the number of handkerchiefs scattered among the other garments on the line showed the meeting place. Using the most ordinary of personal items and improvising on the most ordinary of personal tasks, Strong made an extraordinary contribution to the cause of freedom and was granted a stipend pension at the end of the war.

It was the spy network that I found the most fascinating and which, with the French Navy’s help, was key in turning the tide of the war. The Patriots had devised a new invisible ink and other clever ways to pass information or “non-information” through the network. 

Agent 355 
355 was the numeric substitution code designation used by the Setauket Spy Ring to represent the word woman. This agent was referred to simply as 355 to protect her work and life. She supplied timely and accurate information to General Washington, played an important role in counterintelligence missions that uncovered Benedict Arnold’s treason, and facilitated the arrest of Major John André, head of England’s Intelligence Operations in New York.

On June 5, 1776, the Congress appointed John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Edward Rutledge, James Wilson, and Robert Livingston “to consider what is proper to be done with persons giving intelligence to the enemy or supplying them with provisions.” The same Committee was charged with revising the Articles of War in regard to espionage directed against the patriot forces. There was no civilian espionage act, and military law did not provide punishment severe enough to afford a deterrent, in the judgment of Washington and other Patriot leaders. On November 7, 1775, the Continental Congress added the death penalty for espionage to the Articles of War.

Then there was Sybil Ludington, 16 year old daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington, who, like Paul Revere, rode a forty mile circuit through the night, alerting the patriot neighbors of a planned attack on Danbury CT. Although they arrived too late to save some from British torches, they did manage to harry the British soldiers back to Long Island Sound.

There were women who changed their names and identities so they could become soldiers. It was only discovered when they were being treated for war wounds. Robert Shurtlieff had been invented three years earlier by Deborah Samson (sometimes spelled Sampson), a 20-something girl recently freed from indenture on a farm. A dedicated patriot, she was determined to join the Continental Army, and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

Samson took well to Army life. So well, in fact, that her fellow soldiers teased her for being unable to grow a beard by calling her “Molly,” but apparently never suspected the truth behind the name. She was injured in battle several times, always refusing medical care for fear that her secret would be discovered. She received a small stipend pension.

Esther Deberdt Reed and Sara Franklin Bache (Ben’s daughter) from Philadelphia raised funds for Washington’s army, $300,000 in fact and asked him how it should be spent. Besides in-kind donations of leather pants and shoes, with Washington’s urging, they bought linen cloth and set out to sew shirts and warm clothing that was needed. Reed anonymously published a broadsheet entitled “Sentiments of an American Woman.” The treatise encouraged politically minded women to show their patriotism by offering material support to American soldiers, and inspired movements similar to the one in Philadelphia throughout the Colonies. 

During the Revolution, women followed along behind the armies on both sides. These camp followers, often the wives or female relatives of soldiers, did laundry, mended clothing, cooked and took on other chores in exchange for food and shelter. However, a few ventured out of the camps and onto the battlefield. Margaret Corbin was one of them.

Corbin’s husband handled ammunition for a cannon, and she assisted him. In the fall of 1776, they were stationed at Fort Washington, New York when the fort was attacked by British troops. The man operating the cannon was killed, and Corbin’s husband quickly took his place, with Corbin taking over the ammunition duties. At the end of the war she was granted a stipend pension by the Continental Congress, but half of that of soldiers pay.

Spy on a mssion.

This is just a small sample of how the women helped win the war of independence. Same goes for the Civil War, women always show up and do what needs to be done. General Washington knew it then that women are the backbone of any conflicts. Showing up, that’s what it takes!

Redcoats and Petticoats, Women Patriots of the Revolutionary War
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