Monday, October 2, 2017

Lydia Darrah, an Unlikely Spy

By Paisley Kirkpatrick
"She was dead for 38 years before the world learned of Lydia Darragh, the heroic woman who saved George Washington's revolutionary army over 200 years ago. The archives of the University of California at Berkeley, California, show only a few published references to the incident that besieged Philadelphia during the bitter winter of 1777.
There is enough information in the stacks on the American Revolution to reconstruct the startling affair that gave the nation one of its earliest and unlikeliest spies -- a delicate, righteous Quaker lady.
Philadelphia was in enemy hands the night of December 2nd. 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, tender nurse and midwife. However, 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. In fact, her son Charles was an officer in the revolutionary army and was rebuked for this later.
The adjutant general informed the woman that she and her family were under orders to retire early that night because he and his staff were to have a council. The archives show she and the family went to bed at 7 o'clock as directed, but Mrs. Darragh's curiosity was aroused by the urgency of the general's orders and she couldn't sleep. The minutes dragged by. Finally, she slipped downstairs and pressed her ear to the keyhole of the council chambers. She overheard an order for all British troops to march and attack General Washington's despairing army in two nights' time. She rushed back to her bedroom in turmoil because of the threat she'd overheard.
A militant believer in the American fight for independence, she decided on a desperate course of action. General Washington must be informed of the British plan. The morning of December 4th, she told her family they needed flour, and with this excuse, 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, and then pressed deep into American held territory, where she met Lt. Col. Thomas Craig of the Light Horse, an officer she happened to know.
After extracting a promise that her identity be kept secret, the woman confided the momentous secret gleaned at the keyhole. 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. Darrah, a thoroughly confounded adjutant general later confronted her in her house. Fearing her secret had been exposed, the woman's blood ran cold with terror.
"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 fool," the British general said.
Mrs. Darrah 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 were 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'm entirely at a loss to imagine who gave General Washington information of our intended attack, unless the walls of this house could speak."
Mrs. Darrah went back into her kitchen with a tight smile on her lips.


  1. Paisley, how sad that we never heard of Mrs. Darrah in American history class, at least I didn't. What a remarkable, brave woman! Thank you for sharing her story with us.

    1. It would have been nice if we heard about more women in history. This one was in my mother's box of family links when she did our genealogy so she might share a family tree with me. :)

  2. I have heard this account of this remarkable Quaker woman alerting Gen. Washington of an intended attack, but I had forgotten her name. What an extraordinary act of bravery for her to do risk her life for the sake of Independence.
    Good post, Paisley.

    1. I love hearing about the bravery of the American women. She definitely was exceptional.

  3. This was a new name and a new story to me. It's wonderful. Thanks for sharing her heroism with us.

  4. Thank you, Celia. I love stories like this, especially if they're true.

  5. A fascinating story, Paisley. A brave woman, not afraid to do what she could, no matter the danger, for what she believed in.

    1. Thank you, Cheri. We are asked to make our heroines strong. This is a good example. :)


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