J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“A young female coming out from the city”

This month’s discussion about the Deborah Champion legend expressed more than a little skepticism about that story of a young woman carrying important military information on horseback.

That tale, and similar stories of riders like Abigail Smith, Sybil Ludington, and Emily Geiger, have strong narrative and cultural appeal. Each offers an individual protagonist and a beginning, middle, and end. Such adventures show young women being active for America—though not, heavens forbid, using weapons themselves.

But just because those particular stories have little evidence to support them doesn’t mean that no young women were active during the war. In fact, there’s good evidence that some were, but, alas, that evidence doesn’t necessarily come neatly packaged as a story.

Here’s a first-person account from Benjamin Tallmadge (1754-1835), an officer in the Continental Army light dragoons from Long Island, New York. It was published first in Jeptha R. Simms’s History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York (1845) and then in the Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (1858). In December 1777 Tallmadge (shown above in a portrait based on a sketch by John Trumbull) was a twenty-three-year-old major attached to the Continental Army at Valley Forge. His mounted unit received an assignment that called on their ability to travel fast and light. Tallmadge wrote:
being informed that a country girl had gone into Philadelphia, with eggs, instructed to obtain some information respecting the enemy, I moved my detachment to Germantown, where they halted, while, with a small detachment, I advanced several miles towards the British lines, and dismounted at a tavern called the Rising Sun, in full view of their out-posts.

Very soon I saw a young female coming out from the city, who also came to the same tavern. After we had made ourselves known to each other, and while she was communicating some intelligence to me, I was informed that the British light horse were advancing. Stepping to the door, I saw them at full speed chasing in my patrols, one of whom they took.

I immediately mounted, when I found the young damsel close by my side, entreating that I would protect her. Having not a moment to reflect, I desired her to mount behind me, and in this way I brought her off more than three miles up to Germantown, where she dismounted.

During the whole ride, although there was considerable firing of pistols, and not a little wheeling and charging, she remained unmoved, and never once complained of fear after she mounted my horse.

I was delighted with this transaction, and received many compliments from those who became acquainted with it.
That was apparently Tallmadge’s introduction to the world of intelligence. Eventually Gen. George Washington asked him to run the spy ring inside New York. Tallmadge was extremely circumspect about those activities when he composed that memoir for his children. Though his other papers include documents revealing his intelligence activities, including a codebook, in his memoir he wrote only that Gen. Washington “requested me to take charge of a particular part of his private correspondence.”

The Rising Sun tavern between Philadelphia and Germantown may have been a regular rendezvous point for exchanging intelligence in the winter of 1777-78. Commissary of prisoners Elias Boudinot wrote in his journal about going there to meet “a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman” who passed him important news hidden in “a dirty old needle book, with various small pockets in it.” John Nagy’s Spies in the Continental Capital offers strong evidence to support the family tradition that woman was Lydia Darragh, born in Ireland in 1729.

As for the young woman Tallmadge met, we don’t know her name. We don’t know the information she provided. At that stage in his career, Tallmadge probably wasn’t privy to the details, and later he learned to keep his mouth shut.

Since we don't know that young woman’s name or her mission or the results, we don’t have quite enough information make a compelling true story out of her three-mile ride with “considerable firing of pistols, and not a little wheeling and charging.” Which is a pity, because it seems to have really happened.

[This is an updated version of the posting that appeared on 1 Dec 2006.]


Historian said...

Jeptha R. Simms was a purveyor of legend, myth and fantasy. While there may be some actual facts among his work determining what is truth and what is not is a major undertaking.

J. L. Bell said...

Definitely. Elsewhere I've written about the unreliability of what Simms wrote about Capt. Thomas Machin, though I believe he was reproducing what that veteran's family told him.

In this case, Simms quoted from the Tallmadge diary, and his text matched what was transcribed and printed on its own a few years later.