Appendix ii

2) Reluctant Heroines

The woman most often associated with Baroness Riedesel’s wifely virtues–especially in the nineteenth century–is Lady Christian Henrietta Caroline Acland, called Lady Harriet. When she died on July 21, 1815, the Gentleman’s Magazine intoned: “While conjugal affection is esteemed a virtue, and sincere attachment deemed amiable in the female character, the conduct of this lady must call forth the admiration of mankind.” The third surviving daughter of the first Earl of Ilchester, born on January 3, 1749-50, she married John Dyke Acland in November 1770. Her husband, the eldest son of Sir Thomas Acland, was an ambitious and bellicose man who powered his way into Parliament in 1774. Acland represented the most extreme English view of the American problem: he opposed the slightest show of leniency toward the rebels, and was pleased to take a commission and prosecute the war against them.

When Major Acland was assigned to Burgoyne in Canada, Lady Harriet–a woman of “warm and romantic affections”–followed. In addition to the hardships of camp life that Baroness Riedesel describes, the Aclands ran into a string of hard luck. Acland fell ill at Sorel, where Lady Harriet cared for him in a hut; he was wounded at Hubbardton and she went to him at Skenesborough from Montreal; they were nearly burned to death when a pet dog overturned a candle and set fire to their tent. At the second Battle of Saratoga Lady Harriet was camped in a tent not far from the farmhouse in which Mrs. Riedesel stayed when word was brought to her that Major Acland’s grenadiers had been overrun and the Major wounded and captured. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine, Lady Harriet at once “resolved to fly to his assistance” and Mrs. Riedesel speaks of urging her twice to go to him. The Baroness thought the Major “a rough fellow… drunk almost every day, but nevertheless a brave officer,” and persuaded the English woman to go to him the following evening.

Lady Harriet received permission to cross the lines from Burgoyne, who later wrote that he was “astonished” by her “patience and fortitude” which he believed “above human nature.” With Burgoyne’s letter to Gates she set out in an open boat on the Hudson with Chaplain Bredenel, a maid, and Acland’s valet, who had been wounded while searching for the Major on the battlefield. They traveled several hours in a violent rainstorm before they were hailed by a sentry at one of Gates’ outposts and taken to General Gates. Burgoyne later recalled that the Americans forced Lady Harriet to remain in the open boat “for seven or eight dark and cold hours,” but Burgoyne of course was not present and it seems that the delay was only a matter of minutes. Gates saw to it that she was reunited with her husband and they were removed to Albany that the Major might be properly cared for. Gates in fact wrote to Burgoyne (who had burned American houses in his retreat) contrasting his own generosity to the “vindictive malice” of the British, who endeavored to “ruin those they could not conquer.”

Acland was paroled and traveled to New York in the winter of 1777 and the Aclands returned to England the following spring. Legend has it that Major Acland was killed defending the reputation of American courage in a duel with a Lieutenant Lloyd and that Lady Harriet was for two years after insane. After her recovery, it is said, she married Chaplain Brudenel, who had accompanied her when she crossed the lines at Saratoga. In fact, however, the Major died unromantically in bed of natural causes shortly after his return to England, and Lady Harriet remained a widow, seeing their son John succeed to his father’s title, and their daughter, Elizabeth Kitty, well-married to Lord Porchester, later the second Earl of Carnarvon. After thirty-seven years of virtuous widowhood, she died at Telton on July 21, 1815.

Flora MacDonald was not so pious a lady as Lady Acland or Baroness Riedesel, nor was she their social equal as the eighteenth century understood status. She was the daughter of ne’er-do-well Scottish country gentry; her mother Marion MacDonald, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and her father, Ranald MacDonald, a tacksman on the island of South Uist in the Hebrides, where Flora was born in 1722. Her father, however, died while she was an infant, and four years later her mother married yet another MacDonald, Hugh MacDonald of Armadale. Fora’s entire girlhood was spent on the island and is without remarkable incident.

Flora is chiefly remembered as the great Jacobite heroine who aided the escape of Charles Edward Stuart from Scotland in 1746. Bonnie Prince Charlie had come to Scotland in 1745 hoping to draw the clans to the standard of his father, James Stuart, and march into England. The romantic young Pretender was enormously popular among the Highlanders and had marched within nearly a hundred miles of London when the Duke of Cumberland reached England from France with an army twice the size of the Scots’, forcing the Prince to retreat northward. In the spring of 1746 the Duke of Cumberland caught up with the Jacobites at Culloden Moor and desolated their ranks. Charles, who had vowed to conquer or die, chose the better part of valor and ran.

But “Butcher” Cumberland’s men were at his heels and the English fleet searched the coast for a traitor with thirty-thousand pounds on his head. An Irish Colonel, Felix O’Neil, who had gone underground with Charles, came to Flora in May of 1746 to persuade her to help the Prince. Flora agreed–with some reluctance–to try to slip Charles past the English disguised as “Betty Burke, an Irish spinning-maid.” Evidently the plan was improbably enough to succeed and Charles fled to France in July 1746. Flora’s part in the Pretender’s escape, however, was discovered and she was arrested at Castleton in July. She spent a year in prison–not the Tower of London, but a “messenger’s house,” a kind of genteel prison. The Act of Indemnity in July 1747 freed Flora, and the Jacobite heroine returned to South Uist.

In November of 1750 Flora married Allan MacDonald, who had been, ironically, a lieutenant in the service of the Duke of Cumberland. Allan, a handsome though rather dull man, had hoped for a military career, but with the English victory at Culloden the militia had been disbanded, and his attempt to get a commission from the Dutch proved fruitless. He resigned himself to taking a tack at Flodigarry on the Isle of Skye. Times were hard, however, and the MacDonalds did not prosper: even for raising cattle the land was poor–Dr. Johnson had noted its “hopeless sterility”; beef prices fell and crops failed. The MacDonalds also had a growing family: Charles (surely named for the Prince) was born in 1751, Ann in 1754, Alexander in 1775, Ranald in 1756, James in 1757, John in 1759, and Frances in 1766. Allan was not an able administrator and his debts by 1770 were beyond dealing with. In 1774 the MacDonalds did what thousands of other Scots had already done: they emigrated to America. As Flora put it, they were going to “begin the world again, anewe, in anothere corner of it.”

In the spring of 1775 Allan and Flora settled on a 475-acre farm in Anson (now Montgomery) County, North Carolina, where there were already large numbers of Scottish settlers. But if the Scots had escaped problems in the Old World, they faced a new set in America. About the time the MacDonalds landed on the Carolina coast, General Thomas Gage had closed the port of Boston under the Coercive Acts. In September and October of 1774 the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and urged the colonies to form their own militia. In Virginia in March 1775 Patrick Henry gave his “Liberty, or Death” address. On May 3, 1775, news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord on April 19 reached North Carolina and the Whig Committees of Safety began military preparation at once. The Royal Governor, Josiah Martin, anticipating an attack on his mansion at New Bern fled to Fort Johnston. Allan called a meeting of the leading Highlanders in June to decide upon some common action. Most of the Highlanders–perhaps remembering the price of rebellion they paid at Culloden–remained loyal, and Flora’s decision to support the English King had a good deal of influence in swaying the undecided. Tradition has it that Flora spoke persuasively for the Loyalist cause at balls and that she once mounted a white horse and exhorted a company of Highlanders; but she seems to have been more interested in coming up on the winner’s side than in the politics of rebellion. Moreover, Flora was, as her letters reveal, an uneducated woman and not anything like a forceful propagandist. If she was a heroine, she was a reluctant one.

Allan, however, who had always wanted a military career, now had his opportunity. He accepted a commission from Governor Martin and raised a company of untrained and untested Highlanders. On February 18, 1776, with a party of 1,500 under the command of General Donald MacDonald, Allan marched with his Highlanders in kilts and plaids with pipes skirling and drums rattling. Their objective was Brunswick, but, unhappily for the Tory cause and Allan’s career, the Rebels under Colonel James Moore had fortified the bridge at Moore’s Creek. The Highlanders reached the bridge at dawn on February 28 and with a vanguard of picked men with broad swords they rushed forward in the half-light. With pipers and drummers and Colonel Donald MacLeod’s incongruous battle-cry “King George and broadswords!” the Scots reached the bridge to find that the Rebels had pulled up the planks and greased the sleepers. Three minutes later it was all over: 50 Highlanders were shot or drowned, 850 taken prisoner. The Whigs captured 1,500 rifles, 300 muskets, 13 wagons with horses, and 15,000 pounds sterling. The Highlanders who survived fled in wild disorder but were overtaken a few miles away. The victory inflated the spirits of North Carolina Whigs and their Provincial Congress became the first legislature to vote explicitly for independence. Allan MacDonald was among those taken prisoner that day; he described the engagement as a “check.”

Allan spent the better part of the next two years in a Philadelphia jail while Flora remained in troubled Anson County, where Whig and Tory took turns raiding each other’s farms. The Whigs, however, got the upper hand soon enough and it went hard for Flora. Referring to herself in the third person (a habit of hers) she described her situation in a letter to John MacPherson:

Mrs. Flora McDonald being all this time in misery and sickness at home, being
informed that her husband and friends were all killed or taken, contracted a severe
fever, and was dayly oppressed with stragling partys of plunderers from their Army,
and night robbers who more than once threatened her life, wanting a confession
where her husband’s money was. Her servants deserted her, and such as stayed
grew so very insolent that they were of no service to her.

In 1777 the North Carolina Provincial Congress required an oath of allegiance; Flora refused to take it and their estate was confiscated. She stayed with relatives in Cumberland County until Allan was paroled in 1779 and she was reunited with him in New York.

Allan, however, had not learned any lessons at Moore’s Creek and took another commission, this time a captaincy in the 84th Regiment stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Flora followed him to Halifax, but she was weak from the journey and homesick for Scotland, and returned in the summer of 1779. Allan remained in Nova Scotia and was fortunate to avoid action; the soldier who had seen three minutes of battle in the American Revolution was awarded 3,000 acres in Nova Scotia (which he sold) and returned to Skye in 1784.

Flora’s closing years were quiet and reasonably comfortable–her sons were more successful than their father and sent money to help her resettle at Skye. She, who nearly a half-century earlier had helped a Prince escape the block, died a peaceful death on March 4, 1790. The Jacobites, however, had not forgotten their heroine: there were a dozen pipers in the funeral procession that stretched for more than a mile and at the feasting afterward the mourners drank more than 300 gallons of whiskey. Dr. Johnson wrote that her “name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honor.”

But history has largely forgotten most of the women caught up in the turbulence of the Revolution, and especially those who followed the common soldier on both sides of the conflict. That the life of the common English soldier was worse that a dog’s was proverbial in the eighteenth century: he was ill-fed, ill-paid, ill-clad, and medical attention was for all intents and purposes a fiction. The fellow that enlisted was “most likely to be either desperate or drunk”–probably both. When he was mustered in he might find his officers generous and humane, like General Riedesel, but he was more likely to find them obsessed with their own advancement and unconcerned with his lot, like General Burgoyne. When he was mustered out, he might have to beg his way home, as an old song describes:

We be soldiers three,
Pardonnez-moi je vous en prie,
Lately come back from the Low Countrie,
With never a penny of money.

And if the English soldier’s life was hard, the lot of the women who followed him was at least as grim. Most of the wives and mistresses on the strength of the regiments sailed with the baggage of the army in the foul, suffocating, vermin-ridden hold of fourth and fifth-rate British ships. Their status in the eyes of the British command is clear: they are often referred to in the standing orders as “baggage.” That most of these women survived the two-month crossing is surprising; that children came into the world under these conditions is astonishing.

When the camp followers reached land things were somewhat better. Their rations were increased to something like subsistence levels: women received half the portion of an underfed soldier and children a quarter. There was also fresh air at least, though quarters were nearly as cramped as they were aboard ship. Sergeant Roger Lamb, who was with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Boston in 1775, notes that it “was not infrequent for thirty or forty persons, men, women, and children, to be indiscriminately crowded together in one small, miserable, open hut; a scanty portion of straw their bed, their own blankets their only covering.” Under these conditions the women toiled, cooking, washing, sewing, nursing, carrying. In a letter to Mercy Warren, Hannah Winthrop described the tattered women captured with Burgoyne at Saratoga:

I never had the least Idea that the Creation produced such a sordid set of creatures in
human Figure–poor, dirty, emaciated men, great numbers of women, who seemed to be
the beasts of burthen, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent
double, the contents seemed to be Pots and Kettles, various sorts of Furniture, children
peeping thro’ gridirons and other utensils, some very young Infants who were born on
the road, the women in bare feet, cloathed in dirty rags, such effluvia filled the air while
they were passing, had they not been smoaking all the time, I should have been
apprehensive of being contaminated by them.

This in essence was the portion of the vast numbers of women who followed the British army. Part of the problem was that women followed in numbers far greater than the ration quotas allowed. The British generally permitted two or three women to draw rations with each company (about fifty men), but a count of the British army in New York in December 1779 shows 4,000 men, 1,550 women and 968 children. The Royal Artillery, counted in 1781 on its way home, numbered 515 men, 133 women and 120 children. When Ethan Allan and Benedict Arnold took Ticonderoga they captured a detachment of the 26th Regiment, which included 35 rank and file and 24 women and children; at Crown Point they discovered eight soldiers and ten women and children.

Besides the obviously encumbering effect so many women and children had on British military operations, the camp followers had a parallel effect on military discipline. Forced to feed themselves and their children, many women found there was a fair living to be made in the rum trade. It was a hard-drinking age and it was thought that a daily ration of rum was essential to a soldier’s well-being. Burgoyne’s army received a supply of 125,000 gallons in 1776, and in 1781 the Commissary General’s Department reported that it had paid 359,573 pounds for 1,595,775 gallons of rum over a three-year period–more than it paid for beef, pork, bread and flour over the same period! That there was money to be made selling rum when so much was given away speaks volumes for the thirst of the British army.

The British command made a show of controlling the rum trade, but it was in vain (perhaps because the officers drank their share as well). Burgoyne strictly ordered that “any person presuming to Traffick with the Troops without a proper permit in writing, or who shall abuse such permit by retailing Liquors to Soldiers or Indians, will be punished with severity.” Evidently the language of the threat had little force. On July 7, 1777, after a drunken fist fight between the English and Germans under his command, he wrote of the “Harmony which has hitherto so happily reigned between the two Nations, and which must continue… unless violated by intoxication or misapprehension.” The constant references to the “scandalous drunkeness of the troops” and to women who, “in defiance of all order, sell rum and other spiritous liquors to the soldiers” suggest that the standing orders were very ill-obeyed.

The inevitable sexual alliances made possible by the large number of women in camp also hindered military operations. In this, British officers set the example: Sir William Howe dallied with Elizabeth Loring, the wife of his Commissary General, while Washington’s helpless army escaped from Long Island; Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne had high times with the wife of his commissary while the Americans cut off his retreat from Saratoga. The lesser warriors patronized the large numbers of prostitutes–American and British–who followed the troops. Also, Loyalist daughters along the line of March or in towns where the British were stationed frequently enjoyed their gallantry–often contracting “scarlet fever” from the redcoats as the wages of sin. As the numbers of the British army increased by picking up women along the way, they decreased as soldiers deserted to set up housekeeping with women they met. A Hessian officer observed: “At all the places through which we passed dozens of girls were met with on the road, who either laughed at us mockingly, or now and then roguishly offered us an apple… the fair sex were the cause of our losing some of our comrades.” Tory fathers, it seems, took Poor Richard’s advice to heart: “Marry your son when you will, but your daughter when you can.”

An interesting legend has grown up in connection with Hessian deserters. The community of dull, swarthy-skinned mountain people who still live not fifty miles from Manhattan in the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey are known as the Jackson Whites. They are said to be the descendants of Hessian deserters, Tuskarora Indians, and large numbers of the 3,500 prostitutes Captain Jackson is alleged to have brought to America to service British soldiers. The legend does in a sense reflect a historical fact: Hessian deserters did marry and settle in America. Captain Jackson’s 3,500 prostitutes are purely fictional, however, and the Jackson Whites turn out to be descendants of African slaves emancipated by the Dutch in the seventeenth century.

But a soldier hardly had to desert to find female companionship. William Howe–with wonderful hypocrisy–denounced the “profligacy and dissipation and lack of subordination” of his troops and established severe measures against the soldiers’ visits to the camp women. The fact that orders against the redcoats’ nightly visits were continually repeated suggests that they were as successful as his measures against rum-selling. Burgoyne ordered his officers to “have the Rolls called at uncertain hours of the night, that they might have immediate notice of the absent men.” With 2,000 women in camp, Burgoyne’s officers no doubt discovered more than one empty bed. “It would seem,” Belcher observes, “as if all warriors of the correct model went on campaign with sword in one hand, a lass on the disengaged arm, and a bottle knocking up against his cartridge box rearwards.”

American military discipline was not as troubled by problems arising from camp followers–American women simply did not follow in the numbers that followed the British. One Colonel Huntington at the siege of Boston was “oblig’d to use a spy glass” just to catch a glimpse of a woman. Colonel Israel Hutchinson, however, found it necessary to inspect the women’s quarters that “the Wheat may be selected from the Tares (if any be found)” and to prohibit “Strolling that way after Sun set.” Similarly, General Artemas Ward in June 1775 ordered that “all possible care be taken that no lewd women come into camp.” That same year two women practicing the oldest profession were drummed out of camp. Washington at Valley Forge discovered that the charms of Philadelphia women were seducing his hapless soldiers from their duty: the most “pernicious consequences” have arisen, he wrote, “from suffering persons, women in particular, to pass and repass from Philadelphia to camp… to entice the soldiers to desert; All Officers are desired to exert their utmost endeavor to prevent such interviews in future.” A month later Washington found it necessary to repeat the order.

The central problems Washington had with the camp women were not, however, problems of sexual and alcoholic excess; women and children simply encumbered the progress of his untrained and largely undisciplined army. Women weighed down the wagons carrying ammunition and supplies to the front; they refused to stay in the line of march, reducing the army’s rate of advance to a crawl. In August 1777 Washington wrote that “the multitude of women… especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement.” Officers were to “use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary,” and to admit any new women was “positively forbidden.” With his almost incredible attention to detail, Washington ordered the women marching with his army through Philadelphia to take a parallel route and avoid the main thoroughfare. The army had not got far down Front Street, however, when the “camp followers poured after their soldiers again, their hair flying, their brows beady from the heat, their belongings slung over one shoulder, chattering and yelling in sluttish shrills as they went, and spitting in the gutters.” They must have resembled remarkably Hannah Winthrop’s portrait of Burgoyne’s camp women.

American women by and large did not, however, play a primary role in the American Revolution, and their secondary social status does not fully account for it. When the French Revolution erupted a decade later, hungry women rioted in the streets of Paris and many were among the Republicans who stormed the Bastille. Olympe de Gourges struggled with the Girondists when they were crushed and went herself to the guillotine in 1793. Charlotte Corday, the famous courtesan, called herself a Republican, but embittered by the violence of the revolution, murdered the enfeebled Marat in his bath. She too went to the guillotine. Madame Roland, known as “the Queen of the Gironde,” had large influence during the Terror, which proved her undoing. She was imprisoned, where she read Plutarch and Tacitus, studied English, wrote and sketched. She went to the guillotine, like Nathan Hale to the noose, with deathless words on her lips. “O Liberty,” she cried, “what crimes are committed in thy name!” Carlyle wrote that she shone in the “black wreck of things like a white Grecian statue.”

If we do not have heroines of this stature in the American tradition, however, it is not because American women were spiritless drabs. In October of 1777 some twenty women of Hartford, Connecticut, outraged by a shortage of sugar, marched on a store in “martial array and excellent order, saving stride and gabble” and bore away in triumph over two hundred pounds of sugar destined for the army. A hapless gentleman falling in with their rear was mistaken for the owner of the spoils. He was “attacked and drove with great fury.” Another incident involved a Connecticut quilting frolic in October of 1775, at which a young man had the poor judgment to cast aspersions on the Continental Congress. The ladies fell upon him, stripped him to the waist, and decorated him with molasses and feathers. Elsewhere, The Virginia Gazette for April 20, 1776, reports that a mob of angry women nearly tarred and feathered the mother of a ten-day-old child. The woman had named the child after the British General Thomas Gage, and only the pleas of the distracted father persuaded the mob to relent. In Boston Patriot women were bold enough to spit on the Baroness Frederika von Riedesel, and one woman the Baroness spoke to assured her that she would cheerfully cut the King’s heart from his breast and eat it.