How many Generals can say that a housewife saved their life? Not many, I’m sure. Most housewives would never get near enough to a general in combat to do anything, but in the 1700s, things were different. Of course, it wasn’t like Philadelphia housewife and nurse Lydia Darragh, got out there and fought along-side General Washington and his Continental Army, but she was, nevertheless, able to single-handedly save their lives when she overheard the British planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army for the following day. Some say this is just a legend, and I guess we will never know for sure, but the story has endured for 240 years, which says something to me.
This historic event happened on December 2, 1777, during the occupation of Philadelphia. British General William Howe had stationed his headquarters across the street from the Darragh home. When Howe’s headquarters proved too small to hold meetings, he commandeered a large upstairs room in the Darraghs’ house. Although uncorroborated, family legend holds that Mrs. Darragh used to eavesdrop and take notes on the British meetings from an adjoining room and would conceal the notes by sewing them into her coat before passing them onto American troops stationed outside the city. It was a critical mistake on the part of the British, and the ingenious way of passing the information worked very well for the patriots.
On the evening of December 2, 1777, Darragh overheard the British commanders planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, for December 4th and 5th. Somehow, it completely amazes me that they would be so careless with the information, especially considering the fact that they were in the home of the enemy. I guess they assumed that the housewife would have no idea what the “great military minds” were thinking or talking about, nor that she would have any way to pass the information to anyone who could do anything about it. I’m sure they were completely shocked when they realized that she had tipped General Washington off to the plot, and saved the lies of him and his army…as well as saving the day.
Using a cover story that she needed to buy flour from a nearby mill just outside the British line, Darragh passed the information to American Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Craig the following day. The British marched towards Whitemarsh on the evening of December 4, 1777, and were surprised to find General Washington and the Continental Army waiting for them. After three inconclusive days of skirmishing, General Howe chose to return his troops to Philadelphia. It’s an amazing victory for General Washington and his Continental Army, and it all happened because a patriot housewife turned spy for her country. When you think about it, she already had the perfect disguise for the job. It is said that members of the Central Intelligence Agency still tell the story of one of the first spies in American history.