Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Legend of Lydia Darragh in the American Revolution

Who is Lydia Darragh? Like Betsy Ross, the story of Lydia Darragh (also spelled 'Darrah' and Darrach') is wrapped in legend, and some of the facts are difficult to differentiate from the myths. One thing we do know is that Lydia Darragh, an Irish immigrant to America, would become a popular symbol of heroism and courage in America's War for Independence.

Born in 1729 in Dublin, the future war hero married William Darragh, a son of an Irish clergyman and tutor to Lydia's family. Several years after their marriage, the Darraghs immigrated to America, taking up residence in Philadelphia. Lydia Darragh became a widwife, helping other women through childbirth and giving birth to nine of her own (four of whom died in infancy).

When General William Howe's British army occupied Philadelphia in late September 1777, Philadelphia residents loyal to the American cause, such as Lydia Darragh, resorted to clandestine means to frustrate the British war effort. Even though Darragh and her family were Quakers, their eldest son served with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment. The American cause and the Continental Army clearly had their sympathies. During the British occupation, Lydia Darragh reportedly eavesdropped on British officer conversations in and around her home, and then sent coded information through British lines to the Americans as best she could. The details of Darragh's activities are difficult to pin down, as the main source of information is Ann Darragh, Lydia's daughter, who told the stories years after the events. Unfortunately, some of Ann's accounts don't jibe with other records from the Revolutionary War period, calling many of them into question.

The stage for Lydia Darragh's most famous alleged exploit was when General Howe personally occupied the home of her neighbor, John Cadwalader, making it his residence. The British then asked the Darraghs to vacate their home, making it available for British officer meetings. Lydia Darragh protested, saying that she'd already sent two of her children away and that there was nowhere for them to go. In her appeals to General Howe, she encountered a second cousin from Ireland, Captain Barrington, who served with the British army. Barrington's intervention is what apparently allowed the Darraghs to remain in their home, provided they set aside space for officer meetings and accommodate officer requests (such as retiring early when sensitive meetings were to take place). According to her daughter, Ann, Lydia Darragh used this arrangement as an opportunity to provide General Washington with much needed intelligence.

On December 2, 1777, Lydia received a request that she and her family retire by 8 o'clock, to make way for an important meeting. She pretended to go to sleep, but instead listened to the soldiers through the door, learning that the British planned to make a surprise attack on the Continental Army camped at Whitemarsh on December 4. As the meeting wrapped up, Lydia returned to her bedroom and feigned sleep as a British officer by the name of Major John Andre knocked three times. On the third knock, she answered and Major Andre informed her that the meeting was over and they were leaving her home.

The next morning, Darragh was granted permission to leave the city to buy flour. Her real plan, however, was to get the intelligence she gathered into American hands. According to Ann Darragh, Lydia gave the information to an American cavalry officer. According to Elias Boudinot, the Continental Commisary of Prisoners, Lydia found him while he was dining at the Rising Sun Tavern and gave him a "dirty old needle book" which contained hidden a "piece of paper rolled into the form of a pipe shank." That piece of paper, says Boudinot, contained the information of British plans to attack Washington's army on December 4.

Whatever the specifics, it does seem evident that Lydia Darragh played a key role in the American Revolution in December 1777 by warning General Washington (somehow) of a surprise British attack, allowing him to be fully prepared for it. For this reason, it is fair to regard Lydia Darragh is indeed a hero of the American Revolution.

1 comment:

gil said...

Joe Menkevich, history researcher has published a new paper on the Lydia Darragh legend. You can read it here: