Determined women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Revolutionary War. Historian Joyce Henry brings us the story of Anna Maria Lane.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Revolutionary War history often consists of the stories and deeds of great men, but women contributed too, in ways that might surprise you.
My guest Joyce Henry has made a study of the contributions of Anna Maria Lane, Virginia’s only documented female Revolutionary War veteran. Joyce, welcome. Thank you for being back on the show.
Joyce Henry: Thank you for having me, Harmony.
Harmony: So tell me about this woman you’ve made a study of. She’s in a class of her own as a female Revolutionary War veteran.
Joyce: Yes, absolutely. Most women that participated in the Revolutionary War did not participate as soldiers. Most women followed their husbands out of economic needs, as camp followers: laundresses and nurses. But a few women did cross the boundaries of society at that time and actually disguised themselves to fight as soldiers.
Harmony: At Colonial Williamsburg, we think of the primary source as kind of gospel to us. These are the original references, the historic records which tell us about a person from the period. Tell me what kind of sources, what kind of primary sources do we have that tell us about Anna Maria Lane.
Joyce: Anna Maria Lane was discovered initially in the early 1920s by the editor of the Richmond Magazine, Mr. Carter. He was doing research on Revolutionary War veterans and their pension records. He found information on veterans, and he found this interesting reference to this woman, Anna Maria Lane, who had disguised and fought as a soldier.
He actually wrote an article about her in the 1920s, entreating anyone who knew more about her to a descendant or anyone who had information to respond and let him know more, because all he had was this vague reference to this woman who was wounded and fought at the Battle of Germantown in 1777. I’ve been researching women soldiers in the United States for many years.
We must have primary documentation, which can be letters, diaries, newspaper articles, obviously official military records that exist with Anna Maria Lane which make, as a historian, the only credible information we can use when we’re discussing these women. Some women, such as Deborah Samson, actually wrote stories and books about their experiences in the Revolutionary War. But with Anna Maria Lane, the surviving documentation states enough that we could do some more research and try to fill in the gaps that we know about her.
Harmony: Let’s talk about that documentation. You mentioned a pension record. What is that, what did it say?
Joyce: A pension record is issued to veterans of any war, but particularly in the Revolutionary War, of people who gave military service. Pensions in the Revolutionary War were not limited to just soldiers. Women who served in a quasi-military role â€“ such as a cook or a laundress or a nurse â€“ that was recognized by the Army, because the Army had no official personnel for this, they could receive a pension.
In 1808, eight new pensioners would be awarded pensions by the Virginia General Assembly. Anna Maria Lane and her husband John Lane were among these. There were also three other women who had served as nurses that also received pensions. But what made Anna Maria Lane stand out when these pensions were researched was that the other pensioners, including her husband John Lane, received Â£40 a year, which is the standard for the Virginia state pensions.
Anna Maria Lane’s was Â£100. So what did Anna Maria Lane do that in the eyes of the Virginia General Assembly at that time, what did she do to achieve that enormous pension? Her pension record gave us a clue. It states, “In the Revolutionary War, in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military services at the Battle of Germantown.” So that tells us right there, she disguised as a soldier, fought, and was wounded. And that is how and why they issued her that large sum.
Harmony: So we have kind of three clues. Let’s start with the first, “in the garb of a soldier.” We don’t know, we don’t hear from her on how she managed to disguise herself as a male. But we do know some things about how the Army was run then versus how the Army is run now that might allow her to escape detection for longer. What are some of those differences that in the 18th century might have allowed her to go along with the tide of men?
Joyce: if you wore pants, if you wore a uniform, if you wore britches, in the 18th century if you had on a uniform, it does not matter. Even if you appeared effeminate you were a soldier, or you were a male.
As far as enlistment, there are no physicals when one enters the Army in the 18th century. One must have front teeth and an operating thumb and forefinger so one may be able to reach in, grab a cartridge, tear off the paper, and be able to successfully load your musket. That’s really about all the physical, you basically have to be able-bodied. Again, the clothing, the appearance, the lack of a physical, there’s no barracks where you’re sleeping in close quarters.
People say, “Well what about when they changed clothes, or took their clothes off at night to go to bed?” Well, if you’ve ever gone camping or campaigning, you don’t change your clothes. Soldiers are lucky to have two shirts, and a couple of pair of stockings. When you go to bed at night, you put on more clothing, you don’t take it off.
So we have matters of personal hygiene, we have matters of detection by outer appearance, we have no physicals, no barracks, and again, if you’re doing the job of a soldier, and you say you’re a soldier, well by gosh, you are a soldier in the 18th century.
Harmony: That brings us up to Germantown. We know from her pension record that she must have done something extraordinary. What do we know about Germantown, what can we guess about what she might have done there?
Joyce: Well the Battle of Germantown occurred in October of 1777. General Washington, in August of 1777, in an attempt to protect Philadelphia, the colonial capital, had issued an edict to eliminate all but necessary women from his Army. The edict basically said, “The multitudes of women who follow the Army, especially those that have children who are pregnant, can no longer accompany the Army.” He knew he had to protect Philadelphia from the British.
By September, the British had captured Philadelphia. George Washington desperately needed to recapture the colonial capitol. Washington felt that he needed to capture the British Army under General Howe to restore morale to the Army and definitely bring the colonial capitol back into patriot hands. The part of the British Army was encamped about five miles from Philadelphia at a small town called Germantown. Washington thought he could repeat what he had done at an earlier battle by launching a surprise dawn attack on Germantown, attacking the British troops from many different directions.
So the night, or the early morning of October 3 of 1777, John Lane, Anna Maria Lane, and the rest of the Continental Army divided forces to attack and march 15 miles to Germantown through a thick fog. The fog itself, poor communication, really affected the initial outcome of the battle. They were to attack at dawn and surprise the British, and then hopefully overrun them. What happened was, in the confusion of the fog, communication between the different American generals was confused. They became lost at some point, even in the thick fog. They even fired upon themselves.
The British pickets detected their approach, were able to alert the main body of the British Army, and at about 5:00 a.m., a very confused battle ensued. One of the points of the battle was the British pickets that were initially attacked fell back to a large stone house called the Chew house, or Cliveden. Many attacks were made upon the house by Continental soldiers. But the British had such a stronghold that they basically were impenetrable. Assault after assault was launched upon the house because it lay right in the route of Washington’s Army to the main British. You couldn’t go around it and leave this defensible position in your rear.
At some point during the confusion of battle, many of the American soldiers became confused, and said “We’re out of ammunition.” They felt the British heard them screaming that we were out of ammunition. They said, “The British are upon us.” And many threw their muskets down and ran and started to retreat to the rear. We know General Washington and Henry Knox and Anthony Wayne were galloping their horses about, frantically waving their swords trying to rally the men to re-take the positions to continue the assault. We know that many American soldiers continued to retreat.
We also know that a handful picked up their arms, possibly their standards, and made that final assault. We know there was one final assault on the Chew house. Meant some American soldiers made their way actually into the house, where some vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued in the yard and in the hallways. Certainly it was a very brave act. But they did not succeed in overrunning the house.
Was Anna Maria Lane one of these who entered the house, who picked up a fallen standard, who made a valiant final charge when others were retreating? That’s my thought. Because again, her pension record states, “In the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military service and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown.” To me, that highlights the most, I won’t call it the decisive action, but probably one of the bloodiest and heroic actions of the Battle of Germantown.
Unfortunately, Washington did not succeed in overrunning the British at Germantown. It was a defeat, and it would be some time, over a year later, before Washington would again re-occupy Philadelphia. However, that’s my thought on perhaps what Anna Maria Lane had done at the battle.
Harmony: And the wound she receives at that battle, it cripples her for the rest of her life. I actually read some speculation that suggested that if she had sought treatment for that wound, she might have risked exposing herself as a female, and so it’s kind of a bitter irony.
Joyce: Absolutely. And was she detected, was she cared for by her husband? Certainly we would think a wound that appears to have been on her leg â€“ we don’t know how closely scrutinized it was, if it was attended by a surgeon. We don’t know, and that’s one of those paradoxes.
But what we do know is that she did manage to remain, whether detected or not, close by the side of her husband throughout the war. Many soldiers received wounds and continued to fight. She obviously, the wound while severe that made her lame, she was able to continue on campaign with her husband. We do know by the records that she was here with her husband in Williamsburg late in the war in 1781. So she does remain at his side.
Whether or not she was in uniform, we don’t know. In the case of Deborah Samson, another Revolutionary War woman who disguised as a soldier, she receives a bullet wound at the Battle of Tarrytown in 1782 in her thigh, and fearing detection actually tries to extract the bullet herself with her own knife, does not go to the surgeon. Did Anna Maria Lane do this? I don’t know.
Harmony: What can we understand from these stories of women Revolutionary soldiers? What sort of rises to the surface for you as the importance of their story?
Joyce: I think what’s important is, as a historian, and as a woman, that we tell all the stories â€“ however significant or insignificant they may appear to be. When you think about the study of military history from ages past and present, it’s told through the eyes of men, and generally through the eyes of commanders and not as much, though more attention recent years has been telling the story from the life of the common soldier. And we know that women contributed in many, many ways in the Revolutionary War.
As I’ve stated, women who followed the Army served in quasi-military roles. Most women didn’t. Most women would have stayed home and served roles in other ways, such as Martha Washington raising funds for troops, going from church to church raising funds. So we know a lot about what civilians did, we know women worked in arsenals making ammunition and even assisting in the making of weapons.
But these women soldiers deserve recognition because it’s one of those stories. Just like veterans of any war, they do deserve the recognition. And when you think about it, today, even women in combat are not permitted to serve in front lines, hand-to-hand type combat. They are in the front lines, flying jets and doing reconnaissance, but we still don’t have women in the trenches.
So when you think about these women who did dare to step out of the roles and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, they weren’t just ahead of their time, they’re still ahead of our time, too.
Harmony: Joyce thanks so much for being with us today and sharing this story.
Joyce: Thank you so much, it was good being here, thank you for having me.