Throughout our history, American women have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fighting men, spied on the enemy, protected the fallen, even led troops into battle. Without our women’s active and aggressive participation, this country could never have become what it is today. Women built this land just as men did, cutting down trees and clearing land, killing dangerous animals and sometimes dangerous humans. With such a legacy, it’s no surprise that American women seem a little tougher, a little bolder than most other women.
Hundreds of women can be commemorated for their war efforts. The famous burlesque dancer Josephine Baker, for instance, worked for the French Resistance during World War II as a spy. Clara Barton worked tirelessly to heal wounded soldiers during the Civil War. In World War II, millions of American women went to work in munitions factories to free men for fighting. Without women as camp followers or running farm and businesses, even George Washington’s Continental Army might have failed, and the United States would never have been born.
But not all women were willing to take a secondary or noncombat role. Instead, these women picked up weapons and entered the battle alongside men. Most of these women have been forgotten. A few, however, have been remembered in the footnotes of history.
(image is Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Mary Read was British or Dutch, not American. Via Wikimedia Commons)
1. Anne Bonny
Born in Ireland, little Anne Cormac came to Charlestown as a child. She grew up tough, wild, and independent, the perfect mindset for the pirate she became. Anne met Mary Read, another female pirate, when they worked together on Calico Jack Rackham’s crew, and the two female pirates helped terrorize the Bahamas for over two years.
When the British Navy finally caught up with Rackham’s crew, the men were below decks and thoroughly drunk on brandy, the spoils of a recent victory. The women had been left on deck to guard. By themselves, Anne and Mary held off a British warship for a good while, yelling at the men to “come up, you cowards, and fight like men,” even firing pistols into the hold to get the drunk crew’s attention. Their efforts were in vain, and Captain Jonathan Barnet, commissioned by the governor of Jamaica, captured the ship and crew.
In Jamaica, all the pirates were sentenced to hang, though the two women were spared because they were pregnant. Jack, before his hanging, requested to see Anne one last time. According to legend, she said to him, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” She refused to speak to him further.
While it is known that Mary died in prison, probably before giving birth to her child, the fate of Anne is a mystery. There is, however, good evidence that her father, a wealthy merchant, bribed her jailers to release her, then sent her to Virginia. Here she married a farmer, had children, told stories about her pirating days, and lived to a ripe old age.
2. Sybil Luddington
Everyone’s heard about the ride of Paul Revere – but did you know he was stopped and arrested by the British before going twenty miles? Another rider charged with alerting the Minutemen completed HER ride, a forty-mile circuit through driving rain and risk of encountering British soldiers at any time. Sybil Luddington was the16-year-old daughter of Colonel Henry Luddington, commander of the local militia. One evening, Colonel Luddington received word that the British were coming to burn Danbury, a nearby town in Connecticut. The only person available to alert the militia was young Sybil, who knew the country well.
She made a wide circuit through most of New York’s Putnam County and much of Dutchess County, riding forty miles in the middle of the night. At one point she fended off a highwayman with nothing but a stick. While the militia was not in time to prevent Danbury’s burning, they did manage to drive off the British before further damage could be done.
So why was Paul Revere’s name remembered, but Miss Luddington forgotten? Blame Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When he wrote his famous poem about “the midnight ride” to gather the Minutemen, “Paul Revere” had the right rhyme and meter for his lines; “Sybil Luddington” did not. It was an artist’s whim.
(This is both Sampson and Molly Pitcher. It’s, erm, not hard to see why Sampson could pass as a boy.) Image via Wikimedia commons
3. Deborah Sampson
In the American Revolution, another young woman actually saw combat.
Raised on her French grandmother’s stories about Joan of Arc and living in a frontier community where people often died in Indian raids, Deborah decided a military life was a better choice than being an indentured servant and impoverished teacher. Her first attempt to enlist as a male was thwarted when a woman noticed that “Timothy Thayer” signed his name just like Deborah Sampson. Two years later, she was more successful. In 1782, she assumed her dead brother’s name, enlisting in George Washington’s army as Robert Shurtliffe.
She served for about 17 months as a boy without being caught, even though she was wounded in multiple skirmishes. At one point, Sampson took two musket balls to the leg and a bad saber slash to the face. Her comrades, ignoring her pleas to die, carried her to the doctor. Her face was treated, but Sampson sneaked out and patched up her leg wound herself in order to conceal her masquerade. At last, though, she contracted a “malignant fever.” The doctor was stunned to find a woman under the uniform he removed. When Sampson recovered, her commanding officer sent her to General George Washington with a note revealing her secret. According to legend, Washington read the note and, to spare her embarrassment, spoke not a word. Instead, he sent her out with an aide to get refreshments. When she returned, he had discharge papers, a note with advice, and a small sum of traveling money for her to return home.
Later, she married a farmer, Benjamin Gannett, and raised a family. She petitioned for and was awarded a military pension; though it was not large, it did keep her and her family from starving. She seems to have been the first officially recognized female American military veteran.
4. Mary Ludwig Hays, better known as Molly Pitcher
Mary Hays was born to a large but ordinary Philadelphia family, marrying a barber named William Hays. William became heavily involved in the revolutionary movement, signing on as a boycott enforcer in 1774, and in 1777 he joined Proctor’s 4th Artillery of the Continental Army, where he was trained to fire cannons.
Mary, like many wives, followed William into the army. She joined Martha Washington and other wives as camp followers, cooking, washing clothes, and performing other duties that freed the men for battle and drills. During battles, Mary and other camp followers also carried pitchers of water to the artillerymen, both for drinking and to cool the cannons after firing; this gained them the collective name “Molly Pitcher.”
The Battle of Monmouth in June 1778 was sweltering, the temperature reaching over 100 degrees. With the cannons mounted in high sunny places, the heat and sun must have been unbearable. During the fight, William Hays fainted at his cannon, either from heat exhaustion or from injuries. With no man free to take his place on his artillery crew, Mary stepped in. Picking up his ramrod, she loaded the cannon for the rest of the day, not even flinching when a British cannonball flew between her legs and tore off part of her skirt. Coolly, she noted it was lucky the shot did not pass a bit higher and carry off something more important. And then she continued loading the cannon until the battle was over.
General Washington had noticed her during the battle. In commemoration, he made Mary Hays a noncommissioned officer in his army. For the rest of her life, she was proud to be called Sergeant Molly.
Tubman in her “uniform” during her time with the Union Army, via wikimedia commons.
5. Harriet Tubman
In the 19th century, a new kind of woman warrior arose, one devoted to eliminate the evil of slavery from America. Most abolitionists were white women who fought with words and protests. Black women who had experienced slavery’s evils, however, often took a more active role. Harriet Tubman was the most successful and most famous of these women.
Born into slavery, Tubman was rebellious and independent by nature, perhaps taking after her mother. She watched three of her sisters sold away from her until her mother, faced with the sale of her baby son, finally threatened to kill their owner. Her mother’s success in stopping her children’s sale likely showed Tubman that slaves could successfully resist. She was treated terribly, beaten and once nearly killed, and at last could take no more. She ran away, making her way to Philadelphia where she became involved with the Underground Railroad. She returned south seventeen times, risking death to lead over seventy slaves to freedom. During most of those trips, she carried a pistol, though she only drew it once, threatening a slave whose desire to turn back threatened the entire Railroad system.
After her dangerous career on the Railroad, Tubman joined the Union Army as a “contraband,” freed and runaway slaves who joined the Union Army to work as cooks, nurses, and other noncombatants. However, her real skills were soon recognized. In 1863, she led scouting parties throughout Maryland’s east shore, using the stealth techniques she’d acquired conducting slaves to freedom. In June of that year under the command of Colonel James Montgomery, she became the first woman in the Civil War to help lead an armed assault. Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the Combahee River, then helped raid plantations along its banks. Over 750 slaves fled to the steamboats, and most of the men were inspired by Tubman to join the Union Army. Later, she was instrumental in helping Montgomery take Jacksonville, Florida.
After the Civil War, Tubman continued working for the rights of ex-slaves. She was one of the earliest civil rights heroes, refusing to take a second-place status in society. Later, she worked with Susan B. Anthony in the women’s suffrage movement. Tubman never stopped fighting until she died at about 93 years old.
Image Via Wikipedia
6. Malinda Blalock
The Appalachians have long been a place of passionate and sometimes violent people, and in 1860 the Grandfather Mountain area of North Carolina was no exception. Like the Virginia mountain area, North Carolinians of the Piedmont were fiercely split over the issue of state secession. Malinda Pritchard was passionately in favor of the states’ right to secede, while her sweetheart Keith Blalock was a strong Unionist. While this did not stop their marriage in 1862, it became increasingly uncomfortable to live in their mostly pro-Confederate town. Keith did not dare try to join the Union Army, but he could not stay where he was. So he concocted a plan: he’d join the Confederate army, wait until they moved north, then desert for Union lines.
What he did not anticipate was that Malinda would dress as a boy and go with him. He also did not anticipate that the Confederate fight had reached its zenith and that he’d be posted further south. There was no way for him to escape the military without serious danger, and Malinda would not leave. Months into their service, they were both sent to scout a river area, and Malinda was shot. The doctor who treated her uncovered her deception. Using a little subterfuge, the two managed to get a discharge, but were pursued as deserters by their own neighbors when they returned home. Fleeing across the border into Tennessee, they joined the Union forces as guerrilla fighters. They and their small group of volunteers terrorized the Tennessee-North Carolina border until the war ended.
Unlike many female soldiers, Malinda prospered after the war, raising four children. She died in her sleep at age 59 from natural causes. Her story was immortalized as part of author Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Ghost Riders.
7. Moving Robe Woman (Bull Run)
Moving Robe Woman was a Lakota, daughter of Crawler, chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, who fought in The Battle of Little Big Horn. She was one of many Lakota women packing to flee from the battle area when she was told her brother Deeds had died in the first charge on the 7th Cavalry. Stunned and infuriated, she found her own horse and rode into battle at her father’s side. An Oglala Sioux named Fast Eagle claimed that he had personally held General George Armstrong Custer’s arms while Moving Robe Woman stabbed him in the back. While this story is doubtful – there were no stab wounds on Custer, only bullet wounds – it is certain that Moving Robe Woman was present and took part in the battle. Another warrior, Eagle Elk, says he saw her kill a dark-skinned man while he begged for his life. “If you did not want to be killed, why did you not stay home where you belong and not come to attack us?” Eagle Elk heard her say.
Little is known about this woman warrior, but she survived the battle, killing at least two U.S. cavalrymen and a Lakota scout who had betrayed his own people. Later, she was moved, along with the rest of her people, to a reservation. She was honored as a warrior until her death in 1936.
The presentation of the Distinguished Service Cross to Virginia Hall by General William Donovan – the “Father of American Intelligence” insisted on presenting it to her himself. Image via Cia.gov
8. Virginia Hall
Brilliant and ambitious, Virginia Hall had a prestigious education at Radcliffe College and Barnard University (later Columbia). She had planned a career in the American foreign services, but disaster struck: in 1932 while hunting in Turkey, she shot herself in the left leg. The injury was so serious the leg had to be amputated. That, everyone thought, was the end of Virginia’s foreign services ambition.
But Ms. Hall was filled with pluck and positivity. She named her wooden leg “Cuthbert” and started graduate school at American University in Washington, DC. She was visiting in Paris when France, retaliating against Germany’s invasion of Poland, attacked Germany in 1939; she immediately joined the French Ambulance Service. When the fighting reached a lull in 1940, she traveled to London, where she volunteered to work for the British Special Operations Services. Because of her connections, she was asked to return to Vichy France to help coordinate the French Underground. She and Cuthbert served in this capacity for 15 months, where she managed to make Germany’s most-wanted list as “the limping lady.” When Germany suddenly moved to take over the whole of France in 1942, she barely escaped to Spain.
Undaunted, Hall volunteered to work for the American OSS in 1944, who sent her back to occupied France. Here she reconnected with her old friends in the French Resistance. Her work included locating and mapping drop zones, arranging safe houses, and ultimately training three battalions of French Resistance forces in waging guerilla warfare. In between, she ensured critical information reached the Allied forces until they retook most of France after D-day.
During her later career, Hall served in the CIA, one of the first female special operations officers – a spy. She was awarded America’s Distinguished Service Cross and was also made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
9. Lieutenant Col. Nancy Harkness Love
Nancy Harkness was the daughter of a wealthy physician. She grew up during the early 20th century going to all the “right” schools, but she had no intention of following a debutante’s path. Restless and adventurous from an early age, she learned how to fly a plane in only a month, earning her pilot’s license when she was 16. She married fellow pilot Major Robert Love of the Air Corps Reserve, and together they built a successful aviation company, Inter City Aviation. Nancy flew for her own company and for the Bureau of Air Commerce, and in 1937 and 1938 even worked as a test pilot.
When World War II broke out, America needed all the male pilots they could get for combat, but that left the military undermanned for transporting new military planes from factories to the bases that needed them. Love wrote to Lt. Colonel Robert Olds at the Air Corps Headquarters, suggesting he consider her 49 experienced female pilots for this often dangerous task. When Olds established the Air Corps Ferrying Command in 1941, he remembered Love’s suggestion – but the idea was quashed by General Hap Arnold, then the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force.
Love did not give up, however, and she proselytized her idea to everyone she could find. In 1942, with a dwindling supply of male pilots in a war that needed them more than ever, she was appointed to head a group of female ferry pilots. These woman pilots became the core of the WASPs, and Love became their executive officer. Until they were disbanded in 1944, the WASPs grew to a corps of 1,074 woman pilots, flying over 60 million miles. Thirty-eight WASPs lost their lives in service, all in accidents.
After the war, Love was awarded the Army Air Medal, although she was still not an official member of the military. At last, in 1948, Love was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the newly formed U.S. Air Force reserves. Love raised three daughters with her husband and never flew another military mission, but for the rest of her life fought to see the women of the WASPs recognized as military veterans, a cause that was not won until three years after her death of cancer in 1976.
10. Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester
Leigh Ann Hester was selling shoes near Nashville, Tennessee when she decided to join the National Guard in 2001. She was in boot camp on 9/11; her drill sergeant told the whole class they’d be the ones going to war. Sure enough, in 2004 her Kentucky National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq.
Hester was working as an MP providing security to critical supply routes when the worst happened: an ambush from a significant insurgent force. The three-vehicle MP group raced out front to draw fire and engage the enemy. An RPG took out the front vehicle in their convoy when it made a turn, effectively blocking the road. As the ten soldiers in the group evacuated vehicles, Hester looked to the right and saw muzzle flashes. Fifty insurgents were attacking their Humvees with small arms, RPGs, and RPK machine guns. Hester and her squad leader, Staff Sergeant Timothy F. Nein, led a small group into a flanking position, where they attacked the insurgents in their trench lines. Hester and Nein cleared two trenches; Hester shot and killed three insurgents herself at close range. After an intense 45-minute firefight, the Guardsmen eliminated the insurgents while taking no casualties and protecting the 30-truck convoy following them.
Hester, her squad leader, and the company medic – who had simultaneously fired an M249 LMG and an M4 to provide cover – were all awarded Silver Stars. Hester became the first woman since World War II to receive this medal, and the first woman ever to be cited for valor in close quarters combat. Today she works as a police officer in Nashville and is still active in the National Guard.