Untold Story of Lydia Darragh, The Nurse That Saved Washington

From Paul Revere’s ride to George Washington crossing the Delaware, the American Revolution is full of incredible stories of the courage and daring that made our country possible, including many that aren’t nearly as well known as the two examples I just mentioned.

At the American Revolution and Founding Era blog, DC area minister and history buff Brian Tubbs reminds us of one such story, that of Irish-American Quaker and patriot Lydia Darragh.

Darragh and her husband William immigrated to the American colonies prior to the War for Independence, settling down in Philadelphia, where she became a midwife.

In late September of 1777, the British occupied their city, but the Darraghs refused to betray their home. Their oldest son served in the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, and Lydia herself helped the American cause by snooping on the conversations of local British officers and sending coded information to American forces.

Unfortunately, we can’t be certain of all the exact details of Darragh’s heroism, as official records don’t always line up perfectly with the account of her daughter Ann. However, Tubbs writes, the following is her greatest contribution to the cause of liberty and independence:

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.

A remarkable story indeed, for which we all owe a debt of gratitude.

What’s your favorite tale of heroism from the American Revolution? Share it with us in the comments below!