By Jay Holmes
Three years ago, my writing partner, Piper Bayard, declared October 31st to be Love a Spook Day in appreciation of the quiet contributions of the intelligence community. In real life, versus Hollywood, not all spooks are highly trained supermen and superwomen who look like Daniel Craig and Scarlett Johansson. Many are simple people who rise to the occasion of their moment in history. Lydia Darragh was one of those people.
On a chilly rainy day in Dublin in 1728, a baby girl was born in front of a quaint Irish stone hearth in a humble home. Well, okay, I can’t be sure of the rain, but if you’ve been to Dublin, you can imagine a little rain falling. The house was likely humble, and why not get close to the fireplace if you have to give birth in Dublin in 1728? What we do know for certain was that the girl was named Lydia Barrington, and at twenty-four, she married a clergyman’s son named William Darragh. Two years later, they made the difficult crossing to the British colonies in America and settled in Philadelphia.
They joined a Quaker community and were clearly pacifists. Lydia, a nurse and midwife, was obviously a very durable woman, because she gave birth to nine children and managed to not die in the process. Lydia and William lost four children in infancy and raised their five surviving children to be practicing Quakers. However, during the American Revolution, their son Charles defied his upbringing and joined the Second Pennsylvania Regiment to fight against the British Occupation.
On September 26, 1777, British forces led by General Howe entered Philadelphia in force. He occupied the home of Lydia’s neighbor, John Cadwalader, who was absent, having joined the first revolutionary regiment, the Philadelphia Light Horse.
As was common practice at the time, Howe stationed soldiers in the homes of the local citizens. Upon arriving at his new headquarters, Howe dispatched his intelligence officer, Major John Andre, to commandeer more houses for his staff officers and their attendants. Major Andre ordered Lydia and her family to move out.
Lydia had two young children still at home and no place to go, so she decided to ask Lord Howe to allow her to stay in her home. On her way to Howe’s headquarters at Cadwalader’s, she met up with a cousin from Ireland, who happened to be a captain on Howe’s staff. Her cousin interceded for her, and Howe allowed Lydia and her children to remain in their home with the understanding that she would keep her dining room available as a meeting room for British officers.
On the night of December 2, 1777, Howe held a planning session with his senior staff members and his unit commanders at the Darragh residence. They worked for several hours to formalize the details of an attack on the Revolutionary Forces stronghold of Whitemarsh, to be conducted on December 4.
During this planning session, Lydia hid in a linen closet next to the meeting room. Had she been discovered, she likely would have been taken outside and hanged as a spy. However, she was perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that her son Charles’s regiment was at Whitemarsh with Washington, and she took the risk.
As the meeting broke up, Lydia quickly snuck back to bed. Major Andre knocked on her door, but she ignored him the first few times. Finally, she answered, and Andre told her that the meeting was over. Lydia knew that she had two days to alert Washington’s forces of the pending British attack.
The next day, she requested a pass to go get flour at a mill in the countryside. Locals frequently requested such passes to purchase supplies from nearby farming communities.
The remainder of Lydia’s story is somewhat controversial. According to her daughter Ann, she found Thomas Craig, a member of the Pennsylvania militia, at the Rising Sun tavern. He relayed Lydia’s information to Washington. In another version handed down from Colonel Elias Boudinat’s family, the Colonel was dining at the tavern when Lydia approached him and passed him a note hidden in a small sewing kit. In that version, it was Boudinot who alerted Washington to the pending attack. It may be that Lydia was simply being a good intelligence agent and chose not to rely upon only one person to deliver the critical message to Washington. I suspect that both accounts are true.
What is certain is that Washington did indeed get the message, and it’s a good thing that he did. He was considering moving the greater part of his forces further north. Many of his 9,000 troops were recently arrived reinforcements from New York and Maryland, and they had not had time to rest. Had Howe and his 10,000 troops caught the less experienced, inferiorly equipped Continental forces on the march, his well-disciplined, well equipped, experienced troops would likely have destroyed the better part of the colonial forces. With the new information in hand, Washington and his staff were able to prepare to resist an attack.
Just after midnight on December 5, General Cornwallis led the British vanguard into an ambush by a small Colonial cavalry patrol. The American commander Captain Allan McLane dispatched riders to alert nearby pickets. When McLane and his small force withdrew, the always-arrogant Cornwallis was certain that he had won the skirmish. He failed to understand what was occurring. McLane had simply wanted to make contact with the British forces in order to determine their arrival time.
Over the following two days, the British easily held off small American advances. Cornwallis was deceived, but Howe was not. Howe was a brilliant soldier and understood the Americans better than most of his contemporaries did. He knew Washington was merely keeping track of British dispositions so as to better organize to meet a British attack on the prepared Colonial defensive positions.
Howe expected to fight for a maximum of two days to destroy the Colonial Army. Hoping to surprise Washington in the open, he had ordered that his army’s heavy baggage be left behind in Philadelphia. His troops had now slept in the open for two days and were short on rations.
To Cornwallis’s surprise and the considerable disappointment of Washington and his staff, Howe ordered a withdrawal to Philadelphia. Cornwallis and others later criticized him for this move, but had his hungry, tired men attacked the Colonials, the long range fire of the Colonial’s rifles would likely have taken a huge toll on Howe’s forces before they could even get close to the enemy lines.
It was obvious to Howe that Washington was warned of the British attack. The British questioned everyone in the area, but fortunately for Lydia, they settled on the theory that a trained spy from Washington’s camp must have interpreted their preparations to march and relayed a message using the usual American relay rider tactic.
Given Lydia’s connection to a member of Howe’s staff, it’s easy to see how even a bright man like Howe might have assumed that the Quaker woman was a British loyalist. She hailed from an English Irish family in Dublin, and Quakers of all backgrounds were seen as being often annoying, but never dangerous. In Lydia’s case, the reasonable assumptions turned out to be bad assumptions.
Some historians interpret Lydia’s story as proof that General Howe and his army thought too little of women to think them capable of spying. This seems unlikely. Howe’s trusted intelligence officer Major Andre was not in the habit of underestimating women and often employed women as spies for the British. Lydia simply played her role as a friendly sympathizer well.
In overall casualties, the Battle of Whitemarsh was insignificant, but strategically, it was important for the American rebels. It allowed Washington to safely withdraw his forces to Valley Forge, where they faced a bitter winter, but were able to survive and renew their offensive in the spring. Without the advanced, detailed warning that the old Quaker pacifist gave, Washington’s army might have never made it as far as Valley Forge.
In truth, if the stories of all the spooks who have helped American and allied causes were known, we would quickly see that they are not all highly trained “James Bond” types. Spooks come in all sizes and shapes. What Lydia Darragh proved is that it’s the commitment to one’s cause that matters the most.