Heroine of the Battle of Whitemarsh
Lydia Darragh was a Quaker woman who crossed enemy lines during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mission was to pass information to General George Washington and the Continental Army, warning them of an impending British attack.
Lydia Barrington was born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland. On November 2, 1753, she married the family tutor, William Darragh, the son of a clergyman. After a few years of marriage, they immigrated to the American colonies. Members of the Quaker faith, the couple settled in Philadelphia where there was a large Quaker community.
William worked as a tutor, and Lydia was a midwife. She gave birth to and raised five children: Charles, Ann, John, William, and Susannah; four others died in infancy.
Although Quakers are pacifists and against war and most were neutral during the Revolutionary War, the Darraghs were secretly in favor of the colonists’ cause, and their eldest son Charles was serving in the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army.
On September 26, 1777, after several victories over General Washington and his army, the British occupied Philadelphia. In October, Washington led an unsuccessful attempt to retake Philadelphia, and then he and his troops retreated to Whitemarsh.
Nearly one-third of Philadelphia’s population evacuated the city, and the majority of those remaining were British loyalists or were neutral in the conflict. As well-known Quakers, the Darraghs felt relatively safe remaining at their home.
Then British General Sir William Howe set up his headquarters across the street. From her vantage point, Lydia Darragh began to spy for General Washington’s army.
The following account is based on what Lydia Darragh later told to her daughter Ann.
In late fall 1777, British officers arrived on the Darraghs’ doorstep, demanding to use their large parlor for meetings. With nowhere to go, Lydia asked the soldiers if her family could stay in their home. Most of the family was allowed to remain at home; the two youngest children were sent to live with relatives outside the city. Quakers were known to be unsupportive of the war, and therefore posed no risk to the British.
On December 2, 1777, the British officers ordered the family to retire by 8 o’clock and stay in their bedrooms all evening while the British held a meeting. Darragh crept out of her room and hid in the closet of an adjoining room and listened.
She learned that British troops were to leave the city on the evening of December 4, 1777, and make a surprise attack on the Continental Army at Whitemarsh the following morning. Among those at Whitemarsh was Lydia’s son Charles.
As the meeting was breaking up, Lydia crept back to bed. One of the officers knocked on her door at two different intervals, but she did not respond. On his third knock, she opened the door, pretending to have been asleep. She followed the officers out, latched the door and blew out the candles.