- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005


By Carol Berkin

Knopf, $24, 194 pages, illus.

Carol Berkin begins her compact and informative “Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence” by noting that “for many Americans the Revolution is their last great romance with war.” However, enchanted by the “story of noble generals, brave citizen-soldiers, dashing French noblemen, eloquent statesmen, and freedom-loving wives and daughters,” she writes that “there is much that is missing in the tales we tell.”

Although the Revolution “is acknowledged to be a war, it is a quaint and harmless war,” she points out, one “which we read as a conflict without the violence on and off the battlefield, the families torn apart by political choices, the destruction of homes and crops … .” In other words, a war that bares little resemblance to the war it was.

In her view, the Revolution is more complex than the war most Americans have come to know. And, more to her point, it is a story that is not just about men. In the introduction to the book, she writes that it is important to tell the story of the Revolution “as a story of both women and men.” So it is that she fixes her gaze on the wives, mothers and daughters that history has to some extent forgotten.

She writes “Only three women seem to be readily associated with the war for independence: Abigail Adams, “who it is said, requested that her husband and fellow lawmakers of the new nation ‘remember the ladies’ and let them vote; Betsy Ross, who sewed the first United States flag; and Molly Pitcher who carried water to the thirsty men defending Fort Monmouth.”

Molly Pitcher?

It only strengthens the author’s “gender amnesia” thesis that, for this reviewer, the name of Molly Pitcher (a name, by the way, given not to one woman but to the many who carried water to thirsty soldiers) was not known, thus suggesting the number of women “readily associated” with the war for independence might be only two. Even so, revisionist history can be tricky business and here the author navigates those waters with decidedly mixed results.

“‘Revolutionary Mothers’ is neither a romantic tale nor an effort to stand traditional history on its head by making women the central players in the war for independence.,” Ms. Berkin writes. “It does not tell one woman’s story but many and not all of those stories end in triumph or victory. Instead this book examines a war that continually blurred the lines between battlefield and home front, and it views the war through the eyes of the women who found themselves, willingly and unwillingly, at the center of a long a violent conflict.”

The author sets about her task, portraying with vivid detail the lives of Martha Washington, Quaker spy Lydia Darragh, wealthy fund-raiser Esther De Berdt Reed, and Indian diplomat Molly Brant. She also provides riveting accounts of the escapades and bravery of the likes of 16-year-old Sybil Ludington, who “sped along the rough roads of Putnam County, New York, stopping at farmhouse doors only long enough to rouse the men sleeping inside,” Dicey Langston, who walked 20 miles in order to warn her brother and his fellow soldiers of an imminent attack and Margaret Corbin, who was crippled for life when she took her husband’s place manning a cannon at Fort Monmouth.

Using information from their letters and diaries, the first-person reports of these women are fresh and immediate and offer a not usually seen perspective on the times in which they lived. One comes away from this book with a better understanding of the burden colonial women shouldered and the extraordinary resources they mustered in order to take care of farm and family during war time.

In the first half of the book, Ms. Berkin does an able job of revisiting why colonial Americans took up arms and how colonial women as a whole played a vital role in the struggle by exercising their clout at the home front. It was the women who were relied upon to carry out the tea boycott, exercising the power of “nonconsumption.” Far from being subservient, they worked within the constraints of the times in which they lived to provide help, without which war’s progress may well have been different.

They held spinning bees in order to make their own clothes and uniforms for fighting men. And they endured the humiliations and depredations of invading troops who raped and ransacked. They defended their homes by taking up arms, and in a few striking instances they dressed as men and fought side by side with their husbands. When times grew harder, they melted down pewter household goods for use in the war effort.

And for many women, it was not just the home fires they kept burning. A remarkable fact of the Revolutionary War is the number of women who accompanied the troops as they made their way. They cooked and cleaned and nursed the wounded and in some cases undertook reconnaissance missions that returned valuable information to army generals.

Reading the first half of the book one is simply bowled over by the courage and fortitude of these women.

Then suddenly the narrative takes a turn, starting with the story of Frederika von Riedesel, whose husband fought on the side of the British and who spent four years as a prisoner of war. It is not that the details of her life lack poignancy or interest; it is just that her story as well as the stories of brave black and Native American women that Ms. Berkin includes seem thrust on the narrative at hand even though the author has acknowledged in her preface that “the war they helped to wage differed in its goals and consequences.”

In the end, one cannot escape feeling that this book, which has tried to be all things for all forgotten women, has simply lost its bearings. What started as a book of immense strength and clarity concludes as something less. It is worth remembering those who shouldered “the vital task of raising patriots,” but, unfortunately, this volume leaves much work to be done.

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