I was recently asked to speak about Elizabeth Burgin, an American woman who risked her life helping prisoners of war during the American Revolution. I’d never heard of her, but thanks to the magic of the internet I was quickly able to locate the key primary sources about her, and a large number of articles about her exploits. That’s where the surprise came in – the direct, documented information about this woman from her own writings and those of her contemporaries differs dramatically from the articles and other modern writings about her exploits. It seems that, in the absence of details, modern writers have chosen to fill in blanks with conjecture, and then pass that conjecture along as fact. Let’s sort out the facts from the conjecture.
The earliest information that we have on Elizabeth Burgin is from a letter that she wrote on 19 November 1779. She was in New Jersey with her three children, requesting assistance because she was a refugee from New York City with no property or livelihood. In good handwriting but challenging spelling and grammar, she explained the events of the last few months: In July 1779, an American had made his way into New York City carrying a letter to a prisoner of war in the city; the letter was given to Burgin to deliver to the prisoner. The man who’d brought the letter was subsequently captured by the British. His wife, in an apparent bid to help her husband, apparently informed British authorities that Burgin had been involved in helping American prisoners. Burgin wrote that the captured American had “carried out two hundred American prisoners for me.” The meaning of this sentence is not clear, but it’s the only detail that Burgin wrote about what she’d been doing.
On 17 July, the British town commandant sent for Burgin because she was “suspectd for helping the American prisoners to make their escape.” “Knowing myself guilty,” Burgin hid for two weeks while guards watched her house and a reward of £200 was offered for her capture. Friends helped her get to Long Island where she hid for another five weeks. Then a man took her in a whale boat to Connecticut, from which place she went to Philadelphia. She then got a pass to go to Elizabeth, New Jersey and (somehow) got her children sent to her from New York. That’s when she wrote her letter providing these details. She offered the names of several army officers and others who could vouch for her story.
Everyone who received word of her plight seems to have been able to quickly verify her claims and offer support. When she applied to the Board of War for the pass to Elizabeth town, the board replied that, “From my representation of your character, your polite and humane conduct towards the American prisoners in general, and one in particular, he has promised to pay particular attention to your application and grant you anything in his possession were it possible.” An American officer in Albany sent her a letter offering her lodging at his father’s house along with 500 dollars, a promise that others would extend to her any funds or credit that she required, and “a certificate of the kind treatment they recd from your hands” apparently endorsed by others. When General Washington learned of her plight he wrote to Congress on her behalf, explaining that “From the testimony of different persons, and particularly many of our own Officers who have returned from captivity, it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners and in measures for facilitating their escape.”
These accounts by people with first-hand knowledge clearly show that Elizabeth Burgin was a true hero, and everyone thought so. She certainly helped army prisoners of war escape. But there is no first-hand information about how she helped – whether she passed information that allowed escapes to be organized, distracted or influenced guards, opened doors or gates or windows, hid escapees in her house, provided clothing and other goods to fugitives; we simply don’t know. In a subsequent letter (that we’ll get to in a minute), she herself wrote, “What those exertions are, the services she rendered her country were, she leaves to be told by others.” Unfortunately (as far as I can tell), the others who told didn’t write it down. So we’re left with a great mystery, a woman who is known to have performed great deeds, but no information about those deeds.
Enter the conjecturers.
Look up Elizabeth Burgin on the web, and you’ll find countless articles detailing her exploits. The common theme is that, because she was a woman, she was allowed to visit American prisoners held on the infamous prison ships in Wallabout Bay off Long Island’s western shore; she secretly brought information that helped over 200 of those men escape their squalid confinement. A wonderfully dramatic story, except that neither Elizabeth Burgin nor any of her supporters made any mention of prison ships. Those prison ships confined mostly naval prisoners, whereas the scant evidence we have indicates that Burgin helped army prisoners. Given that Burgin was a resident of New York City, and the men she helped were probably captives in the Sugar House or other prisons in that city, it’s highly unlikely that she ever went on board a prison ship. It’s not even clear that women were allowed to visit those ships, as many writers state. As far as I can tell, the prison ships have gained such notoriety that people assume all American prisoners were held on them – so, if Elizabeth Burgin helped prisoners of war, she must have done so by going on board prison ships. Simple logic, but flawed. Maybe there is other information available, but the only primary sources I found cited in any of the articles I encountered are Burgin’s letter of 19 November 1779, and Washington’s recommendation to Congress. Neither makes any mention of a specific prison or of prison ships.
It may not have been necessary for her to go inside the prison (whichever prison it was) to render “humane conduct towards the American prisoners.” We can imagine Elizabeth Burgin passing food or other goods though gaps in the prison enclosure; her letter implies that she somehow delivered letters to prisoners, at least once. Or perhaps she sheltered or abetted escapees after they’d already absconded from the prison.
Elizabeth Burgin did one more heroic thing, although not as dramatic as risking her life helping prisoners, escaping from New York, or negotiating for her children. In response to Washington’s recommendation, the Board of War in Philadelphia granted her free lodging in that city, and rations for her and her children. She could live free of want, at least until the war ended. She wrote a letter to Washington thanking him. But she was not content with this public assistance. On 2 July 1781, she petitioned Congress again; she reminded them that she was receiving lodging and rations because “she was rendered so obnoxious to the British Commanders, by her exertions in the service of the American Prisoners there, that she was at first under the necessity of concealing herself, & afterwards of flying in disguise to the people, an attachment to whose cause, had reduced her to a situation so unsuitable to her sex & age.” But then she explained that “As she wishes not to be troublesome or expensive to the United States, she humbly conceives if the Honble Congress would be pleased to direct her full employment in cutting out the linen into shirts, purchased in this city for the army, it would afford her a maintenance, until a happy change of affairs will permit her to return with safety to her native place.” In other words, this woman who had already done so much to earn the assistance that she was receiving insisted instead on working for her own living, rather than being “troublesome or expensive” to the government.
This was a true act of heroism. Congress thought so too. Instead of giving her a job cutting linen, they voted to pay her “fifty-three dollars and on-third of a dollar per annum” per year.
/// FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Refugees” by Bryant White (whitehistoricart.com)
 Elizabeth Burgin to Reverend James Calville, 19 November 1779, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives, Washington, DC. Images of the manuscript are on line at: http://research.archives.gov/description/5916026 . This letter, with spelling somewhat improved, reads:
Elizabeth Town November 19 1779
July 17th being sent for by General Patterson, suspectd for helping the American prisoners to make their escape. George Hiblay coming from your Excellency the week before, and carried out Major Van Burah, Captain Crane, Lt. Lee, who had made their escape from the guard on Long Island, George Higby brought a paper to me from your Aide directed to Col Magaw on Long Island, he the said George Higby being taken up, and confined in the Provost guard, his wife told General Patterson that he carried out two hundred American prisoners for me, for which reason knowing myself guilty I secreted myself for two weeks in New York understanding that General Patterson had offered a bounty of two hundred pounds for taking me, he kept a guard five days at my house letting nobody come in our out. Through the behalf of friends I got on Long Island and there staid five weeks. William Scudder came to Long Island in a whale boat, and I made my escape with him, we being chased by two boats half way the sound, then got to New England, and came to Philadelphia. Then I got a pass of the Board of war to go to Elizabeth Town to try to get my children from New York, which I obtained in three or four weeks, but could not get my Cloaths or anything but my Children. When application was made by Mr. John Franklin my Cloaths and furniture, they should be sold, and the money be given to the Loyalists.
I am now sir, very desolate, without money, without Cloaths or friends to go to. I mean to go to Philadelphia, where God knows how I shall live, a cold winter coming on. For the truth of the above your Excellency can enquire of Major John Stewart, or Col. Thomas Thomas. I lived opposite Mr. John Franklins, and by their desire make this application. If your Excellency please you can direct to Mr. Thomas Franklin in Philadelphia where I can be found. If the General thinks proper I should be glad to draw provision for myself and Children in Philadelphia, where I mean to remain. Helping our poor prisoners brought me to want, which I don’t repent.
Elizabeth Burgin Robert Campbell to Elizabeth Burgin, 15 September 1779. The source of this letter is not known, but an image of it can be seen on line at: http://www.veronicajorden.com/?attachment_id=240 .  Leonard van Buren to Elizabeth Burgin, 25 November 1779, Letters from the Board of War, Papers of the Continental Congress. Images of the manuscript are on line at: http://www.veronicajorden.com/?attachment_id=241 and http://www.veronicajorden.com/?attachment_id=242 .  George Washington to the President of Congress, 25 December 1779, Papers of the Continental Congress. Images of the manuscript are on line at: http://research.archives.gov/description/5913711 .  “The Petition of Elizabeth Burgin to Congress,” 2 July 1781, Papers of the Continental Congress. Images of the manuscript are on line at: http://www.fold3.com/image/434831/ and http://www.fold3.com/image/1/434835/ . Her petition reads:
2 July 1781, Philadelphia
The Petition of Elizabeth Burgin to Congress –
That your Petitioner was a resident of New York, where she possessed everything comfortable about her, till the summer 1779 when she was rendered so obnoxious to the British Commanders, by her exertions in the service of the American Prisoners there, that she was at first under the necessity of concealing herself, & afterwards of flying in disguise to the people, an attachment to whose cause, had reduced her to a situation so unsuitable to her sex & age. What those exertions are, the services she rendered her country were, she leaves to be told by others. Mr. Franklin & General McDougall are not unacquainted with them, & His Excellency General Washington was sensible of them. That he addressed Congress in her favour, and at the same time gave her an Order to draw Rations for herself & three small Children, till the pleasure of Congress was known. The Letter was referred to the Board of War, who kindly permitted her to occupy part of the House where the Office is kept, & have in some other respects assisted her, but her chief Dependance being on getting her rations, which from the scarcity of provisions, she could not at all times obtain, she was often obliged to sell part of what little property she had left to remove the misery and want of her hapless Family. As she wishes not to be troublesome or expensive to the United States, she humbly conceives if the Honble Congress would be pleased to direct her full employment in cutting out the linen into shirts, purchased in this city for the army, it would afford her a maintenance, until a happy change of affairs will permit her to return with safety to her native place. Besides the letter from New York militia lieutenant Leonard van Buren mentioned above and Burgin’s own mention of handling a letter for Pennsylvania colonel Robert Magaw, Washington’s letter indicated that he’d heard testimony from “our own Officers who have returned from captivity;” for Washington to have heard such testimony between Burgin’s 25 November letter and his own 25 December letter, it is almost certain that these were army officers to whom Washington had ready access.  Elizabeth Burgin to George Washington, 16 March 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01137 . This letter reads:
Philada March the 16 1780
When I View the Kind Providence of God in Delivering me Throw to many Dificultys I think I Canot Give him Sufficient Praise At the Same Time I Feel a hart Full of Gratitude For the Many Favours I have Recevd From Your Excelency your Order: For Rations for my Self and Children are Punktily Obeyd Wicth is Great Releif to me in A Strange Place I Recev’d a Kind Letter From Your Aidicamp Informing me that your Excelency had Recomended me to the honerable Continential Congress—Congress have Refferd me to the Board of War In Whose house I now Live Rent Free & in Some Measure as Comfortable As one under my Distitute Situation Could Expect I Should Be Glad to See a French Fleett Surrounding New York By Watter & the Brave Americans Storming the Lines By Land & Were I a man I Think I Should not Want Courage to Be one of the Foremost in Mounting one of their Strongest Fortreses Pardon me Dear Sir For these Expressions Probaly an Annesity of mind For the home Were I Lived Comfortably With my Children Caused me to Drop Them & Tho I Beleive With an Unshaken Faith that if Those Creatures Who now Poses New York Dont Sneak of as they Did From Boston Philada & Rode Iland the Will one Day or Other Be Cannonaded out in the mean Time I Should Be Glad I Were Able to Putt my Self in Some Way of Bussiness to Suport mySelf Children Without Being Chargeable to Congress recept of my hearty Thank For all the Favours I have Receved thus With my Prayrs For your Welfare I Conclude & Make Bold to Subscribe My Self Your Excelency Most Obeedent Humble Servant
Elizabeth Burgin Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1779 Vol. 30, July 23 – December 31, 1781 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1912), 850, 908. Congress heard and approved a report from the Board of War which read, “Mrs. Elizabeth Bergen has applied to the Board for directions to the Town Major to furnish her with rations agreeable to the order of the Commander in Chief. This request the Board think it improper to comply with as the contract for provisions at this Post does not comprehend persons of this description. The Board however think something ought to be done for her relief, and her three children who are in a distressed situation, as it appears she has to the utmost of her abilities assisted the American officers prisoners in New York, not only with necessaries, but the means of making their escapes. The Board are of opinion twenty pounds hard money a year during the pleasure of Congress would be proper.”