Three Brave British Army Wives

Some time ago we saw the story of Mrs. Middleton, the wife of a British soldier, who took several Americans prisoner at the battle of Trois Rivieres in 1776.[1] Mrs. Middleton was one of several thousand wives who accompanied their British soldier husbands to America, or married them in America, and experienced the hardships and dangers of military life in garrisons, on ships, in encampments, and on campaigns. We know a great deal about these women in terms of their roles in the army infrastructure; it is very sad that we know only a few of their names.[2]

We also know very few of their personal experiences. Those that we do know prove that there were some courageous, resilient individuals among these “sober, industrious women” who were granted the privilege of accompanying the army. There are a few famous officers’ wives whose adventures are well-known, but this brief article spotlights wives of common soldiers who are known to have performed extraordinary deeds during their time in America. There must be hundreds of other tales like these, waiting to be discovered and told.

The Sergeant’s Wife, 9th Regiment of Foot

Roger Lamb, a soldier in the 9th Regiment of Foot, related an event that occurred when Burgoyne’s army had reached the Hudson River from Lake Champlain. Lamb was sent back to Fort Ticonderoga to organize the movement of baggage from that place to the army’s present location on the Hudson. Making his way along at night,

he saw a light on his left, and directed his course toward it. Having gained the place, he was saluted by a man at the door of his house, who informed him that a soldier’s wife had been just taken in from the woods, where she was found by one of his family, in the pains of child-birth. Being admitted into this hospitable dwelling, the owner of which was one of the Society of Friends, or people called Quakers, he recognized the wife of a serjeant of his own company. The woman was delivered of a fine girl soon after; and having requested her friendly host to allow her to stop until his return from Ticonder­oga, at which time he would be able to take her to the army in one of the waggons, he set out on his lonely route again. Previous to his leaving her, she informed him that she had determined to brave the dangers of the woods, in order to come up with her husband; that she crossed Lake George, and was seized with the sickness of labour in the forest, where she must have perished, had she not been providentially discovered by the kind-hearted people under whose roof she then was.

On his returning he called with the good Quaker who lodged the sick wife of his fellow soldier, but to his astonishment was told that, on the morrow after he left her there in child-birth, she set out to meet her husband against the wishes and repeated entreaties of the whole family, who were anxious to detain her until his return. She could not be persuaded to stop, but set out on foot with her new-born infant, and arrived safe with her husband, whom she followed with such fond solicitude. She thus gave an instance of the strength of female attachment and fortitude, which shews that the exertions of the sex are often calculated to call forth our cordial admiration.

It is worthy of remark, that the author, not long since in [Dublin], with great pleasure, saw the female, who was born as he before related, in the wilderness, near Lake George. She had been married to a man serving in the band of a militia regiment, and the meeting with her, revived in his mind lively emotions of distressful and difficult scenes, which although long passed, can never be forgotten by him.

It’s unfortunate that Lamb did not name this brave and tenacious woman. The muster rolls of the 9th Regiment allow us to narrow down the possibilities, but she remains anonymous despite her remarkable deeds.[3]

Mary Henshaw McCarthy, 9th Regiment of Foot

Thanks to a popular television show, women who spied for the Americans are popular these days. There were many British and Loyalist women who took similar risks. Mary Henshaw’s husband Richard was a soldier in the 7th Regiment of Foot, the Royal North British Fusiliers, and she probably came to America with him when the regiment was sent to Quebec in 1773. The 7th Regiment had a rough time in the war; most of the men, and their wives, were captured in the Autumn of 1775 when Americans seized the posts between Lake Champlain and Quebec. The prisoners were sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and were not exchanged until the following year. When the soldiers rejoined the army, the regiment served on several campaigns culminating in service in the Carolinas. It was here that Richard Henshaw died in June 1781.

Long before this, though, Richard and Mary had lost contact with each other, to the extent that Mary thought he had died. Rather than return home as many British widows did, she remarried, this time to Charles McCarthy in the grenadier company of the 9th Regiment of Foot. How they met and when they married is not known, but McCarthy became a prisoner of war when General Burgoyne’s army capitulated in October 1777. Prisoners from that army escaped by the hundreds and ended up scattered all over the colonies; McCarthy was recaptured in August 1780 along the Hudson River above New York City. His wife Mary and her children (by which husband we do not know) was now stranded in hostile territory, and desperately needed to get to a British garrison.

Fortune was on her side. She came to the attention of a prominent American officer who desperately needed to get information into a British garrison, namely General Benedict Arnold. On 4 September 1780 he gave her a pass to go to New York City and arranged an escort to take her to the British lines. He also entrusted her with dispatches to deliver to British headquarters. Having completed her mission, she remained in New York and received support from the British army along with other families separated from their husbands. When hostilities ended and prisoners of war were repatriated, Charles McCarthy did not return; his fate is unknown. This left Mary Henshaw McCarthy and her three children alone yet again. She wrote a petition to the commander in chief:

That your Petitioner Mary McCarthay, formerly the Wife of Richd. Henshaw Deceased who was a Soldier in his Majesty’s 7th Regt. of Royal Fusiliers—After his decease she married to Charles McCarthay of the 9th Regt., who was captured with General Burgoyne, that your Petitioners Husband Charles McCarthay, in endeavouring to make his Escape, from the Rebels to New York, was taken Prisoner in the Highlands—soon after the Petitioner were intrusted by General Arnold with his dispatches to bring to N: York, which was a few Days before he left the Rebell Army at West Point, And at the greatest hazard of her life brought them into this Garrison, and delivered them to his Excellency General Robertson in the presence of Colo. Beverly Robertson.

Your Petitioner is an English Woman and hath sign’d to go to Nova Scotia with Mr. Mullenshaw and hath a Family of Three Children now very sick and your petitioner is very much Distressed and having no Residence in this City humbly Craves your Excellency’s Pity and Relief which will greatly alleviate her and Childrens distressed Situation for to help them on their Passage.

As far as we know, this resourceful woman did make her way to Nova Scotia along with thousands of other displaced Loyalists and refugees.[4]

Mary Driskill, 10th Regiment of Foot

Cornelius Driskill, or Driscoll, came to America when his regiment, the 50th Regiment of Foot, was transferred from the West Indies to New York in the summer of 1776. He was 29 years old and had been a soldier for five years. The under-strength 50th regiment wasn’t incorporated into the army; instead, the able-bodied soldiers were transferred into other regiments and the remainder sent home to recruit anew. Driskill joined the 10th Regiment of Foot and was put into the regiment’s grenadier company, part of the vanguard of the army.

Being on the front lines put Driskill, and his wife Mary, in danger. At a skirmish near Philadelphia in December 1777 they were separated. She became a prisoner of war, as many British soldiers’ wives did, and shared the same fate as the soldiers. Her situation was harder, in fact, because she gave birth to twin children while in prison. But that didn’t stop her from doing what British prisoners of war did exceedingly well: escape. It took three attempts over the course of two years, but by November 1779 she was back in New York where she summarized her struggles in a petition to the commander in chief of the army:

That your Poor Petitioners Husband was killed at Chestnut Hill, after which your Petitioner was taken prisoner, and put into Trentown Jail, out of which your Petitioner made her Escape, and was again taken and put into Lancaster Prison, from which, along with Three of General Burgoins men your petitioner Escaped Again, and was again taken and cast into Carlisle Prison, from which also your Petitioner (along with Two Women more, and With Two Twins, of which your Petitioner was delivered in Prison,) made her Escape and in a Canno came Over the Susquehana River, and thence, by many hardships, came to this City.

It isn’t known what became of this determined woman; most likely she was given passage on a ship bound for England and enough money to make her way home, similar to other British army widows. But there’s a twist to the story: her husband Cornelius wasn’t actually killed at Chestnut Hill. Whether he was wounded or went missing we don’t know, but he was back with the British grenadiers. When the 10th Regiment was sent home in 1778, the soldier from Shannon, Ireland was transferred yet again, this time into the 5th Regiment of Foot. By the time his wife reached New York, he had long since sailed to fight in the West Indies. He remained in the army for a dozen more years, serving in two more regiments before being discharged and receiving a pension in 1791. It is not known whether he and Mary were ever reunited.[5]

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Soldiers Recreating”, Thomas Rowlandson, circa 1798. Although some years after the American War, this image shows British soldiers and their wives as they may have looked during leisurely moments encamped in America. Source: Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection]

 


[1] Don N. Hagist, “Mrs. Middleton Takes Prisoners,” Journal of the American Revolution, 6 June 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/06/mrs-middleton-takes-prisoners/

[2] Don N. Hagist, The Women of the British Army in America, http://revwar75.com/library/hagist/britwomen.htm

[3] Don N. Hagist, A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Baraboo, WI: Ballindalloch Press, 2004), 42-44. Each company in a British regiment had three sergeants; the last surviving muster roll for Lamb’s company in the 9th Regiment was prepared on 21 February 1777 and names the three sergeants, but by the time of Lamb’s journey to Ticonderoga, seven months later, reorganization and attrition may have changed which men held those positions. Muster rolls, 9th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2653, National Archives of Great Britain.

[4] Petition of Mary McCarthy, 23 August 1783, PRO 30/55/8798; Muster rolls, 9th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2653; Muster rolls, 7th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2474; all in National Archives of Great Britain; Calendar of the correspondence of George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army with the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906), 1504; Henry Phelps Johnston, “Colonel Varick and Arnold’s Treason,” Magazine of American History 8#11 (November 1882), 730.

[5] Petition of Mary Driskill, PRO 30/55/2452A; Muster rolls, 10th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2750; discharge of Cornelius Driskill, WO 121/11/316; all in National Archives of Great Britain.

More from Don N. Hagist

Top 10 Facts About British Soldiers

1 // They were volunteers The British Army was not allowed to...
Read More

4 Comments

  • Another interesting piece of research. Yet, I believe it would be wrong to consider Mary McCarthy a “spy” in any sense as Arnold did not inform her of the true purpose of his letter, which was encrypted. Also she took little risk as he gave her a “safe conduct” pass through American lines at a time when his command and reputation were in tact. Many American women took great risks in their intelligence activities well aware of the price of exposure. As her petition was written well after Arnold’s defection, perhaps that portion of her narrative was a bit overdone?

    • All good points, Ken. Whether a person carrying information for a spy is also committing espionage is a grey area – if she’d been caught, would ignorance of the contents of the messages be an excuse? It also bears noting that Major Andre also had a pass, but for him the journey proved quite hazardous. I do agree with your point, though, that Mary McCarthy was not a spy (and I was careful not to say that she was, but was also careful to imply that she was).
      There were women who spied for the British – but I don’t know that any of them were wives of soldiers. I hope we’ll see an article or two about them in the future!

  • Don, you raise a very complex point which usually is resolved, if ever, by a determination of intent. As I recall Mary was unaware of the objective of the encrypted message. Years earlier Dr. Church’s mistress was in a similar position and Washington did not punish her after an interrogation. As to her “capture”, one really has to ask by whom since she had “safe conduct” through American lines and even if captured by “irregulars”, if turned over to American officials her pass would be effective and if turned over to British officials she would not be punished once the message was read.

    As to Andre, you may recall he created his own problems by assuming the “skinners” he met were Tories based upon one wearing an enemy’s uniform coat, and identifying himself as on their side. At that point further investigation, or more likely anticipation of future profit, was deemed advisable by the irregulars and the rest is history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *