This Day in History: Elizabeth Burgin, unsung Revolutionary War heroine

On this day in 1776, a public notice appears in Baltimore, Maryland. It beseeches the help of “our humane ladies” in the American cause. The assistance requested was rather mundane. Could the ladies provide “assistance in furnishing us with linen rags and old sheeting, for bandages”? Yet the notice serves as a reminder: The American Revolution depended upon the assistance of women, even if we hear about them less often.

Women served in many capacities! They were spies. They were nurses. A few were soldiers. Others were scouts. Many defended their homesteads in the absence of their husbands. Unfortunately, many of these tales of heroism are all but lost to history. Today, I thought I would offer one snapshot of an all-but-forgotten heroine.

Do you know about the woman who had to flee her home because the British had offered a £200 bounty for her capture? That was a lot of money back then! It was equal to 20 years pay for a typical British soldier. How must Elizabeth Burgin have felt when she learned about the price on her head? Now take into consideration that she had three kids to worry about. She must have been terrified, not only for herself, but especially for her children.

Burgin’s crime? She had helped American prisoners in the New York area. We don’t know too much about which specific prisoners she helped or how she did it. But we do know that she wrote a letter to the Reverend James Calville in November 1779, asking for assistance. By then, she’d already fled the city and taken refuge in New Jersey. Fortunately, her three children were with her. She’d managed to get her family away from the British, but she’d left her possessions behind. Now, she needed help.

Her letter to Calville hints at the reason the British were so upset with her. It seems that she may have helped as many as 200 prisoners to escape!

Washington learned of the situation and soon wrote a letter to Congress on her behalf. “[I]t would appear that she has been indefatigable,” he told Congress, “for the relief of the prisoners, and in measures for facilitating their escape.” He had taken “the liberty of directing the commissary at Philadelphia to furnish her and her children with rations till the pleasure of Congress could be known.” Congress agreed and granted her free lodging and continued food rations.

In 1781, Burgin wrote Congress again. Couldn’t she please do some work to earn her keep? She did not wish to be “troublesome or expensive to the United States.” Perhaps Congress could “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.”

Congress did not offer her a job. Instead, it offered her a pension. She received that pension until 1787, when it is assumed that she passed away.

P.S. Little-known Revolutionary War heroines don’t usually have portraits done of them, and Elizabeth was no exception. The attached painting is of folk hero Molly Pitcher.