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This Day in History: Folk hero Anna Warner “Mother” Bailey passes away

On this day in 1851, folk hero Anna Warner “Mother” Bailey passes away. She is known for two acts of bravery and patriotism, the first of which occurred when she was almost 23 years old.

She was living with her grandmother and her uncle at the time. The uncle, Edward Mills, was a corporal in the local militia. He got called to action when the traitor Benedict Arnold invaded the area near New London, Connecticut in September 1781.

Arnold’s raid began on the morning of September 6. The alarm was sounded and local militia, including Mills, rushed to the defense of the city. Unfortunately, the British made rapid progress, finally torching the city. They headed toward Fort Griswold, where Anna’s uncle was among those defending the fort. Americans were badly outnumbered, yet they twice refused a demand of surrender!

If only their bravery had been rewarded. But it wasn’t.

The British stormed the fort and were easily overwhelming the militia. The American commander, Col. William Ledyard, realized he would need to surrender after all, but the British refused! Reportedly, as Ledyard lowered his sword in surrender, the British instead cut him down. The events that followed have been described as a massacre.

Historical marker in Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park: “Defenders of Fort Griswold.” Anna’s uncle’s name is in the third column toward the bottom.

In the meantime, Anna was with her uncle’s wife. They wondered where he was. As with many folk tales, the details can get murky, but Anna apparently decided to walk three miles toward Fort Griswold to look for her uncle. She finally found him in a makeshift hospital. He was badly wounded and begged Anna to get his wife and children so he could see them one last time. She promptly turned around and did as he’d asked. In the end, her uncle died from that wound. But, because of Anna, he was able to say one last goodbye to his family.

The episode apparently left Anna an even more fervent Patriot than she’d been before.

Now fast forward to the War of 1812. By then, Anna had gotten married to an innkeeper, and she was known as Mother Bailey. Once again, a British fleet appeared near the harbor at New London. An attack seemed imminent, but Fort Griswold was low on supplies. It especially needed flannel to make cartridge wadding. A search was made of the town, but most inhabitants had sent their personal belongings (including bedding and clothes) away in case of an attack. Mother Bailey heard that the fort was in need. She wanted to help, so she promptly ripped off the flannel petticoat that she was wearing and handed it to one of the officers. She may have added some choice language, urging him to take out an Englishman.

The attack never came, but the militia was inspired by Mother Bailey’s selflessness. According to legend, the flannel petticoat was never made into wadding, but it was instead raised up on a mast above the fort to inspire its defenders. Following the war, people spoke of the “martial petticoat” and travelers would come to the Bailey’s inn just to hear the story straight from Mother Bailey.

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