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A Spy Saves the Day for General Washington


In harsh times of survival, extraordinary citizens can help make all the difference. Legend holds that on December 2, 1777, Philadelphia housewife and nurse Lydia Darragh gathered intelligence that helped General George Washington prepare his army for what was intended to be a surprise attack launched by the British.

In September of 1777, the British managed to capture the highly prized city of Philadelphia. While nearly one-third of the city’s inhabitants fled as a result of the occupation, the Darragh family remained. Across the street from their home was the headquarters of British General Sir William Howe. After it was clear that his space was too small to hold meetings, Howe commandeered a large upstairs room in the Darraghs’ house. Family legend holds that Lydia Darragh used this proximity to eavesdrop and take notes on British meetings from an adjoining room. By sewing the notes into her coat, she was able to transport the valuable intelligence to American troops stationed outside the city.

On the evening of December 2, 1777, Mrs. Darragh caught wind of a plan that would put General George Washington’s army in grave danger. She overheard British commanders planning a surprise attack on the American forces stationed at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania. The assault was planned for December 4 and 5, which meant that Darragh had to move quickly with this information. To venture outside the British line, she used the cover story that she needed to buy flour from a nearby mill. Darragh’s swift and courageous efforts worked as she managed to pass the information to American Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Craig.

Darragh’s intelligence was put to good use. On the evening of December 4, 1777, British troops marched towards Whitemarsh to deal a blow to General Washington’s army, but to their surprise, the Americans were ready for them. Both sides skirmished for three days. By the end of the inconclusive fighting, General Howe chose to return his troops to Philadelphia.

American spies like Lydia Darragh played a critical role during the Revolutionary war. In that conflict, and nearly all that have followed, effective intelligence has often been the difference between either the survival or the destruction of a military force.


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