One of the recurring themes in accounts of the home front in war—any war—is the formation of a home guard, official or unofficially. It is usually described as being made up of the men and boys who were left behind because they were too old, too damaged or too young to join the army. That description leaves out the fact that women, too, were often part of the home guard, especially if the home guard was an improvised affair.(1)
Case in point: Mrs. Wright’s Guard
Prudence Cummings Wright and her husband, David Wright, lived in Pepperell Massachusetts, which appears to have been a hotbed of anti-British sentiment in the years leading up to the American revolution. Prudence and David were both supporters of the revolutionary cause. (Two of her brothers supported the Crown. A point you should remember.) (2)
When news reached Pepperell of the skirmish at Lexington on April 19, 1775, David and the other male Patriots of the town marched off to join other Patriot forces in the fight. (3) After they left, the women of Pepperell learned that Loyalists planned to pass information to the British on the road that ran through town. Determined to stop the Loyalists, some thirty to forty townswomen formed themselves into a female militia, electing Prudence as their captain. Calling themselves the “Prudence Wright guard” they dressed themselves in male clothing, armed themselves as best they could with farm implements and whatever muskets their men had left behind,(4) and marched(5) to Jewett’s Bridge, on the Nashua River between the towns of Pepperell and Grotton, where they intended to stop any messengers who might try to pass.
It was late before two horsemen approached the bridge, heading toward Boston. Prudence blinded them with her lantern and demanded to know their names and their business. When the horsemen tried to flee, the women surrounded them. One of the horsemen, a known Loyalist named Captain Leonard Whiting, prepared to fight his way through, sure the women couldn’t stop him. The other, Prudence’s brother Samuel, had recognized his sister’s voice. He warned Whiting, “She would wade through blood for the rebel cause.”
Members of Mrs. Whiting’s Guard searched the two men, and confiscated dispatches aimed for the British command in Boston. They guarded their prisoners in a local house overnight. The next morning, they delivered the men and the dispatches to Groton. The men were set free on the condition that they would leave the colony. Prudence never saw her brother Samuel again.
Prudence died in 1823. The epitaph on her tombstone does not read “loving wife and mother,” though presumably she was both. (6) Instead it reads “In Memory of the Captain of the Bridge Guard.”
(1) And possibly the most able and active part, since women in the home guard were not too old, too damaged, or too young to join the regular army. They were just too female.
(2) We will hereafter refer to Patriots and Loyalists—both titles that beg a number of questions beyond the scope of this blog post.
(3) Or at least they are described as marching off. My guess is that early in the war American militiamen walked briskly in what only the charitable would call a formation. The British, now, they MARCHED.
(4) The improvised nature of the weaponry is a recurring theme of stories about women who form improvised home guards.. Do not underestimate the power of a pitchfork.
(5) See previous caveat and multiply it many times. Local militias had some experience of drilling, often trained by British officers. The minutewomen of Pepperell had none.
(6) She had eleven children, nine of whom made it to adulthood.