Philadelphia housewife and nurse Lydia Darragh is an American woman believed to have crossed British lines while the British were occupying Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War. She delivered information to George Washington and the Continental Army warning them of a British surprise attack..
On December 2, 1777, Darragh overhears the plans on the attack, saving the lives of Washington and his army and making her one of America’s first spies.
During the occupation of Philadelphia, British General William Howe stationed his headquarters across the street from the Darragh home, and when Howe’s headquarters proved too small to hold meetings, he commandeered a large upstairs room in the Darraghs’ house. Although not confirmed, family legend holds that Mrs. Darragh would eavesdrop and take notes on the British meetings from an adjoining room and would conceal the notes by sewing them into her coat or hiding them in large buttons that she and her messengers wore before passing them onto American troops stationed outside the city.
On the evening of December 2, 1777, Darragh overheard the British commanders planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, for December 4 and 5. She received a request that night to retire early and would be woken up later to let soldiers out of the meeting, but instead, she pretended to go to sleep and listened in on the meeting. Using a cover story that she needed to buy flour from a nearby mill just outside the British line, Darragh passed the information to American Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Craig the following day.
The British marched towards Whitemarsh on the evening of December 4, 1777, and were surprised to find General Washington and the Continental Army waiting for them. After three inconclusive days of skirmishing, General Howe chose to return his troops to Philadelphia.