On the second day of December, 1777, late in the afternoon, an officer in a British uniform by the name of Maj. John Andre climbed the steps of a house in Philadelphia immediately opposite the quarters occupied by General Howe, who – at that time – had full possession of the city.
The house was plain and neat and all knew it was the home of William and Lydia Darragh, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers). The British army had confiscated the house next door for their officers and thrown the owners out. The Darragh house was the place chosen by the superior officers of the army for private conferences, whenever it was necessary to hold consultations on subjects of importance; and selected, perhaps, because of the unobtrusive character of its residents, whose religion practiced meekness and forbearance and non-violence. The British had no fear of the Darraghs.
The officer, who seemed quite comfortable approaching the home, knocked at the door. It was opened and in the neatly furnished parlor he met the mistress, who spoke to him, calling him by name. It was the officer she had dealt with before, and he appeared in haste to give an order.
He requested the back room above the stairs be prepared for a reception that evening of himself and his friends, who were to meet there and remain late. “And be sure, Lydia,” he concluded, “that your family are all in bed at an early hour. I shall expect you to attend to this request. When our guests are ready to leave the house, I will myself give you notice so that you may let us out and extinguish the fire and candles.”
(Now, little did he know that Lydia and her husband, these quiet and unassuming people, were Patriot spies and pretty PO’d that their friends and neighbors had been thrown out of their home by these arrogant British officers, so when they had information to share with Washington, her husband wrote the information in a code, Lydia put the tiny pieces of paper inside cloth-covered buttons and sewed the buttons on the coat of their 14-yr old son, who would go visit his brother, Lt. Charles Darragh, serving in Washington’s army at Whitemarsh.). The Lt. would cut off the buttons, decipher the messages and get the intel to Washington.)
Having delivered this order with an emphatic manner which showed that he relied greatly on the prudence and discretion of the person he was addressing, the major departed. Lydia got everything ready. But the words she had heard, especially the order to retire early, rang in her ears, and she was convinced that something important was about to happen. While her hands were busy with duties required of her, her mind was racing. The evening came, and the officers arrived at the place of meeting. Lydia had ordered all her family to bed, and she retired to her own bedroom after admitting the guests. She threw herself, without undressing, on the bed, still anxious about what was happening.
Sleep eluded her. Her vague apprehensions gradually assumed more definite shape. She became so uneasy that she began feeling absolute terror. Unable to lie there any longer feeling so nervous, she slid from the bed, and taking off her shoes, passed noiselessly from her bedroom and along the entry.
Approaching the room where the officers were meeting as cautiously and quietly as she could, she pressed her ear to the keyhole. For a few moments, she could not make out what they were saying, yet what she did hear kept her glued to the spot.
At length there was total silence in the room, and a voice was heard reading a paper aloud. It was an order for troops to leave the city on the night of the fourth and march out to a secret attack on the American army, then camped at Whitemarsh. They were bringing 5000 troops, 13 cannons, supply wagons and 11 boats on wheels to the attack.
Lydia had heard enough. She retreated softly to her own room and laid down on the bed. In the deep stillness that enveloped the house, she could hear the beating of her own heart – a heart now throbbing with emotions to which no speech could give utterance. It seemed to her that but a few moments had elapsed, when there was a knocking at her door. She knew well what the signal meant, but took no heed. It was repeated, more loudly. Still she gave no answer. Again, and yet louder, the knocks were repeated; and then she rose and opened the door.
It was Major Andre, who came to inform her they were ready to depart. Lydia let them out, locked up the house, extinguished the candles and fire. Again she returned to her bedroom, but she could not sleep the rest of the night. Her mind was more anxious than ever. She thought of the danger that threatened the lives of thousands of her countrymen, and of the ruin that would result over the whole land.
Something must be done, and immediately, to avert this wide-spread destruction! Should she awaken her husband and inform him? No, come what may, she would encounter the risk alone. After a prayer for guidance, her plan formed and she waited with composure till dawn of the next day. Then she waked her husband, told him they were almost out of flour for the household and that it was necessary for her to go to Frankford to get some more. This was not an uncommon occurrence and her declining to take the maid servant came as no surprise.
Taking the bag with her, she walked through the snow, having already gotten Gen. Howe’s written permission to pass the British lines. Lydia reached Frankford four or five miles away and deposited her bag at the mill to be filled. Now came the dangerous part of her mission. She walked with great haste towards the outposts of the American army, trying to find General Washington to warn him of the danger.
She met an American officer selected by General Washington to find information about what the British were up to. He immediately recognized Lydia and asked where she was going. In reply, she asked him to dismount from his horse and walk with her, which he did, ordering his men to keep in sight. She disclosed her secret to him and received his promise not to betray her since the British might take vengeance on her and her family.
The officer thanked her for her information and promised to protect her identity. He directed her to a nearby house where she could get something to eat, but Lydia preferred to return at once. The officer remounted his horse and went quickly to search for General Washington. Preparations were made immediately to give the British a fitting reception.
With a heart lightened and filled with thankfulness, the quiet, obedient but intrepid woman made her way home, carrying the bag of flour which had served her well. None suspected the grave, demure Quaker woman of having snatched from the British their anticipated victory. Her demeanor upon arriving back home was, as always, quiet, orderly and subdued and she attended to the duties of her family with her usual composure. But her heart pounded, late on the appointed night, as she watched from her window the departure of the army – on what secret mission she knew only too well! She listened breathlessly to the sound of their footsteps and the trampling of the horses, till the sound died away in the distance, and silence again reigned throughout the city.
Time dragged slowly between the marching out and the return of the British troops. When finally, the distant roll of the drum proclaimed their approach, Lydia was so anxious she had to retreat from the window, not daring to ask a question or appear curious in the least.
All of a sudden there was a loud knocking at her door! She felt the safety of her family depended on her composure at this critical moment, so she took a deep breath, smoothed her hair, and answered the door. The visitor was Major Andre, who summoned her to his room. With pale skin, but feeling calm – for she placed her faith in God, Lydia obeyed the summons.
The officer’s face was clouded, and his expression stern. He locked the door with an air of mystery when Lydia entered, and motioned her to a seat. After a moment of silence, he said –
“Were any of your family up, Lydia, on the night when I received company in this house?”
“No,” was the unhesitating reply. “They all retired at eight o’clock as you instructed.”
“It is very strange,” said the officer, and mused a few minutes. “You, I know, Lydia, were fast asleep; I had to knock on your door three times before you heard me. Yet it is certain that we were betrayed. I am altogether at a loss to figure out who could have tipped off General Washington! When we arrived at his encampment, we found his cannon mounted, his troops under arms and so prepared at every point to receive us that we were compelled to march back without firing a shot, like a parcel of fools.”
No one knows if he ever discovered who betrayed him, but the pious Quaker woman blessed God for her strength and rejoiced that it was not necessary for her to tell a lie in her own defense. And all who admire examples of courage and patriotism, especially those who enjoy the fruits of them, must honor the name of Lydia Darragh.