Women of the Revolution: A reminder of the role they played

Phyllis Chapman minds us of the role women played

BENNINGTON — Historic interpreter Phyllis Chapman slid on a soldier's coat and hat over the top of her colonial styled dress and hat, seemingly transforming herself into a man. She then told the story of a "man" named Robert Shirtliff, who served in the Fourth Massachusetts Infantry between 1782 and 1783.

This was during her presentation, "Women of the Revolution, Backstage Heroines," given before a crowd at the Old First Church Barn on Saturday,

She told the stories of women who were active during the American Revolution — some of which worked secretly by the side of men out on the battle field. Chapman regularly holds presentations in the intermediate area through Vintage Visitors Presentations where she focuses on telling the stories of prominent and unknown American women throughout history.

Although British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered in the October of 1781, peace treaties were not signed until 1783. Scrimmages and night raids remained active in Southern New York, where local citizens lived in dangerous condition, Chapman said. Shirtliff fought throughout the area.

Shirtliff faced two injuries between June 1782 and January 1783. The first of which, resulted in a shot beneath the coat and cap, during a battle against Dutch loyalists outside of Tarrytown, N.Y. Chapman said that Shirtliff was not seriously injured and continued to serve. In a retaliation battle against the Dutch, not long after the first one, Shirtliff was injured once again. This time, he was shot twice in the thigh, and a flesh wound in the head. Shirtliff escaped and found an area to rest and recover, where he did his best to help another solider recover from more serious injuries. Following the other solider passing away, Shirtliff decided to take matters into his own hands. Instead of going to a doctor, he removed the bullets from his own leg, Chapman said. He returned to battle.

Following peace treaties being signed in 1783, continental solders in Philadelphia were not as happy as others were. The group had not been paid for their work for months to prior to the celebrations. These soldiers rioted, Chapman said. Shirtliff's unit and other units were sent to the city by General Washington to restore order.

Shirtliff fell ill and was brought to a hospital, against his will. A complete examination was given by Doctor Baranabas Binney where the soldier's secret was let out.

Robert Shirtliff was a woman. Deborah Sampson had hidden under the guise of a man so she could serve in the army, because women could not serve in the services at that time. Sampson grew up poor and had worked a number of jobs before realizing she wanted something more. She decided to enlist and disguised herself as a man. Sampson was about the average height of a man during that era, Chapman said. She hid the other aspects that would have given her away.

Sampson ended up being honored for her military service and was honorably discharged. Her years of service have been documented under Robert Shirtliff's name.

Deborah Sampson's story was one of the many Chapman reenacted and told. She explained that much of history, especially during the colonial era, was written mostly by men. Women who made up the other half of the general population have been less talked about, even though the war had just as much of an impact on them, said Chapman.

Stories like Sampson's happened more often than one would think.

"[Women] participated on many levels," Chapman said. "It really was a joint effort between men and women to win our independence."

Mercy Otis Warren, friend of the well-known Abigail Adams, helped with the effort by writing politically satirical plays about the British. While the plays were not performed, they were still read. Chapman said that she believes Warren was the first to write a comprehensive history about the American Revolution. It took her over 30 years to write, as she collected eye witness accounts, letters, and other evidence.

Chapman also told of the women who remained loyal to the British; she also touched upon a few legends, like Molly Pitcher. Pitcher was said to have fought in the American Revolution and was rumored to have given water to soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth and numerous other exploits. Historians have never been able verify these stories, Chapman said.

Chapman draws on women from diverse backgrounds to include in her historic presentations, to make others aware of the impact all women have had throughout different parts of history. She has been doing similar presentations for the past 15 years.

Although her presentation at the Old First Church Barn, focused on women from the American Revolution, she ended her reenactment with examples of other famous women who came after the colonial era like Ida B. Wells the first African American female journalist and Elizabeth Black, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

"Historically it goes right back through centuries that women have been considered to be inferior beings to men," Chapman said. "Women have not been given much credit for any of their intelligence, bravery, and that sort of comes and goes throughout history. In the Revolution era, they were willing to give women a little more credit."

According to Chapman, as society changed and America moved into a more industrial era, women were expected to continue working around the house and tending to the children while the men went out and worked. She also said that women were viewed as being not very smart compared to men.

Chapman views the circumstances women have faced to be a cross cultural issue. "I love bringing women's history to life and bringing it to the people," she said. "This is really so important. It's a part of history that is left out and maybe it's more important now than ever. There's two sides to everything and we can't leave it out. Women have accomplished a great deal and it's not always made public."

To learn more about Chapman's historic presentations, visit, www.facebook.com/VintageVisitors8589

Reach the Bennington Banner at news@benningtonbanner.com


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