In the winter of 1777-78 the city of Philadelphia was occupied by a British army. Red-coated soldiers paraded the streets and guarded the entrances to the town. Fine officers in gorgeous uniforms took possession of the best houses and lived there in luxury without asking leave of the owners.
Outside of the city, at White Marsh and at Valley Forge, the American troops were encamped. Half-clothed, half-fed, shivering and suffering by their camp fires, they yet hold out bravely against their foes so comfortably housed and so bountifully fed in the city. Many people in Philadelphia would have been glad to send aid to their patriot friends, but their movements were too closely guarded and they were forced much against their will to lend assistance to their enemies.
Among these people there was a Quaker named William Darrah, a school-teacher, quiet in manners and harmless in thought and deed. He lived with his wife Lydia in a long, low building on South Second Street, which served both as a residence and as a schoolhouse. One of the larger rooms at the back of the building had been taken possession of by the British and was used by General Howe and his officers as a kind of secret meeting place. Here they held their councils of war, and here they decided whatever questions might arise relative to the movements of the soldiers in the city. As no word of complaint or unfriendliness had ever been heard from the Darrah family, it was supposed that they had only the kindliest feelings toward the intruders.
One evening in December the British adjutant general, dressed in his red coat with brass buttons and lace ruffles, knocked at the door of the Darrahs. The knock was answered by Lydia herself, a plain little Quakeress in the plain but pretty garb peculiar to her people.
"Is Mrs. Darrah at home?" asked the adjutant.
"Not Mrs. Darrah, but Lydia Darrah," was the answer. "I am she."
"Oh, I see," said the adjutant. "Well, I am come to command you to have the council chamber well warmed and lighted this evening. Several officers are going to meet there, and everything must be in readiness by seven o'clock."
"It shall be as thee desires," answered Lydia.
"And mark you," continued the officer, "we want none of your family around listening to what we may say. I shall expect you to have your supper early and to send everybody to bed before the officers arrive."
"Is not seven o'clock quite an early hour for retiring?" asked Lydia.
"Early or not early," was the answer, "those are my commands and you are expected to obey. When the meeting has ended, I will knock at your chamber door to give you notice. You can then arise and extinguish the fire and the candles and lock up the house."
"It shall be as thee desires," said Lydia.
She began at once to get the council chamber ready. While she was sweeping and dusting, her mind was full of many thoughts. Was she a slave that she must obey the commands of this red-coated officer? What right had the British to feast upon the best in the land, while her friends with General Washington were suffering the pangs of hunger? She did not believe in fighting; but since fighting was really being done, she couldn't help but wish that the Americans would conquer. As to giving any active aid to the British, she resolved that, let come what would, she never would do such a thing.
The council chamber was ready. The Darrah family supped early, and the children and servants were in bed before seven o'clock. All was quiet in the house when the British officers arrived. Lydia opened the door and showed them in. Then she retired to her own room and blew out the candle. She did not undress, but merely took off her slippers and lay down upon a couch.
Now, Lydia's room was quite near to the council chamber—so near, indeed, that she could hear the loud voices of the officers. She could not sleep. She felt in her mind that some great danger was threatening her American friends. She thought that she heard the name of Washington spoken in the council chamber.
The longer she lay and listened, the more uneasy she became. At last she arose and crept silently through the hall to the very door of the council chamber. There she stood and listened.
At first she heard only the confusion of many voices. It seemed as though all the redcoats were trying to talk at the same time. After a little there was a loud rapping on the table, and some one called for order. The room became quiet in a moment. Then one of the officers announced that he had an important order from General Howe which he would proceed to read.
Lydia Darrah was now all attention. She heard the orders of General Howe that the British troops must all be under arms and in readiness for marching at dusk on the evening of the second day thereafter. They were to march in such and such a manner and over such and such roads in order to surround and surprise the army of Washington, which was then encamped at White Marsh.
Lydia waited to hear no more. She stole quickly back to her room and lay down upon the couch as before. She felt that a very grave danger was threatening her friends. How could she help them?
An hour passed, two hours, and then she heard the officers going home. The adjutant stopped at her door and knocked. She pretended to be asleep. A second time he knocked, and a third. Then, with a yawn as though just awaking, Lydia answered. She pushed her feet into her slippers and opened the door just as the last officer was passing from the hall.
Lydia did not sleep a wink that night. The great secret she had learned was too heavy for her. She felt that she must help the Americans—and yet how? She thought of several plans. But some of them were impossible, and all were attended with danger. At last morning dawned, and with the sunlight a happy thought came into her mind.
"I can do it. I will do it," she said to herself.
After breakfast she said to her husband, "William, the flour is gone, and I intend to ride to the mill for more."
"Lydia," he answered, "thee certainly won't ride to Frankford on such a day as this. It's a good twelve-mile ride there and back, and the wind is very raw. Can't thee send the maid?"
"No, William, the wind is as raw for the maid as for me. I've made up my mind to go, myself."
Now William had learned from observation that when Lydia made up her mind to do something, things were apt to go pretty much as she said. So he raised no further objection, but having finished his breakfast, went quietly to his schoolroom to give the day's lessons to his young scholars.
Toward noon, Lydia mounted the family horse, and with her empty flour sack before her, was soon cantering briskly along Second Street and across to the Frankford road. She had often been on this sort of errand before, and her appearance caused no surprise. She had a permit from General Howe to pass the British lines, and she rode without hindrance out in the open country which then lay between Philadelphia and the little village of Frankford.
When she reached the mill there was no flour ready, and she must wait for it to be ground. This was just as she had expected and wished. She left her bag to be filled, and then took a walk out toward the American camp at White Marsh. She had not gone far when she met Colonel Craig, who was acting as a scout for Washington. He was on horseback and had a small company of soldiers with him.
The colonel knew her. "Lydia Darrah," he said, "what strange necessity can bring you here on such a day as this?"
"Friend Craig," she answered, "thee knows that I have a son in George Washington's army, and my heart is sick to see him." Then she added in a lower tone, "If thee'll alight and walk a little way with me, I'll tell thee what brings me here."
The colonel dismounted, and led his horse while he walked by Lydia's side back toward the village. Lydia told him all that she had learned, and begged that he would use the knowledge in such a way as not to mention her name. for if the British officers should learn that she had betrayed their secret, it would, no doubt, go very hard with her and her family.
"I'll tell thee what brings me here."
She then left the colonel and hastened across the fields to Frankford. When she arrived at the mill it was the middle of the afternoon, and her flour was ready. With the bag slung across the saddle before her she started for home, and just at sunset she safely reached her own door.
As she alighted from her horse, she thought to herself, "What a strange errand for a woman Friend like me to be out upon!" but she kept her own secret, and not even her husband suspected the real reason for her visit to the mill.
The next evening, the British troops, true to their programme, marched out of the city silently in fighting trim. What was their surprise to find Washington's army drawn up in line of battle and ready to receive them! Throughout the night they maneuvered in the darkness, trying to surround the Americans or strike them in an unprotected quarter. But all in vain; they could find no place in which safely to make an attack.
For two days they threatened, and tried to draw Washington away from his intrenchments. On the third day, they marched back to Philadelphia, angry, weary, and disheartened.
"Somebody has betrayed us," said the British officers. "Who can it be?"
But they never suspected the plain little Quaker woman with the sweet, sober face and quiet ways. The adjutant general, however, paid her a visit.
"You remember the meeting which we had in the council chamber a few evenings ago?" he asked.
"Certainly I remember it," she answered.
"Were any of your family up while the meeting was in progress?"
"None of them. They retired soon after supper. At seven o'clock all were in bed but myself."
"I cannot understand it," said the adjutant. "Some one must have overheard and betrayed us; but who can it have been? I know that you were asleep, for I knocked three times at your door before I could waken you. I don't know what to think."
But Lydia Darrah kept her own secret and told it to no one until after the war was ended. In her quiet way she had saved the American army from disaster and defeat. Perhaps the fate of the nation was determined by that ride to the Frankford mill.