Legend has it that on the night of December 2, 1777, Philadelphia housewife and nurse Lydia Darragh single-handedly saves the lives of General George Washington and his Continental Army when she overhears the British planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army for the following day.
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 uncorroborated, 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 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. 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.
It is said that members of the Central Intelligence Agency still tell the story of Lydia Darragh, one of the first spies in American history.