One Brave Woman's Journey to Valley Forge
Answering Liberty's Call
In 1778, war may be men’s business, but that doesn’t stop Anna Stone from getting involved in the fight for liberty. When her soldier husband and brothers face starvation at Valley Forge, Anna is not content to pray and worry. She gets on her horse and strikes out alone over two hundred miles of rough roads to bring them life-sustaining supplies.
Eighty miles from her destination, Anna learns of a plot to overthrow General Washington and replace him with a commander who will surrender. With the fate of the American Revolution in her hands, she agrees to carry a message of warning and races to reach Valley Forge before one of the conspirators, who is in hot pursuit, can intercept her.
Chester County, Pennsylvania
January 22, 1778
The man following me on this lonely road is nowhere in sight—but that doesn’t mean he has given up. He can wait for me to ride Nelly to exhaustion and overtake us at his leisure. Though I want to gallop her, the mare is carrying a full load of provisions. She cannot do more than pick her way through the churned-up, frozen mud without the risk of coming up lame.
Despite the cold, a bead of sweat rolls down my cheek, and my tortured imagination conjures the rush of oncoming hoof beats and the swish of a quirt. As I look back, the weak winter sunset flares along the edge of the ridge, and I shade my eyes as I scan the shadows to make certain we are still alone.
His mission must have sounded like a lark—for how difficult could it be to waylay a lone woman and steal the message she carries? A strangled sob escapes my lips, and I clap a gloved hand to my mouth. This is no time for weakness. I’ve eluded him for two days and kept my wits every time my capture seemed certain. The trick I pulled to make my escape just before dawn surely raised his ire, and I reckon he’ll show no mercy if he overtakes me before I reach Valley Forge. I square my shoulders inside my husband’s jacket and trace the outline of the letter concealed in my stays—the only feminine garment I’m wearing at the moment.
Eyes gritty with exhaustion, I stand in the stirrups and peer into the darkness ahead. Before I left home, my brother-in-law sketched a crude map to guide me from Virginia to Pennsylvania and marked this stretch with the name of an ordinary he frequented before he deserted from the Sharpshooters last month.
When I come upon the Seven Stars Inn, I’ll know I’m nearing the Continental Army’s camp.
Nelly shies as something scuttles across the path and rustles into the brush, and I struggle to keep my seat as I rein her down. It’s likely naught but a possum or raccoon but telling myself so fails to calm my racing heart. As we carry on, I cast wary glances into shadowy clumps of trees that line the sides of the road. My pursuer may not be the only threat I encounter before I reach the picket line.
When I spot the warm glow of candlelight in a building’s windows ahead, I lean forward in the saddle in anticipation, and the wooden sign out front, emblazoned with seven stars, bolsters my spirits. Nelly jerks her head toward the inn’s fenced paddock as if to suggest she wouldn’t mind stopping to rest and eat, but succor cannot be ours until our task is complete.
“What’s a few more miles when we’ve already come so far? We can do it, girl!” Never one to disappoint, my weary horse minces onward. Minutes tick by, and when we pass a mile marker at a crossroads, it has grown too dark to read the sign, but I remind myself it is just a few miles more. Further on, my scalp crinkles when a wolf howls somewhere in the hills to the north. Now my ears are attuned to every sound, but after that solitary cry, I discern only the creak of leather, the rasp of the rough fabric of my borrowed breeches, and the clop clop of Nelly’s hooves.
As we round a bend in the road, pinpoints of light flit through the darkness ahead the way fireflies dot the hills at home on summer nights. Is this my destination, or an obstacle in my path?
Someone raises a light in greeting. Words in the German tongue drift from up ahead, and my breath snags in my chest. Could they be Hessians? This far west? My mother tried to
dissuade me from making this journey with whispered suppositions of what enemy soldiers will do to a defenseless woman. Though my first instinct is to wheel around, I must complete my mission—and retreat will drive me into the clutches of the man who lurks somewhere behind me.
I settle my cocked hat more firmly on my head and turn up the coat collar. In this disguise I could be mistaken for a lad of thirteen or fourteen, instead of a twenty-nine-year-old mother of three, but my voice will betray me.
Shadowy forms and a horse-drawn cart block the road. Perhaps they’re a foraging detail. Hoping it’s just these few, without a saddle horse to give chase, I bark, “Was geht hier vor?” It’s the only phrase I know in their language that makes sense under the circumstances, and I wonder, just as I have asked, what goes on here.
One man responds in a rapid stream of German. Lantern light falls across his face as he comes closer, showing leathery skin and bags beneath rheumy eyes. He is unarmed, his rough coat and breeches those of a farmer, not a soldier.
Reverting to my normal voice, yet poised for flight, I call, “I beg your pardon… do you speak English?”
A boy steps up beside the old man and answers, “I do, missus.”
“Please, how far to Valley Forge?”
“Near ten miles.”
Every weary bone in my body seems to cry out in disappointment. I’ve pushed the limits of Nelly’s endurance today to put thirty miles behind us, and it isn’t enough. “Then I must make haste. Do I stay on this road?”
“Ja. Bear to the right at the fork ahead.”
In the flickering light, two sets of dirty, bare feet protrude from under a ragged blanket on the cart. “What’s going on here?”
“There's soldiers with fever in the church up yon. I’m Jacob Hippel.” He jerks his thumb toward the older man. “This is my grandfather, Lorenz. He offered land to lay the dead to rest. We’re taking bodies to the icehouse until we get a thaw.”
“These soldiers… where are they from?”
“Pennsylvania, mostly, but there were some from Virginia.”
Dread chills my blood. “Do you know their names?”
“Sorry, missus. You could ask Herr Doctor, at the church.” The boy swings his lantern toward a whitewashed log building a short distance down the road.
“My brothers are with the Third Virginia. I received word that they were ill. May I see those men’s faces?” I urge Nelly up beside the cart and steel myself as Jacob relays my request and old Lorenz turns back the blanket.
My two errands, both urgent and of near equal importance to me, lead to the same destination—Valley Forge. I haven’t considered what I’ll do if Henry and Jeremiah are in hospital elsewhere. Jacob holds his lantern up over the wagon bed, and the letter’s corner presses against my bosom as I lean forward and study the slack, hairy faces. I breathe a sigh of relief. “These are not my brothers. Why is the hospital so far from the Continentals’ camp?”
“There are field hospitals all over the county, in churches, barns, and houses.”
My heart plummets at this news. My brothers could be languishing anywhere. “Most obliged.” As I dig my heels into Nelly’s ribs, the mare, caught dozing, surges forward in alarm. She carries me to the church, where, unable to suppress a groan as my
feet hit the ground, I loop the reins over the handrail and hurry up the wooden steps. It’s a risk to stop, but I can’t take the chance of riding right past my brothers.
A tired-looking man with white hair as fluffy as carded wool meets me at the door, candle in hand. “See here, boy—”
Removing the hat reveals my face and my long hair that straggles loose from its tail.
He squints and raises his candle higher. “Beg your pardon, madam.”
“Doctor, please, I’ve come from Virginia seeking my brothers, soldiers who have taken ill. May I see if they are among your patients?”
He gestures me into the sanctuary where rough benches, pushed against the walls, make room for two rows of men laid out on cots and pallets. In my haste, I forget to take shallow breaths, and gag as the stench of sickness, unwashed bodies, and human waste invades my nostrils.
“If they’re not here, you might try Captain Francis’s barn, off Pawlings Road.”
Candlelight falls on the drawn faces of the men. Their beards crawl with lice and fleas, but they’re so far gone with fever that they don’t seem to notice. At the end of the row, I stoop to lift the blankets covering four corpses on the floor. As I start down the second row, hope surges in my chest. Perhaps my brothers have recovered since my husband posted his letter, and they’ll be on picket duty when I arrive at Valley Forge. My vision of a happy reunion melts away when at the last cot, a young soldier clutches my coat sleeve, staring up at me with glassy eyes. “Ma?”
“Shh. Everything will be all right.” As I smooth the hair off his clammy forehead, he relaxes at my touch. His skin looks waxy, bloodless.
“Don’t go, Ma. Please. I’m afeared.”
“Shh, shh, now. I’m here. Don’t fret.” In my experience, all sick children cry out for their mothers. “The Lord is my shepherd… I shall not want...” As I add my silent prayer that a kind woman has been there to console my brothers, Henry and Jeremiah, the young soldier closes his eyes, and a rasping breath escapes his lips. His hand falls to his side.
The doctor hovers nearby. “Was that your brother, madam?”
“No.” I blink back tears.
“I fear the rest will soon follow, for I have exhausted my supply of medicines.”
“I have tea in my saddlebag that brings down fever. I’ll fetch some.” Knowing I can help quickens my steps. My first lungful of fresh air should be a relief, but it turns into a gasp. The jingle of a horse’s bit carries on the still night air, and my skin prickles as intuition warns me of danger.
One of the men on the road motions toward the church with a lantern, and I hear hoof beats on the frozen ground. When the old doctor joins me, I take him into my confidence. “I’m in danger. I carry an urgent message for General Washington. The rider approaching has been trying to steal it from me since I left York.”
He raises an eyebrow. “A lady spy, racketing around the countryside dressed as a boy, carrying secret dispatches and medicinal teas?”
“No sir, not a spy. A patriot. Everything I have told you is true.”
“Remain inside, out of sight.”
“What of my horse? And my bundles? He cannot fail to notice—”
“Leave it to me.” He extinguishes the candle, leaving the sanctuary lit only by the glowing embers in the fireplace. As I duck
inside, he hurries out and clucks to Nelly. Then there’s a thud which must be the provisions, cut loose from behind my saddle and dropping to the ground. My knife slips from its sheath with a hiss as the approaching hoof beats slow to a walk.
“Where is she?” My pursuer’s voice cuts the air like the blade I hold clutched to my chest.
“You mean the woman who swapped this winded animal for mine?” Water sloshes as the doctor sets a bucket in front of Nelly, who submerges her muzzle, drinking noisily. “What’s your business with her?”
“That’s none of your concern. Which road did she take?”
“Doubled back to the Seven Stars. Said she’d return my horse tomorrow.”
Leather creaks as my pursuer dismounts. At the thud of his heavy boot on the stairs, I shrink away from the door.
“When I called at the tavern, she was not within. That boy said she was here.”
The doctor, brought up short, hems and haws before he speaks. “She must have taken the south road.”
He gives a disbelieving snort. “I’ll have a look inside to make sure.”
There is no other door through which to escape. My eyes dart around for a place to hide.
The doctor’s voice rings out. “There’s sickness within. You’ve had the pox, sir?”
He will spot me beneath a cot, and the reeking pile of dirty laundry in the corner is too small to burrow into.
The man scoffs as he continues up the steps. “I won’t be long.”
The doctor tries again. “That’s a nasty gash you have there. Shall I clean and stitch it up for you?”
“No. It’s but a trifle.”
In desperation, I grab the topmost soiled sheet, take off my hat, and lie on the floor beside the dead soldiers. The stink of disease and decay surrounds me as the sheet comes to rest against my face. Though I am immune to the pox, only God knows what other diseases afflict these men. I cannot dwell on what I may contract from this filthy covering, but I tuck my chin, so the sheet does not brush against my mouth.
No sooner am I settled than the door creaks. As I await my fate, my thoughts run first to my children. Rhoda. Elijah. William. If I die in the service of my country, will they ever know what became of me? And what of my husband, Benjamin, and my brothers? Failure to deliver the message puts them—and everyone in the army—in even greater jeopardy.
The man swears and retches, and his vomit hits the floor with a splat. “You call this a hospital? It’s naught but a pest house.”
“I warned you.” The doctor doesn’t sound sorry at all.
The floorboards tremble beneath the man’s tread, and as he draws near, I exhale slowly and breathe through my mouth. I cannot expect the old doctor to overpower him. On my vow, an unmarked grave will not be my final resting place. Every muscle in my body tenses as I prepare to defend myself.
Candlelight glows through the threadbare sheet as he bends closer. I manage not to flinch as he pulls back the blankets on the corpses, one by one. My hand clenches the knife’s handle.
The doctor’s voice is gruff. “Are you an utter fool? Don’t you know those blankets carry disease? Do you want to end up in the icehouse with the dead?”
The man retches again, and the candlelight grows fainter as he backs away from my hiding place. “She took the south road, did you say?”
“Yes. If you’d heeded me the first time, you’d have caught up to her by now.”
“My new bride is headstrong, and unused to a firm hand. In time, I will school her.”
Grim pride surges past my ebbing terror. It is I who has been schooling—and besting—him for the past two days. When his mount’s hoof beats fade, I creep out to where the doctor loads my bundles back on behind Nelly’s saddle. He has acquitted himself admirably in my defense. “I never would have married such a man. My husband is a sergeant—and a chaplain—in the Third Virginia.”
“Indeed, madam. I did not believe a word that blackguard said. Do you know the way to Valley Forge?” He pulls the rope taut.
“No, but I must get there tonight. Will the south road bring him into my path?”
“They do not intersect, but once he reaches that road’s end, he’s sure to double back. It doesn’t give you much of a start.”
Deep in the saddlebag, my fingers close around one of the tins of peppermint and yarrow tea. “Thank you for putting him off my trail. This will help bring those lads’ fevers down.”
He nods. “Now mark me, stay on this road past Gordon’s Ford and the White Horse Inn, and then take the right-hand fork. From there it’s naught but a mile to the picket line.”
Back in the saddle, I clap my heels against Nelly’s ribs. The mare, refreshed, churns up dirt and gravel as she takes off.
Under the waning moon’s illumination, I can see well enough to avoid patches of ice and the stumps and boulders that protrude from the road’s scarred surface. The state of the road, and the
substantial stone houses and barns that loom in the darkness every quarter mile or so, lead me to believe that this is a well-traveled highway during the day.
Two hours gone we pass the village of Gordon’s Ford, and soon after, a flickering fire in an iron brazier illuminates the painted sign for the White Horse Inn. Subtle pressure from my left knee is all that’s needed to guide Nelly toward the curving, downhill fork, and I turn her at an angle to help her negotiate the icy slope.
The road leads into the deep shadow of a grove of trees, and we continue on slowly while I wait in vain for my eyes to adjust. When minutes pass with no relief to the darkness, I murmur to cheer her and keep my worries at bay. “I’ll make sure the soldiers give you a nice, soft bed of hay when we arrive. You’ve done all I could ask and more. What a good girl you are!” No sooner are the words out of my mouth than Nelly shies and rears. Launched from the saddle as though I’ve been shot out of a cannon, I land in a graceless sprawl in the road. She snorts and clatters off.
Everything hurts. Biting back tears, I sit up and press both hands over the torn knee of my breeches. Blood seeps into the fabric, but the cut doesn’t seem serious enough to bind. Rubbing my hands clean on the breeches, I feel around for the hat and put it back on over my tumbled hair. Staggering to my feet, I call out, “Nelly? Come back. Where are you?” As I take a tentative step, the toe of my boot catches on the rutted road, sending me headlong onto the frozen ground.
I might be steps from shelter or from some unseen hazard. Only one thing is certain: I cannot lie here in the road when every second counts. I want to, though. I want to kick my heels and curse the circumstances that brought me to this point. Over and over, I’ve been told the war with the British is none of women’s affairs. So why is it me, and not some man, out in the cold night without
my mount, desperate to deliver a message that could change the war’s outcome?
Oh, bloody hell. I would never utter such an oath aloud, but in my thoughts, perhaps it doesn’t count. I made this journey for Benjamin and our children—and their children’s children, down through the ages to come. Benjamin is willing to fight and die for the cause of liberty. My cause is keeping him alive to witness that freedom come to pass.
Nothing deters my first halting steps. Hoof beats, punctuated by the sound of metal on metal, grow louder. The animal is not moving fast, but my disorientation is so profound that I can’t seem to move out of the way. As it bears down on me, a muzzle and trailing reins brush across my upraised hand. “Nelly?” This time the horse’s nose bumps against my face, and I grab for the reins. Skittish, she rears again, and fear of her metal-shod hooves makes me stumble back.
Time is ticking. Has my pursuer come on the right road? I grit my teeth, compose myself, and speak in a crooning voice. “I will get to Valley Forge tonight and tend to my brothers. I will deliver that letter to the general, have a cup of coffee before the fire, and take a bath. Won’t it be—oh, honestly, Nelly!”
The mare tosses her head and refuses to be still. I’ve lost my riding crop somewhere in the dark, but I could never bear to beat my exhausted, frightened pet. With effort, I set aside my anxiety and frustration, put my hand behind my back as if I might produce a treat, and sink into a curtsey.
“Your Majesty.” Perhaps Nelly will respond to the trick she learned long ago. She paws the ground, and I visualize her as she kneels, bowing her head along her extended right leg.
“Good girl. Steady now.” My hand closes around the reins, a lifeline in the darkness, and I run my other hand down her side to
find the stirrup. Then I sing out, “Charmed, I’m sure!” and Nelly rises. Knee shaking with fatigue as my weight leaves the ground, I feel all my fresh bumps and bruises as I land in the saddle.
Every minute seems like an hour as Nelly picks her way through the darkness. Some of my tension ebbs away as we emerge from the forest, and I can see the road ahead curve uphill toward a large house. Then a whinny draws my attention to a horse and rider halted near the brazier burning at the house’s front door. Stifling a scream, I recognize both the White Horse Inn—and the man who pursues me.
I’ve been traveling the wrong way.
Two Weeks Earlier
Fauquier County, Virginia
January 5, 1778
My cousins Mollie and Nancy gathered around my aunt Jean at the pianoforte, and as the opening chords of the ballad “Turtle Dove” tore at my heart, I picked up baby William and dodged my mother’s restraining hand.
“Anna, stay and listen to the music.”
“He needs his napkin changed.”
“Do you forget we have servants for that?”
“Don’t trouble Phillis or Lynn, Mother. I’ll do it.” My cousins’ voices drifted after me as I hurried from the room.
Fare you well, my dear, I must be gone, and leave you for a while; if I roam far away, I’ll come back again, though I roam ten thousand miles, my love…
Upstairs, I shut my chamber door to muffle the rest of the song, hugged William close, and fought back tears. No letters, no word from Benjamin in two months. Most of the time I could bear his absence, but tonight I missed him so keenly I was terrible company. Time spent changing little William’s napkin would grant me a short respite from my family’s Twelfth Night celebration.
Our son’s dark hair and bright brown eyes resembled his father’s, and when he smiled, my warring feelings of joy and sadness threatened to overwhelm me. How I would have preferred to be at home, with just Benjamin and our children. Instead, he was somewhere in Pennsylvania with the army, and the children and I were in exile at my uncle’s house. Our young ones had no memory of fat turkeys, mistletoe, and simple, cozy holidays spent
at our dear little home near the apple orchard. The house stood empty and forlorn for a second winter. My own memories were fading.
The baby chortled as I kissed his feet in their knitted booties. “Your father will be so excited to meet you when he comes home, my sweet boy.” When that would be, I could not say. Though it was like picking a wound that wouldn’t heal, my eyes strayed to the ribbon-bound packet of letters on the escritoire. Better to stay in my chamber, where it was quiet, and re-read every one of Benjamin’s letters.
I had long been under the spell of my husband’s words. Most of our courtship was conducted by correspondence, and even now, after ten years of marriage, his writing and oratory skills kept their hold on me. In the pulpit, he had the power to lift a congregation. In an ordinary, he could raise a mug of ale and inflame the passions that drove men to seek political change. I often faded into the background of his public life, just as he let me tend to mine without interference. But at home, we treasured our intellectual discourse. It was one of the many facets of our marriage that bound us, one to the other. At home, we were equals.
I suppose that was why his decision not to consult me before arranging for me to live here, at Uncle’s, still hurt.
I hadn’t protested when Benjamin enlisted in the Culpeper Minute Men in the fall of 1775, for it was every able-bodied man’s duty to serve in the militia. He’d been delighted—far more than I, to be honest—when the Virginia Assembly called the Minute Men to defend the arsenal at Williamsburg just before Christmastide. When he’d returned three months later, he was restless, and a chasm formed between us that had not existed before. Even though Governor Dunmore’s expulsion from the colony had restored
peace to Virginia, Benjamin would not be content until the unrest in all the colonies was resolved.
The following spring, I had quailed with fear when the main army attached his militia unit to one of the Virginia regiments. But months passed, and despite the escalating conflict, Benjamin was not called to do anything more dangerous than take a turn guarding disaffected Loyalists from Virginia’s tidewater coast who had been brought inland to Fauquier County.
Though he spent long days in the fields or the orchards, he often rode off after supper to spend a few hours at Edwards’ Ordinary in nearby Fauquier Court House. There, he and his fellows followed the news of the continuing rebellion in the north and rejoiced in the daring exploits of the Sons of Liberty.
Unsure how to make him understand my worry, I settled for pointing out it did not look well when a preacher spent more time in the ordinary than in church.
One October evening, Benjamin was unusually quiet as he cleaned his rifle. Even after the children were in bed, he continued to polish the barrel in silence. This was our time for conversation, and I waited for him to speak his mind. When he rose and hung the rifle on its pegs over the door, I could hold my tongue no longer. “What troubles you?”
“I’m not troubled—just trying to decide how to tell you.”
As it happened, I had news for him, too. At the children’s bedroom door, my keen mother’s ear discerned Rhoda and Elijah breathing in unison. I took my shawl off its peg. “Come for a walk with me.”
Outside, our shadows melted into the darkness between the rows of gnarled apple trees that marched across our orchard’s hills. When the climb grew steep, he took my hand, steadying me until we stood together on high ground. Here the Blue Ridge Mountains
rolled away to the east, the north, and the south. To the west, the last rays of the setting sun turned the horizon orange and pink. Silhouetted against the fading light, his profile put me in mind of a Roman emperor I’d seen in a book, and it tinged my surge of affection with foreboding. I’d married a farmer. A preacher. I had not expected him to become a warrior. “Do you remember the day you asked Uncle for my hand?”
He chuckled. “If I recall, you tried to put me off. You said that you had but a small measure of liberty, which you’d lose as soon as you expressed tender feelings for someone.”
“You argued I needn’t fear losing my liberty and promised our marriage would be an equal partnership.”
“I was so smitten I’d have promised you anything. But have I not kept my word?”
“Yes. Since we wed, I’ve wanted for nothing and feared nothing as long as you were beside me.”
“And have I not encouraged you to use your skills as a healer?”
“It has been a blessing to be able to tend to the spiritual and physical health of our community together.”
He paused and sighed before he continued. “The Department of Safety has dissolved my unit out of the Continental Line and back into the militia.”
My heart leapt at this turn of fate. “So you’ll be—”
He cut me off, speaking in a rush. “I enlisted as a regular.”
“No!” Just as quickly, it plummeted like a bird shot out of the air.
“It would mean payment and a pension, not just volunteering.”
“How could you make such a decision without asking me?”
“The army needs men skilled with rifles and artillery. Many of my fellows from the Minute Men have also joined the Line.”
“Then let them go. You’re needed here, at home.” Swallowing did nothing to force down the lump in my throat. “I didn’t object when you joined the Minute Men, but now I cannot help but believe you prefer soldiering above everything else—including me and the children. Do you prefer it above your calling, too?”
He put his hands on my shoulders, holding me at arm’s length. Though I couldn’t see his face in the darkness, the hurt in his voice was clear. “I soldier to win liberty and the freedom to worship as we choose. I can’t ask the men of my flock to do what I refuse to do myself. How can I abandon a course of action that will make it possible to realize all my other dreams? When I promised I wouldn’t seek to own you or hobble you, I believed you’d grant me the same concession.”
“I do, but I am still a wife who fears losing her husband.”
He pulled me against his chest, and his lips brushed my hair as he spoke. “I vow you shan’t lose me, Anna.”
“You cannot make such a vow, for you can’t know what comes on the morrow.”
“I daresay I do. We’ve been assigned to Stirling’s Brigade in the Third Virginia Regiment. They’ll be calling us up in a few days.”
A sob escaped my lips. “The last time, you left when Elijah was a babe. This time, you’ll leave while I’m with child—and you’ll be gone for a year or more.”
His hand sought my still-flat stomach. “Really? When do you expect?”
“In the spring. April.”
His whoop rang out across the hills. He swung me around and smothered me with kisses until I forgot everything I’d planned to say. When he took me to bed later, it was with passion that recalled a night the previous summer, after he’d read the newly signed Declaration of Independence aloud to his congregation. That, I suspected, was the night he’d gotten this child on me. No doubt he was as well pleased about the pregnancy as I, but it was foolish to hope the news would alter his course.
I’d assumed we’d take the matter up again the next day, but Benjamin left early. When he returned in the afternoon, he was driving a borrowed wagon. I came out on the porch, Elijah on my hip.
“What’s this about?”
He jumped down. “I paid a visit to your uncle and expressed my worry about leaving you alone with two little ones while you expect. He offered to have you return to live with them while I’m away. We can move your things and the stock over tomorrow.”
I put my hand over my belly, my trembling voice conveying my hurt. “You didn’t think to discuss this with me either? We decide about the children—and our lives—together.”
“It’s best for you and the babe.”
“Nay, Benjamin. I shall stay here, near Betsy and Thomas. I’ll want Betsy when my travail comes, and between your brothers and your father, the chores—”
“You cannot. Thomas is planning to enlist, and Baylis is too—so there will be no able-bodied men about. My father’s too feeble to help, and you know everything’s just going to get more difficult as your time approaches. Noah is old enough to handle Thomas’s chores, but it’s too much to expect a twelve-year-old lad to tend to his father’s farm and then do for his aunt and grandfather, too.”
He was only trying to see to my comfort, and I cast about for the right words to express my dismay. “But we’ve had so little contact with my family since we married. I know I must set aside old disagreements, but to live under their roof is out of the question. I warrant Aunt Jean still does not think us properly wed.”
“Your aunt’s opinion about the legitimacy of our Baptist practices didn’t matter when we married, and it doesn’t matter now. Your mother seemed pleased and bade me tell you everyone is looking forward to seeing you and the little ones.”
But I sighed at the thought of living with my relatives.
And so, the presence of my extended family diluted my remaining time with Benjamin. We spent our last night together in the large four-poster bed in the chamber I now shared with the children. Though I longed to receive him with an ardor that would bind us to one another even as the miles between us increased, our lovemaking felt furtive and restrained. We were not used to having the children asleep at the foot of the bed and all the rest of the family within earshot.
Long after he fell asleep, sated, I lay watching the flicker of the dying flames on the hearth. Already, I missed him and the liberty I had enjoyed as mistress of my own, albeit modest, home.
Baby William’s squeal brought me back from my reverie, and I cooed in response as I straightened his smock and picked him up. Benjamin’s letters would wait, but my mother would send someone to fetch me unless I returned to the party. Before leaving my chamber, I opened the door a crack and listened to make sure Mollie and Nancy had moved on to a happier song.
On my way downstairs, I noticed Rhoda, my eldest, had also taken leave of the festivities. At the window in the front hall, she blew out one of the bayberry candles that stood amid laurel leaves and a scattering of red winterberries on the sill. She inhaled with eyes closed and then touched the smoking wick to the flame of another candle to relight it.
“What are you doing?”
She turned. “Bayberry smells best right after I snuff the flame.”
“So it does. Back to the party, love.” I put my free arm around her shoulders. In the parlor, Aunt Jean played a sprightly tune on the pianoforte while Mollie and Nancy danced, feet thumping on the polished wood floor.
Rhoda sighed as she watched their skirts swirl. “There’s no one to dance with me.”
My heart went out to my little girl. She was lonely in this house full of adults, with only her brothers, who were too young to be real playmates, for company. No doubt she would have preferred to spend the holiday with her cousin Sadie, Thomas and Betsy’s daughter, who was close to her age. Determined to make the best of things, I stepped around my middle child, two-year-old Elijah, and settled into the wing chair beside my mother’s. Uncle William stood near the crackling fire, a cut-glass cup of rum punch in hand, and presided over the celebration in a manner befitting the patriarch of a household full of women, children, and servants.
Rhoda sighed again and leaned on the arm of my chair, chin on her hands. “There’s no one to dance with you either, Mother.”
Determined to present a cheerful front, I rescued the end of my kerchief from the baby’s grasp and stood him up on my lap.
“You’d like to dance, wouldn’t you, William?” The chubby little boy churned his legs and squealed.
At this, Rhoda frowned. “Elijah and William are too young to care about dancing.”
“Come, Rhoda. I’ll be your partner!” Seventeen-year-old Nancy saved the day when she danced over to our corner, bowed, and extended her hand. Rhoda’s frown turned to giggles. She dropped a curtsey and skipped into the center of the room. Turning the baby so he could watch Rhoda, I bounced him in time to the music and mouthed a thank you to Nancy. Elijah, who cared naught about dancing, beat one of his blocks on the floor.
A blast of wintry air set the fire flickering as it swept through the parlor. I leaned forward in my chair and saw a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man in the hall shed his cloak and hand it and his cocked hat to the butler. Could it be? A squeak was all I could manage as I rose to my feet.
Aunt Jean heard my soft exclamation and stopped playing. Everyone turned to follow my gaze, and I held my breath until light fell upon the man’s face.
“Uncle Thomas!” Rhoda ran to fling her arms around his waist as he came into the parlor.
As my brother-in-law and I locked eyes, I could tell something was very wrong by the way the corners of his mouth turned down. I swallowed hard as I passed the baby to my mother. “We weren’t expecting you, Thomas. When did you get home?”
He ignored my questions for the moment. “I thought I saw someone signaling ‘one if by land’ from the front window as I rode up.”
Rhoda giggled. “That was me. I like the smell of the bayberry tapers.”
He bent down to her level. “You’re shooting up like a weed, Rhoda Stone, and you favor your pretty mother more every time I see you. Before long we’ll be beating off your suitors with a stick.” He tweaked her nose. “Are you going to introduce me to your little brother?”
Rhoda took his hand and pulled him across the room. “This is our William, Uncle Thomas.”
Mother held up the baby with the tight-lipped look of disapproval she wore around my in-laws. Thomas pretended not to notice as he lifted the little boy into his arms.
“Well, hello, young sir! I’d know you anywhere, for you look just like your pa.”
The baby regarded him studiously and then broke into a grin, showing his two tiny teeth.
Thomas laughed. “You and your brother will roam the fields and forests with your cousins in a few years, won’t you?” He stared at little William for a long moment, as if to commit his face to memory, before handing him back to his grandmother.
My uncle harrumphed and set down his cup. “What are you lads playing at this autumn? Last year, Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians at Trenton, but his performance of late has people calling for his replacement. Two defeats in as many months! He should have surrendered after the embarrassment at the battle of Germantown.”
When Thomas rose to his full height, he towered over my uncle. It was clear he took offense to the criticism, but he spoke with restraint. “His Excellency seems to have no plans to yield, and we Continentals still have plenty of fight left in us, Mr. Asbury.”
“On furlough, are you?”
“Something like that, sir.”
“They could have sent your brother home for a spell instead. He enlisted well before you, didn’t he?”
Desperate to know why my brother-in-law had ridden five miles over dark mountain roads to visit, I broke in before my uncle’s insults grew worse. “Thomas, would you like a drink to warm you up? Some hot cider or rum punch?”
“Cider would be welcome.” When I filled a cup, he took a sip before he addressed the room. “I didn’t know I’d be interrupting your celebration. Please, carry on. Anna, may I have a word?”
“Yes, of course.” I led him across the hall, hiding the dread that clutched my insides.
Aunt Jean and the pianoforte launched into the opening strains of “The First Noel” as Thomas shut the door of my uncle’s study behind us. When he’d knelt to speak to Rhoda, I’d noticed strands of silver in his dark hair. Now, the harsh shadows cast by the flickering firelight accentuated his hollow cheeks and the worry lines on his forehead, making him look much older than his thirty-five years. “What news? Is it Benjamin? Tell me.”
“Ben’s alive, last I knew, and should be in winter camp by now.”
Limp with relief, I sank into a chair. “Oh! You had me near fainting with fright. I haven’t had a letter for over two months, and I want to know what’s going on. When the Virginia Gazette comes in the post, the news is at least a month old.”
“Well, if my brother isn’t writing as often as you’d like, it’s because we’re busy in the army, what with the war on.” Thomas delivered what sounded like jest without a smile.
Fear churned in my stomach again. “But how can they spare you? Why are you back in Virginia? And what brings you here tonight? It must be more than to wish us a joyful Twelfth Night.”
He rubbed the toe of his boot against the Turkish carpet. “Baylis is dead. I brought his body home.”
“Oh no! When was he killed? Thomas, I’m so sorry.” The image of Baylis when I’d first known him as a lad of nine rose before me. Hard as it was to think of him grown into a young man of twenty, it was harder to know he’d been cut down in his prime. I couldn’t believe I would never hear his infectious laughter again, and that he would never find a sweetheart. “Does Benjamin know?”
“They’ll get word to him once they settle in camp.”
“But what happened?”
“Baylis fell ill with the pox in October. Our unit had to leave him behind with other men who were too sick to march. When we enlisted last spring, Father made me promise to watch out for Baylis, him being the baby and all, but there was nothing I could do for him. Truth is, we lose far more men to smallpox and dysentery than to enemy fire.”
I reached out a hand, and he squeezed it, signaling he didn’t need to draw strength from me. He’d already reconciled the loss of his brother.
“Early this month, just after he died, we were halted at White Marsh, which was too close to Philadelphia, now that the accursed British occupy the city. They’d planned to surprise us with a nighttime attack before we headed farther west to winter camp. I heard tell a woman spy—a Quaker, no less—alerted General Washington, so we were ready and waiting for them.
“My fellows and I were in the sharp fighting, along with the Maryland lads. Frustrated the Bloody Backs so badly, we did, that they took out their wrath on civilians and burned several homes. Once General Howe realized he could neither outflank Washington nor draw him out, he retreated to Philadelphia.”
Never one to still for long, he dropped my hand to pace. “Even in victory, we lost more than a hundred men—twenty-seven were my comrades from Morgan’s unit. We were making ready to bury them, along with the ones like Baylis, who’d died in the hospital. Officers get their bodies shipped back home, you understand, but privates lie in unmarked graves. I decided my brother deserved the same treatment as an officer.”
Despite my sadness, my lips curved into a smile. Even Thomas’s tragic stories involved some kind of scheme. “But how did you arrange that?”
With a faint shadow of his usual grin, he shrugged and spun out his tale. “There was a considerable disorder as we prepared to move to winter camp. Two skinners were headed to Williamsburg, hauling freight and two officers’ bodies sunk in barrels of rum to preserve them. One skinner took ill, so I swapped a week’s rum ration for his coat and took his place. Convinced the remaining one to take on an extra barrel and drop me off on the way.” He paused, and his pride in his contrivance seemed to fade along with his smile. “At least I made sure Baylis will rest beside Mother in our burying ground.”
“But you took such a risk. I read in the last Gazette that our officers have orders to shoot deserters!”
He waved a hand to dismiss my concern. “I’m sparing the army the trouble of feeding me all winter. Rations are scarce. When I go back in the spring, hale and well-fed, they’ll be glad enough to see me.”
“What of the burial? I can help you lay him out if you need me to.”
“Snakes, Anna, a body pickled in a cask of rum for a month is no sight for a woman—or anyone. I don’t mind saying that one whiff was enough to make me lose my taste for rum altogether. We
must wait for a thaw to bury him, but I sent word inviting folks to the funeral in three weeks’ time. After that, I plan to spend this winter like a regular farmer, doing repairs at our place and at Father’s. Betsy and our young ones are glad to have me home.”
“I would be glad to have Benjamin home for good. Visions of the disasters that could befall us keep me up at night. Knowing what happened to Baylis only increases my worry for the rest of you.”
He helped me rise. “Ben knows how to take care of himself, and his faith and patriotic fervor will sustain him through the hardships. He and your brothers will watch out for each other.” He tilted up my chin, brushing his lips across my cheek. “I’m sure he’d want me to deliver that to you.”
Tears stung my eyes again at the thought of a kiss carried across hundreds of miles, and I blinked so they wouldn’t fall. “Please send my love to Betsy. I miss living next door to you all.”
“What? You’re not happy to be back in this grand house?” This time a smile accompanied the jest.
He appreciated the humor in my situation more than I ever could. “They’re my family, but we don’t share the same convictions. It’s hardly been a fortnight since we feasted for the day of national thanksgiving decreed by Congress, and my aunt insisted on having another party. It seems disrespectful of our soldiers.”
He chuckled. “Come on, Anna. Don’t begrudge your aunt a party or two.”
“It’s not just the parties. I don’t want Rhoda to expect slaves to attend to her every need. I want her to believe as we do—that it’s wrong for one person to own another.”
“All right. I admit I’d feel the same if I had to live here and endure your uncle’s constant barbs. There’s no way I could stay quiet about the immorality of profiting from the forced labor of
others. I’m fighting for liberty for all of us, not just those that already had some before the war started.”
As he opened the door, I swiped at my cheeks to make sure there was no trace of tears. We were halfway to the entry when King appeared with Thomas’s wraps. He thanked the butler, settled his hat on his head and said to me, “Betsy bid me tell you to come visit anytime.”
“I will indeed. Good night.”
Reluctant to lose his company, I lingered at the window while Manso brought out Thomas’s horse. The candles had burned low. I whispered a prayer for Baylis’s eternal soul, blew them out, and inhaled the bayberry incense, hoping it would sanctify my prayer.
I returned to the party in time to watch Mollie, Nancy, and Rhoda parade figures of the three kings through the house and add them to the tableaux of Aunt Jean’s Nativity. Nineteen-year-old Mollie, who found the bean in her cake, was proclaimed Queen. Bless her, when she noticed Rhoda’s wistful look, she abdicated and bestowed the gold-paper crown and ribbon-bedecked scepter on her little cousin.
It was after midnight when the family retired, leaving Phillis, Lynn, and King to take down the remaining Yuletide decorations and set the parlor to rights. And so, Twelfth Night ended.
Rhoda refused to surrender the scepter at bedtime until I promised she might retrieve it again first thing in the morning. Little William had taken his night feeding later than usual, and once the children were finally asleep, I had the solitude I craved. With my candle on the escritoire, I unfolded Benjamin’s letters that had arrived during last year’s yuletide season. Smoothing them out with a caress, I prepared to spend a few moments with my love.
November 23, 1776
My dear Wife,
Though I must confess I am still more comfortable with a long rifle than a musket and bayonet, we’ve spent the last month drilling and training, and I am learning the ways of a regular in the Continental Line. After two weeks of marching to the northeast, we met the main army on retreat from New York.
In the recent fall of Fort Washington and Fort Lee, the British captured over one hundred of our cannon, thousands of muskets, and ammunition. We find we recruits are much-needed replacements for the thousands of casualties suffered in the two defeats.
Though the news sounds bad, do not worry yourself. We are about to go into winter camp, and they will suspend fighting until spring.
Henry’s tales of how he tormented you when you were children rival my experiences with Thomas and only increase my admiration for you. Though you have spent much of your life absent from your brothers’ company, they hold you in high regard. I am honored that they welcome me as family.
Your affectionate husband,
My dearest Anna,
Thank you for the gloves. I’ve worn my old ones through.
We have returned to winter camp in Morristown in the state of New Jersey. By now I assume you’ve had news of our surprise attack on the Hessian troops’ winter quarters in Trenton the day
after Christmas. You need have no fear, for your brothers and I are well. We did most of our fighting from behind the cover of fences and houses. This feels much more natural to me than facing our foe on open ground, lining up, and taking aim at one another.
During our approach, General Washington crossed the river with Major General Henry Knox’s division, while Stephens’ Brigade and ours formed the center of the line for the attack.
Many of the men cannot swim, and the sight of the dark water and bobbing ice floes struck more terror in their hearts than the thought of facing the vicious Hessians. Even those of us who can swim did not relish a dip in the cold river. Every man present was soaked and covered in mud before we reached Trenton. We must have been a terrifying sight!
Near the end of the battle, a group of German-speaking Continentals from Pennsylvania called to the Hessians in their language, urging them to lay down their arms. Those in our army who hail from Hesse-Kassel are fighting against their own countrymen, with whom they should have no quarrel.
The battle was soon ended, and decisively so, with thousands of Hessians taken prisoner. We also captured guns, ammunition, and enough woolen blankets for every man who took part in the battle to have one.
Write soon, my dearest. I long to hear news of you and the children.
His two letters revealed the Continental Army’s changing fortunes. Defeats at Fort Washington and Fort Lee had meant the loss of men and munitions. Just a month later, the daring attack on Trenton had led to an American victory and yielded spoils of guns, ammunition, and blankets.
This year, things looked bleak. As Uncle pointed out, the defeats at Germantown and Brandywine overshadowed the victory at Saratoga. Philadelphia and New York City remained in British hands. Thomas could not downplay the disease, hunger, and want of supplies that plagued the army enough to allay my worries.
There would be a letter from Benjamin soon, I told myself. But what tidings would it bring?
Before drifting off to sleep, I decided not to share Thomas’s news about Baylis with my side of the family. I couldn’t put the idea in Rhoda’s head that men who went to war sometimes did not return.
Tracy Lawson’s passion for storytelling led her first into the world of dance and educational theater, and enjoyed a career as a dance teacher, studio owner, and choreographer that has spanned nearly three decades. A mid-life career change has yielded six books–a four-volume series of thrillers for young adults, and two nonfiction history books based on the lives of her pioneer ancestors. Tracy’s two newest novels are in the pipeline for release in 2020 and 2021. While her body of work may seem varied, the common thread that connects all her books is her characters’ pursuit of individual liberty.
Tracy, who is married with one grown daughter and two spoiled cats, splits her time between Dallas, Texas and Columbus, Ohio.