September 5, 2010

Women in wartime: heros, helpmates, history makers


---- — The annual commemoration of the Battle of Plattsburgh begins this week, culminating in a remarkable mix of events over next weekend.

In the midst of the fun and celebration, everyone should also think a bit about the historical significance of the event. Re-enactments of the battle by the Champlain Monument always prove informative. The 1812 encampment by the Kent Delord House helps give a sense for life at that time.

Use the commemoration also as an opportunity to visit (or revisit) the War of 1812 Museum on the former Air Force Base. I especially urge taking advantage of the opportunity to view this year's special exhibit, entitled "Misses, Mistresses, and Misconceptions: Women's Roles in the Northern Theater of the War of 1812."


For much of history, the role of women in wartime has been relegated to the background. Men did the fighting; men got the glory; men got killed. Not surprisingly, much went on behind the scenes. This exhibit gives new insights into American-British conflicts on Lake Champlain, at Sackets Harbor and on the Niagara Peninsula during the War of 1812.

First, women had to focus on domestic responsibilities. Crops had to harvested and stored, candles had to be made for light, and children had to be taught — all without the labor-saving devices to which we've now become accustomed.

Clothing also required attention. Although even in an area as remote as Plattsburgh new fashions had made inroads, as men prepared for war, concerns became more utilitarian. Women not only worked to clothe their families, they would also knit socks and mittens for troops.

Women answered ads seeking housing for soldiers; they also worked in quickly organized hospitals.

Artifacts, including candle molds, roll-up sewing kits and local ads for "elegant kid and Morocco shoes" help underscore points made by text panels. To satisfy any curiosity about old garments, there are bonnets and haversacks available to inspect and try on.

Decisions had to be made on whether to leave the area as the British began to gather north of Plattsburgh. Evacuation of families without male heads of households to help had to be difficult. Quaker Union, to the south near present-day Peru, became sanctuary for some. Pictures, a collection plate and the original church lock and key silently testify to events.

Many stayed even in the face of British invasion. There are vignettes on the bravery of Anna Hubbell of Chazy and Mollie Hamilton of Plattsburgh, but we'll never know all the instances of heroism demonstrated.


Army officers' wives often accompanied their husbands to war and were granted rations and privileges. Those married to enlistees might work as cooks, laundresses and nurses. If a husband were killed, however, it was in a widow's interest to remarry quickly, as her status depended solely on her mate.

Then there were single women who, as camp followers, received no rations. They gardened, foraged, traded goods and looked for odd jobs to support their tenuous existence.

Locally, there was Lucy Ann Macdonough, eight-months pregnant with one of her 10 children, staying near her naval officer husband on Lake Champlain. Catherine Macomb wrote a poem, also on display, about the Battle of Plattsburgh during her tenure here with her husband.

Some women enlisted to fight, simply lying and claiming to be men, and somehow managing not to be caught in the endeavor. And consider Fanny Doyle. After her husband was captured, she took his place in the artillery crew during the bombardment of Fort Niagara. One officer, comparing Fanny with Joan of Arc, praised her for "fortitude equal to the Maid of Orleans."

Spyglasses pay homage to an unusual female role during the war, that of espionage. Etiquette precluded thorough searching of women, and even if caught, women could expect lighter punishments than men. Thus, both sides employed their share of spies from the fairer sex.

A short video tells the story of Laura Secord, a housewife hailed in Canada as a hero. Overhearing American soldiers discussing a planned campaign on the Niagara Frontier, she made a dangerous overland trek to warn British officers before what became known as the Battle of Beaver Dam.

When the war ended, societies formed to aid widows and their dependents. Some of those whose husbands lost their lives received pensions. One can assume not enough was done, though, to compensate for their efforts both during war and in rebuilding communities when hostilities ceased.

If you haven't seen the recently relocated Battle of Plattsburgh Interpretive Center, this would be a good time. Ship models, replica uniforms, pictures and an impressive diorama put the War of 1812 and the local battles into context. Check out, too, the three prize-winning posters created by local students for the commemorative weekend.


Should you fret about how the British fared after the War of 1812, you might want to sample the annual British Invasion at Stowe, Vt. Participants arrive not with guns and artillery but driving automobiles made in England. This is touted as the largest British car show on the East Coast. And these cars are something to behold.

For my wife, Marty and me, time last year was well spent just for the late 1940s MG-TCs, the Austin Healey Sprites with their bug-eye headlamps, and the Triumph TR-4s. Oh, yes, and the low-slung Jaguar XKE painted in the colors of the Union Jack.

Think Lotus and Rover, Mini-Cooper and Morris, Singer and Humber. And did you ever hear of the Lea-Francis? A classically-styled dark green Morgan, winner of one first-place ribbon, impressed us both. So did almost every entry in the Tailgate Picnic Competition, in which a 1954 Bentley emerged victorious.

Owners narrate stories about their cars, and everyone welcomes questions. It's a good way to learn a fair bit of automotive history.

This year's event, scheduled for Sept. 17 through 19, expects to host more than 1,000 entries. Registrants will participate in a selection of auto tours, and cars will parade through the streets of Stowe. Vendors will sell auto accessories, sporty outfits and British candy. The festival grounds are a quarter-mile north of the village, on Route 108 and Weeks Hill Road.

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