Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Eliza (Yonge) Wilkinson

 

A vivid picture of the part borne by many women through Revolutionary trials and privations may be found in the letters of a young and beautiful widow living in the city of Charleston at the time of its occupation by the British under Prevost and the approach of Lincoln to its relief. The period was one of almost continual skirmishing and of harrowing the inhabitants by the British, and the young woman's graphic description of the occurrences makes one no less interested in her personality than in the stirring events of which she writes.

This was Eliza Wilkinson. Her father was an emigrant to America from Wales named Francis Yonge. He took possession of an island some thirty miles south of Charleston, calling it Yonge's Island. Mrs. Wilkinson was his only daughter. She had been married only six months when her husband died, and when the Revolutionary warfare swept down into her section of the country, exciting days came to her in protecting her property and escaping before British invasion and aiding our own wretched soldiers. At one time, when she had taken refuge in an inland plantation, she writes of the distressing condition of refugees passing that way. A large boatload of women and children hurrying for safety to Charleston stayed with them for a day or two and presented a sad spectacle of the miseries brought in the train of war. One woman with seven children, the youngest but two weeks old, preferred venturing her own life and that of her tender infant to captivity at the hands of a merciless foe.

''The poorest soldier," says another letter, "who would call at any time for a drink of water, I would take pleasure in giving it to him myself; and many a dirty, ragged fellow have I attended with a bowl of milk, for they really merit everything who will fight from principle alone; for from what I could learn, these poor creatures had nothing to protect and seldom got their pay; yet with what alacrity will they encounter danger and hardships of every kind."

At another time, two men belonging to the enemy rode up to the house and asked many questions, saying that Colonel McGirth and his soldiers were coming and that the inmates might expect no mercy. The family remained in a state of cruel suspense for many hours. Then, as Mrs. Wilkinson writes to a friend: "The horses of the inhuman Britons were heard coming in such a furious manner that they seemed to tear up the earth, the riders at the same time bellowing out the most horrid curses imaginable, oaths and imprecations chilled my whole frame. 'Where are these women rebels?' That was their first salutation." Nor was the fear of the household unfounded for Mrs. Wilkinson continues: "They plundered the house of everything they thought valuable or worth taking; our trunks were split to pieces and each mean, pitiful wretch crammed his bosom with the contents, which were our apparel." And when Mrs. Wilkinson ventured to beg that just a few articles be left to her, the soldier she addressed, so far from relenting, cast his eyes on her shoes and immediately knelt at her feet but to wrench the buckles from them. "While he was busy doing this," the letter continues, ''a brother villain bawled out 'Shares there, I say shares.' So they divided the buckles between them. The other wretches were employed in the same way, taking not only buckles from the other women but earrings and rings, and when one protested against surrendering her wedding ring, they presented a pistol at her and swore if she did not deliver it immediately they would fire." But the ready wit of Mrs. Wilkinson appears to have suffered no eclipse even in such dire straits and she closes this letter with a quip: "So they mounted their horses, but such despicable figures! Each wretch's bosom stuffed so full, they appeared to be all afflicted with some dropsical disorder. Had a party of rebels (as they call us) appeared, we should have seen their circumference lessen."

After such unwelcome visitors, it is not surprising that the unprotected women could not sleep or eat. They went to bed without undressing and started up at the least noise, while the days were spent in anxiety. And yet one morning when Mrs. Wilkinson with her eyes fixed on the window, for she was continually on the watch, saw a party of Whigs dragging along seven Royalist prisoners, notwithstanding the injuries she had received from some of these very men, her kind heart relented at the sight of their worn-out condition, and, when the American soldiers had brought one of the Tory officers into her house, she took from her neck the only remaining handkerchief the British marauders had left her and with it bound up a wound in his arm.

The siege and capitulation of Charleston brought the evils under which the land had groaned to their height Mrs. Wilkinson was in the city at this time and her letters tell of the hardships borne by those in the beleaguered community, the gloomy resignation to inevitable misfortunes and the almost abandonment of hope for relief. Yet with indomitable patriotism, Mrs. Wilkinson's independent spirits would find vent in sarcastic sallies at the enemy's expense. "Once," she writes, "I was asked by a British officer to play the guitar."

I cannot play, I am very dull," she replied. "How long do you intend to continue so, Mrs. Wilkinson?" "Until my countrymen return, sir."

"Return as what, " madam, prisoners or subjects?"

"As conquerors, sir."

The officer affected a laugh. 'You will never see that, madam"

"I live in hopes, sir, of seeing the thirteen stripes hoisted once more on the bastions of this garrison."

"Do not hope so, but come, give us a tune on the guitar."

"I can play nothing but rebel songs." "Well, let us have one of them."

"Not to-day, I cannot play, I will not play; besides, I suppose I should be put into the Prevost for such a heinous crime as chanting my patriotism!"

Like many others, Mrs. Wilkinson refused to join in the amusements of the city while in possession of the British but gave her energies to the relief of her friends. The women were the more active when military efforts were suspended, and we learn through Mrs. Wilkinson's letters of the many ingenious contrivances they adopted to carry supplies from the British garrison to the gallant defenders of their country. Sometimes doth for a military coat, fashioned into an appendage to feminine attire would be borne away unsuspected by the vigilant guards whose business it was to prevent smuggling, the cloth afterwards being converted into regimental shape. Boots "a world too wide" for the small feet that passed the sentry in them were often conveyed to the partisan who could not procure them for himself. A horseman's helmet has been concealed under a well-arranged bead-dress, and epaulettes delivered from the folds of a matron's ample cap. Other articles in demand for military use were regularly brought away by some stratagem or other. And one can well imagine the cheer diffused about a desolate camp by the visits of women as sprightly and courageous as Mrs. Wilkinson.

The last of her letters of public interest is joyous with congratulations on the glorious victory of Washington over Cornwallis, so that the woman who had lived a brave, helpful life, through the darkest trial of her country, lived to know the glory of its independence and peace.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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