By Caroline Pace
The following excerpts have been taken from the diaries of Friederike Charlotte Luise Riedesel (referred to often as “Madame de Riedesel”), the wife of Baron Friedrich Adolf Riedesel, a general in the British army during the American Revolution. Her diaries document her experiences during the American Revolution, beginning with her journey from Germany to Canada (by way of Portsmouth, England) to join her husband, who was a general in the British army. The couple and their children lived in Germany (Wolfenbuttel) until war broke out between Britain and its American colonies, and the British army sought aid from German nobles. The Duke of Brunswick (under whom Baron Riedesel served as adjutant-general), promised the British army soldiers and cavalry. Baron Riedesel commanded these soldiers, and journeyed to the colonies. For a time he was posted in Canada, where Madame de Riedesel joined him in 1777 with their five children.
It is apparent throughout the letters of both Friederike and her husband that theirs was a love match. Their letters to each other are filled with affection and interest in each other’s lives, and Friederike wrote often in her diaries of her love for her husband and children. During the war, Madame de Riedesel accompanied her husband from Canada, to New York, to Virginia, and back again. The family was frequently on the road, and when they did stop, they were frequently greeted with hostility by citizens loyal to the patriot cause. At other times Madame de Riedesel was among the few women present in the army encampments, and she wrote frequently, and in great detail, of the experiences she had there.
Not only did Madame de Riedesel accompany her husband on all of his travels and campaigns in both Canada and the colonies, but she also stood out as a woman of great tenacity, resourcefulness, and exceptional courage. Madame de Riedesel arrived in the colonies with five children already in tow, and in her diaries she recounts the birth of two daughters, named America and Canada (Canada died in infancy). Her perseverance while supporting her family in the worst of conditions, combined with the bravery she displayed in the face of danger, is both inspiring and eye-opening to read about. There are not many accounts of women who witnessed the battlefields of the American Revolution firsthand, and even rarer are the stories of women whose actions proved vital to the safety and success of soldiers on either side of the war. Her assertive actions in every situation prove that women were by no means a burden during these conflicts. They were in fact the hidden essential force behind many successes during the American Revolution.
Saratoga, October 1777: Madame de Riedesel (along with her husband and children) had been travelling with British troops under the command of General Burgoyne. The unit had just reached Saratoga, where an encampment was set up. Her diary entries during this time document the incompetence of the commanding officers present at the camp, the six days she spent sheltering in a cellar with her children and a large group of injured soldiers, and most notably the bravery and leadership she displayed consistently throughout her time during this part of the Saratoga Campaign.
“But my provisions were now exhausted, and regretting deeply my inability to assist those who came to complain of hunger, I called to adjutant-general Patterson, (lord Petersham,) who accidentally passed close by me, and said, with all the indignation which I felt at the moment, ‘come sir, see these officers, who have shed their blood for the common cause, and who are in want of every thing, because they do not receive what they ought to receive. It is your duty to call the general’s attention to all this.’ He seemed much affected, and the consequence was, that, in less than a quarter of an hour, general Burgoyne came towards me, and thanked me most pathetically, for having reminded him of his duty. He added, that a general whose orders were not obeyed, was much to be pitied. I replied, that I begged his pardon, for having meddled in affairs with which a woman had nothing to do; but that I could not forbear saying what I had expressed, when I saw so many gallant officers in need of every thing, while I was destitute of the means of assisting them. He thanked me again, (though I really believe he has never forgiven me)…”
[The excerpts below describe Madame de Riedesel’s ordeal in the cellar of The Marshall House.]
At 2 o’clock, we heard again a report of muskets and cannon, and there was much alarm and bustle among our troops. My husband sent me word, that I should immediately retire into a house which was not far off. I got into my calash with my children, and when we were near the house, I saw, on the opposite bank of the Hudson, five or six men, who aimed at us with their guns. Without knowing what I did, I threw my children into the back part of the vehicle, and laid myself upon them.
[The entries below begin upon their arrival at the Marshall House.]
Soon after our arrival, a terrible cannonade began, and the fire was principally directed against the house, where we had hoped to find a refuge, probably because the enemy inferred, from the great number of people who went towards it, that this was the head-quarters of the generals, while, in reality, none were there except women and crippled soldiers. We were at last obliged to descend into the cellar, where I laid myself in a corner near the door. My children put their heads upon my knees.
On the inspection of our retreat, I discovered that there were three cellars, spacious and well vaulted. I suggested, that one of them should be appropriated to the use of the officers who were most severely wounded, the next to the females, and the third, which was nearest to the staircase, to all the rest of the company. We were just going down, when a new thunder of cannon threw us again into alarm. Many persons, who had no right to enter, threw themselves against the door. My children were already at the bottom of the staircase, and every one of us probably would have been crushed to death, had I not put myself before the entrance, and resisted the intruders. Eleven cannon-balls passed through the house, and made a tremendous noise. A poor soldier, who was about to have a leg amputated, lost another by one of these balls.
The want of water continuing to distress us, we could not but be extremely glad to find a soldier’s wife so spirited as to fetch some from the river, an occupation from which the boldest might have shrunk, as the Americans shot every one who approached it. They told us afterwards that they spared her on account of her sex.
I also took care of major Blomfield, who was wounded by a musket-ball which passed through both cheeks, knocked out his teeth and injured his tongue. He could retain nothing in his mouth, and soup and liquids were his only nourishment, Fortunately we had some Rhenish wine, and in the hope that the acidity would contribute to heal his wound, I gave him a bottle, of which he took a little now and then, and with such effect that he was soon cured. I thus acquired a new friend, and enjoyed some happiness in the midst of cares and sufferings, which otherwise would have weighed heavily upon my spirits.
[On October 17th, Burgoyne surrendered, the soldiers sheltering in the cellar were given up as prisoners of war, and Madame de Riedesel was reunited with her husband.]
- Most accounts of battles and life in army encampments during the American Revolution are written by men. How does the perspective of a woman give a different view of these places and events?
- Does Madame de Riedesel’s descriptions give you a different impression of what it was like to live amongst soldiers and witness hostilities during the American Revolution? (To get you started, what aspects does Madame de Riedesel focus on that perhaps male authors may not have focused on?)
- Do Friederike’s experiences change your mind about any previous ideas you have had regarding women and their role in the American Revolution? Did any of her descriptions surprise you?
“Baroness Riedesel’s Shelter.” The Marshall House, themarshallhouse.org/revolutionary-days/shelter/.
Riedesel, Friederike Charlotte Luise, Freifrau von, 1746-1808, and Friedrich Adolf Riedesel. Letters And Memoirs Relating to the War of American Independence, And the Capture of the German Troops At Saratoga. New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1827.
Riedesel, Dr. Paul. “General Friedrich Adolph Riedesel Freiherr Zu Eisenbach (1738-1800) .” Riedesel History and Genealogy, www.riedesel.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/general1.pdf.