By Jennie M.
Margaret Coghlan, who wrote her memoirs in the 1790s, was born in 1763 in America to a well-connected British family with the surname Moncrieffe, her father being a major in the British army. Margaret found herself behind enemy territory during the American Revolution and became a valuable prisoner to General George Washington before she was released to her father. Margaret aligned her beliefs with the Patriot cause in her memoir, but because she was essentially considered the property of her father, her own beliefs did not matter and so her Patriot captors treated her as a Loyalist prisoner. Margaret fell in love with an American soldier but was forced by her family at the age of 14 to marry British officer John Coghlan, and an unhappy marriage and separation ensued.
The American Revolution is often considered to be a war motivated by the desire for control—Americans wanted the independence to control their own property, government, and destinies, which Britain would not cede to them. But women, no matter which side they of the war they were on, had very little control because they were legally subordinate to their husbands or fathers. Even a supporter of independence like Margaret Coghlan did not receive the liberty she advocated for because she was not seen as deserving rights, only paternalistic protection. With the act of writing a memoir, Margaret was asserting her autonomy by telling her life story as she remembered it, refusing to be defined by other people and only as a wife or daughter. Margaret writes that her own mother was also married at 14 and died at age 20. While the historical record does not have an abundance of sources from revolutionary-era women, that does not mean that they were any less significant than men, as Margaret Coghlan boldly asserted during her own time.
This is Margaret’s description of her time as a prisoner of George Washington in Patriot-controlled New York City.
Not long after this circumstance a flag of truce arrived from Staten Island with letters from Major Moncrieffe demanding me for he now considered me as a prisoner. General Washington would not acquiesce in this demand saying that I should remain a hostage for my father’s good behaviour. I must here observe that when General Washington refused to deliver me up the noble minded Putnam as if it were by instinct laid his hand on his sword and with a violent oath swore that my father’s request should be granted. The commander in chief whose influence governed the congress soon prevailed on them to consider me as a person whose situation required their strict attention and that I might not escape, they ordered me to King’s Bridge where in justice I must say that I was treated with the utmost tenderness. General Mifflin there commanded his lady was a most accomplished beautiful woman, a quaker, and here my heart received its first impression an impression that amidst the subsequent shocks which it has received has never been effaced and which rendered me very unfit to admit the embraces of an unfeeling brutish husband.
Oh! May these pages one day meet the eye of him who subdued my virgin heart whom the immutable unerring laws of nature had pointed out for my husband but whose sacred decree the barbarous customs of society fatally violated. To him I plighted my virgin vow and I shall never cease to lament that obedience to a father left it incomplete. When I reflect on my past sufferings now that alas my present sorrows press heavily upon me I cannot refrain from expatiating a little on the inevitable horrors which ever attend the frustration of natural affections: I myself who unpitied by the world have endured every calamity that human nature knows am a melancholy example of this truth for if I know my own heart it is far better calculated for the purer joys of domestic life than for that hurricane of extravagance and dissipation on which I have been wrecked. Why is the will of nature so often perverted?
Why is social happiness for ever sacrificed at the altar of prejudice? Avarice has usurped the throne of reason and the affections of the heart are not consulted. We cannot command our desires and when the object of our being is unattained misery must be necessarily our doom. Let this truth therefore be for ever remembered when once an affection has rooted itself in a tender constant heart no time no circumstance can eradicate it. Unfortunate then are they who are joined if their hearts are not matched.
With this conquerer of my soul how happy should I now have been. What storms and tempests should I have avoided (at least I am pleased to think so) if I had been allowed to follow the bent of my inclinations! And happier oh! ten thousand times happier should I have been with him in the wildest desert of our native country the woods affording us our only shelter and their fruits our only repast than under the canopy of costly state with all the refinements and embellishments of courts with the royal warrior who would fain have proved himself the conqueror of France!
My conqueror was engaged in another cause, he was ambitious to obtain other laurels: he fought to liberate not to enslave nations. He was a Colonel in the American army and high in the estimation of his country his victories were never accompanied with one gloomy relenting thought they shone as bright as the cause which achieved them I had communicated by letter to General Putnam the proposals of this gentleman with my determination to accept them and I was embarrassed by the answer which the General returned he intreated me to remember that the person in question from his political principles was extremely obnoxious to my father and concluded by observing, “That I surely would not unite myself with a man who in his zeal for the cause of his country would not hesitate to drench his sword in the blood of my nearest relation should he be opposed to him in battle.” Saying this he lamented the necessity of giving advice contrary to his own sentiments since in every other respect he considered the match as unexceptionable. Nevertheless, General Putnam, after this discovery appeared in all his visits to King’s Bridge extremely reserved his eyes were constantly fixed on me nor did he ever cease to make me the object of his concern to congress and after various applications he succeeded in obtaining leave for my departure when in order that I should go to Staten Island with the respect due to my sex and family the barge belonging to the continental congress was ordered with twelve oars and a general officer together with his suite was dispatched to see me safe across the bay of New York.
- Should revolutionary wartime stories that are not about battle or government be considered equally important as war stories?
- Does Margaret Coghlan seem to be writing mostly as a recollection of her own memories or for others to read?
Coghlan, Margaret. Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan: Daughter of the Late Major Moncrieffe. United States, T. H. Morrell, 1864.
“Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan.” Gender and War since 1600, UNC Chapel Hill, gwonline.unc.edu/node/11565.
Procknow, Gene. “A Forced Marriage in Revolutionary America.” Researching the American Revolution, 17 Nov. 2020, researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/2020/11/17/a-forced-marriage-in-revolutionary-america/.