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A short story by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Sally Wister: A Girl Of The American Revolution

Title:     Sally Wister: A Girl Of The American Revolution
Author: Kate Dickinson Sweetser [More Titles by Sweetser]

WINSOME SALLY WISTER! What a pretty picture she makes against the sombre background of the Revolutionary times in which she lived,--with her piquant face and merry eyes half hidden under her demure Quaker bonnet, and her snowy kerchief crossed so smoothly over her tempestuous young heart!

To one of the finest old families in Philadelphia Sally belonged. Her father, Daniel Wister, was the only son of John Wister, a prosperous wine merchant, and Sally was born at her grandfather's city home, which stands on what is now Market Street, Philadelphia, spending her summers at his country house in Germantown, which charming old homestead is still shown as a landmark of the place.

In winter Sally was a pupil in the girls' school kept by a famous Quaker, Anthony Benezet, where there were gathered the daughters of many "first" families of the vicinity, and it was there that the intimacy began between Sally and her life-long friend Deborah Norris, who too was a Quaker girl. The group of girls with whom Sally and "Debby" Norris were intimate were all between fourteen and sixteen years old, and formed a "Social Circle" which was very exclusive indeed, but to which a few boys were occasionally admitted. The boys, however, seem to have made themselves disliked, perhaps by teasing, after the manner of boys of to-day, for in the summer of 1776 while the girls were all at their summer homes, one of them wrote to Sally, in the quaint old-fashioned way, making use of many capital letters, "I shall be glad when we get together again; us Girls, I mean, for as to the Boys, I fancy we must Give them up. Willingly I shall, nor have I the most distant desire of being with them again. I think we pass our time more agreeably without than with them." A clear declaration of independence, that--but it was modified later as letters to Sally show, and one feels glad that such a firm stand in an unworthy cause was open to amendment!

At noon on a hot sunny day in 1776, Monday the eighth of July, Sally and Debby Norris were sitting in the cool shade of the big maples in the garden of Debby's home, which adjoined the State House. For a while they sewed and chatted and teased one another as girls will, then Sally held up a silencing finger, "Shhh!" she whispered. "That is surely a drum and fife."

Debby, who was listening too, nodded, "I remember now I heard Mr. Hancock tell Mother that the Declaration of Independence was to be proclaimed in public from the State House at noon to-day. Come, perhaps we can hear some of it."

Sally was already half way across the lawn; Debby followed and they climbed from a wheel-barrow up to the top of a wall looking down at the State House yard, and had a fine view of the whole scene. Only a small-sized crowd of citizens was there, for the most conservative Philadelphians purposely did not go to hear it read, while those members of Congress whom the girls could see, looked anxious and ill at ease. Silently Sally and Debby listened while John Nixon read the mighty phrases of the Declaration and, only half understanding what they heard, they joined in the burst of applause following the last words, "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour."

Then as the crowd began to disperse, the girls climbed down and went back to the cool garden, ignorant of the fact that in later years they would have no more valued memory than that of the hot noon-day of July 7, 1776, when they saw and heard the Declaration of Independence read.

That was only one of the exciting events of those stirring days in which Sally was living, for Philadelphia was then a war centre, and little else was talked about except the movements of the armies and the battles being fought. After the battle of Brandywine, when General Washington made a brave fight to save Philadelphia, but was defeated by the British general, Lord Howe, Sally Wister's father, feeling sure that the British would now occupy Philadelphia, thought the time had come to send his family out of the city. He at once despatched them to the Foulke farm, on the Wissahickon creek, among the hills of Gwynedd, some fifteen miles away from the storm centre of the city. The owner of the farm, Hannah Foulke, was a relation by marriage of the Wisters, and evidently gave up half of her home to them, retaining the other half for her own use, and there the two families lived harmoniously during the following nine months.

But to Mistress Sally the change of residence and the separation from all her friends was not a happy one, and to while away some of its lonely hours she began a series of letters in the form of a diary, for Debby Norris's benefit, and that journal tells us much about the happenings of that memorable epoch in American history, from a young girl's point of view. Soon after the arrival of the Wisters at the farm the peaceful quiet of the place was broken up, for the sights and sounds of war began to be heard even in that remote location, as both armies were marching towards Philadelphia. In the first letter to Debby Sally informs us that on the 24th of September, two Virginia officers stopped at the house, and informed them that the British army had crossed the Schuylkill, and later another person called and said that General Washington and Army were near Potsgrove, and Sally writes to Debby:

"Well, thee may be sure we were sufficiently scared; however, the road was very still till evening. About seven o'clock we heard a great noise. To the door we all went. A large number of waggons with about three hundred of the Philadelphia Militia. They begged for drink and several pushed into the house. One of those that entered was a little tipsy and had a mind to be saucy. I then thought it time for me to retreat, so figure me (mightily scared,) running in at one door and out another, all in a shake with fear, but after a while seeing the officers appeared gentlemanly and the soldiers civil, I call'd reason to my aid. My fears were in some measure dispell'd, tho' my teeth rattled and my hand shook like an aspen leaf. They did not offer to take their quarters with us, so with many blessings and as many adieus they marched off. I have given thee the most material occurrences of yesterday faithfully."

The next day she and "chicken hearted" Liddy, as Sally called her sister, were very much scared by a false report that the dreaded Hessians, who comprised a large part of the British army, were approaching, had "actually turned into our lane," writes Sally, and she adds "Well, the fright went off," but hearing that the forces were momentarily drawing nearer, she remarks, "I expect soon to be in the midst of one army or t'other." Then while looking for some great happening, she had another fright, for a party of Virginia light horse rode up to the door, and mistaking the red and blue of their uniforms for the British colours, she fled to the shelter of the house, with, as she says, "wings tack'd to my feet."

An interval of several weeks then passed, in which nothing of any great moment happened, as she explains in the brief notes in her diary. Then comes a stirring day to chronicle for Debby's benefit. In the morning she hears "the greatest drumming, fifing and rattling of waggons that ever was heard" and goes a short distance to see the American army as it marches to take a position nearer the city. On that same day comes General Smallwood, commander of the Maryland troops, with his officers, and a large guard of soldiers to the farm, and asks to be allowed to make it his headquarters. Permission having been given by Hannah Foulke, one of the officers wrote over the door:

"Smallwood's Quarters"
to secure the house from straggling soldiers, and then the regiment rode away, leaving a flutter of excitement in the hearts of the girls, at the thought of having such a novel experience as a house full of soldiers. With delightful candour Sally tells us that she and her sister and cousins at once "put on their best dresses" and "put their lips in order for conquest," and then awaited the evening with what patience they could summon. At last the general and his staff and soldiers arrived, when at once the yard and house were in confusion, and glittered with military equipments. A Dr. Gould who was at that time staying with the Wisters, being a friend of General Smallwood's, presented him and his officers ceremoniously to the family of which they were to be a part, and there is no doubt that from soldier to General all looked with covert or open admiration on pretty, saucy Sally, who despite her fear of the military, showed great courage, not to say pleasure, in their near presence!

At once she looked them over, man by man, with a critical eye, and passed judgment on them in her diary, relating, that to her surprise, they seem "very peaceable sort of men," and adds, "they eat like other folks, talk like them, and behave themselves with elegance, so I will not be afraid of them, no I won't," and winds up her letter with, "Adieu. I am going to my chamber to dream, I suppose of bayonets and swords, sashes, guns and epaulets."

On the following day, she writes to Debby, "I dare say thee is impatient to know my sentiments of the officers, so while Somnus embraces them and the house is still, take their characters according to their rank," and then gives a vivid pen picture of each one of the officers, her trenchant description showing her to be no respecter of persons. Major William Truman Stoddard, a nephew of the General, and not much older than Sally herself, she at first describes as appearing "cross and reserved," but her opinion of the young officer materially changes. On the second day of their acquaintance she writes, "Well, here comes the glory, the Major, so bashful, so famous; I at first thought him cross and proud, but I was mistaken. He cannot be extolled for graces of person, but for those of the mind he may be justly celebrated." On the third day, "the Major is very reserv'd, nothing but 'Good morning' or 'your servant,' madam," and she adds that she has heard that he is worth a fortune of thirty thousand pounds, but is so bashful that he can hardly look at the ladies, after which information she roguishly remarks in an aside, "Excuse me, good sir, I really thought you were not clever; if 'tis bashfulness only, we will drive that away!"

At the end of several days, Sally seems to be much interested in the Major, but to have made little headway in getting acquainted with him, and the only entry concerning him is "The Gen'l still here. The Major still bashful."

Then on a Sunday evening when she was playing with her little brother, the Major drew up a chair and began to play with the child too, and Sally says, "One word brought us together and we chatted the greatest part of the evening." This seems to have broken the ice between them completely and two days later while Liddy and Sally were reading she tells us that, "The Major was holding a candle for the Gen'l who was reading a newspaper. He looked at us, turned away his eyes, looked again, put the candlestick down, up he jumped, out of the door he went." But presently he returned and seated himself on the table begging them for a song, which Liddy said Sally could give, and they laughed and talked for an hour and Sally found him "very clever, amiable and polite." In the same letter Sally exclaimed, "Oh, Debby, I have a thousand things to tell thee. I shall give thee so droll an account of my adventures that thee will smile. 'No occasion of that, Sally,' methinks I hear thee say, 'for thee tells me every trifle.' But child, thee is mistaken, for I have not told thee half the civil things that are said of us SWEET creatures at General Smallwood's Quarters!" Sly little Mistress Sally!

On the next day, "A polite 'Good morning' from the Major. More sociable than ever. No wonder, a stoic could not resist such affable damsels as we are!"--Conceited little monkey--Again, "the Major and I had a little chat to ourselves this evening. No harm, I assure thee. He and I are friends."

That letter also recounts the coming of Colonel Guest, who at once fell a victim to the charms of Liddy, in telling which to Debby, Sally remarks, "When will Sally's admirers appear? Ah! that indeed. Why, Sally has not charms sufficient to pierce the heart of a soldier. But still I won't despair. Who knows what mischief I may yet do?"--Ah, yes, little coquette, who knows?

Two days later, she writes, "Liddy, Betsey, Stoddard and myself, seated by the fire chatted away an hour in lively conversation. I can't pretend to write all he said, but he shone in every subject we talked of," and again, "As often as I go to the door, so often have I seen the Major. We chat passingly, as 'A fine day, Miss Sally,' Yes, very fine, Major.

"Another very charming conversation with the young Marylander, He has by his unexceptionable deportment engaged my esteem."--Lucky Major!

All too soon for the girls at the farm came a command from head-quarters that the Army was to march on to Whitemarsh, and the soldiers' two weeks of playtime was over. On the day before the leave-taking, Liddy, Betsey and Sally, the latter dressed in a white muslin gown, a big bonnet, and long gloves, started down the garden path to take a walk. On the porch stood two officers watching the retreating figures. One was the Major of Sally's fancy, the other a Major Leatherberry, of whom she tersely says, "He is a sensible fellow who will not swing for want of a tongue!"

In describing the incident, Sally says, "As we left the house, I naturally looked back (of course you did, little coquette) when behold, the two majors came fast after us, and begged leave to attend us. No fear of a refusal!" she adds, and together the four young people rambled through the woodland, flaming with autumn tints, by the bank of the overflowing Wissahickon, and Sally says that they shortened the way with lively conversation, and that nothing happened that was not entirely consistent with the strictest rules of politeness and decorum, but tells of pouting when Major Stoddard tried to console her for tearing her muslin petticoat, and of flouting Major Leatherberry, when noticing the locket against her white throat, he gallantly quoted:

"On her white neck a sparkling cross she wore,
That Jews might kiss or infidels adore,"

but remarks that as a whole the little excursion was full of delights for each one of the party, and it was the last good time they had together for several weeks, as the farewell came on the next day. Sally and the Major seem to have felt the parting keenly, and Sally acknowledges to Debby, "I am sorry, for when you have been with agreeable people, 'tis impossible not to feel regret when they bid you adieu, perhaps forever. When they leave us we shall be immurred in solitude," adding tersely, "The Major looks dull."--Poor Major!

Later she adds, "It seems strange not to see our house as it used to be. We are very still. No rattling of waggons, glittering of musquets. The beating of the distant drum is all we hear."

The journal records no other item of special interest for several weeks, except the arrival of two Virginia officers, which somewhat cheers Sally, although she describes them in none too glowing terms. She says, "Warring, an insignificant piece enough. Lee sings prettily and talks a great deal--how good turkey hash and fry'd hominy is!--A pretty discourse to entertain ladies! Nothing lowers a man more in my estimation than talking of eating. Lee and Warring are proficient in this science. Enough of them!"

On the 5th of December, Sally has forgotten all trifling details in a new excitement. She writes, "Oh gracious, Debby, I am all alive with fear. The English have come out to attack (we imagine) our army. They are on Chestnut Hill, our army three miles this side. What will become of us, only six miles distant?

"We are in hourly expectation of an engagement. I fear we shall be in the midst of it. Heaven defend us from so dreadful a sight. The battle of Germantown, and the horrors of that day are recent in my mind. It will be sufficiently dreadful if we are only in hearing of the firing, to think how many of our fellow creatures are plung'd into the boundless ocean of eternity, few of them prepared to meet their fate. But they are summoned before an all merciful Judge from whom they have a great deal to hope." (Dear little Sally, you are not so frivolous, after all!)

Two days later Major Stoddard appeared unexpectedly, to Sally's unconcealed joy. He was looking thin and sick, and was taken care of by Mrs. Foulke, but said if he heard firing, he should go with the troops, sick or well, which Sally calls "heroic," and at once, fearing he may flee hastily, says, "I dressed myself, silk and cotton gown. It is made without an apron. I feel quite awkwardish and prefer the girlish dresses."

The Major improved so rapidly that on the following day he drank tea with the Wisters, and Sally and he had a little private chat, when he promised if there should be a battle to come back with a full account of it. Later in the afternoon firing was distinctly heard, and it was supposed that the opposing armies had begun an engagement. This was Howe's famous demonstration against Washington's position at Whitemarsh, and a general battle was expected by everyone, but nothing occurred except several severe skirmishes. However, at the sound of platoon firing, the Major ordered his horse saddled, and if the firing had not decreased, could not have been dissuaded from going, though still far from strong, and Sally shows great pride in his bravery, as she calls it.

The next day's entry tells Debby, "Rejoice with us, my dear. The British have returned to the city--charming news this!" They reached Philadelphia on that evening, plundering farms on their way, as they marched in. Sally devoutly adds, "May we ever be thankful to the Almighty Disposer of events for his care and protection of us while surrounded with dangers.

"Major went to the army. Nothing for him to do so he returned."

On the following day she writes, "Our Army moved, as we thought to go into Winter quarters, but we hear there is a party of the enemy gone over the Schuylkill, so our Army went to look at them.

"I observed to Stoddard: 'So you are going, to leave us to the English.'

"'Yes, ha, ha, ha! Leave you to the English!'" was his answer, and the glance that accompanied it spoke volumes.

At noon he was gone again, leaving Sally pining for new fields to conquer. She did not have to wait long as there were already at the farm two officers, whom she now deigns to notice, and describes as "A Captain Lipscomb and a Mr. Tilly;" the latter she calls, "a wild noisy mortal who appears bashful with girls," and she adds, "We dissipated the Major's bashfulness, but I doubt we have not so good a subject now. He keeps me in perpetual humour but the creature has not addressed one civil thing to me since he came." An incentive to exert all her charms and force a victory, Mistress Sally!

It was now nearly the Christmas season, and Stoddard was again at the farm, for a brief visit, when an amusing incident took place. Sally was sitting in her aunt's parlour with the other girls, darning an apron when Major Stoddard joined them, and began to compliment her on her skill, with the needle.

"Well, Miss Sally, what would you do if the British were to come here?" he asked.

"Do!" exclaimed Sally, "be frightened just to death!"

He laughed and said he would escape their rage by getting behind the figure of a British grenadier which was upstairs. "Of all things I would like to frighten Tilly with it," he said. "Pray, ladies, let's fix it in his chamber to-night."

"If thee will take all of the blame we will assist thee," said wary Sally.

"That I will," he replied, and then they made their plan to stand the life-size figure of the grenadier which was of a most martial appearance, at the door which opened into the road (the house had four rooms on a floor with a wide entry running through), with another figure which would add to the deceit. One of the servants was to stand behind them, others to serve as occasion offered.

"After half an hour's converse," Sally says, "in which we raised our expectations to the highest pitch, we parted." On that evening this is what happened, according to Sally's chronicle. She says:--"In the beginning of the event I went to Liddy and begged her to secure the swords and pistols which were in their parlour. The Marylander, hearing our voices joined us. I told him of our proposal. He approved of it and Liddy went in and brought her apron full of swords and pistols.

"When this was done Stoddard joined the officers. We girls went and stood at the first landing of the stairs. The gentlemen were very merry and chatting on public affairs when a negro opened the door, candle in his hand, and said, 'There's somebody at the door that wishes to see you.'

"'Who, all of us?' said Tilly.

"'Yes, sir,' answered the boy.

"They all rose, the Major, as he afterwards said, almost dying with laughter, and walked into the entry. Tilly first, in full expectation of news.

"The first object that struck his view was a British soldier. In a moment his ears were saluted with, 'Is there any rebel officer here?' in a thundering voice.

"Not waiting for a second word, Tilly darted like lightning out at the front door, through the yard, bolted o'er the fence. Swamps, fences, thorn-hedges and ploughed fields no way impeded his retreat. He was soon out of hearing.

"The woods echoed with, 'Which way did he go? Stop him! Surround the house!' Lipscomb had his hand on the latch, intending to attempt his escape. Stoddard, acquainted him with the deceit.

"'Major Stoddard,' said I, 'Go call Tilly back. He will lose himself,--indeed he will.' Every word interrupted with a Ha! Ha!

"At last he rose and went to the door and what a loud voice could avail in bringing him back, he tried.

"Figure to thyself this Tilly, of a snowy evening, no hat, shoes down at the heel, hair unty'd, flying across meadows, creeks and mud holes. Flying from what? Why, a bit of painted wood.

"After a while our bursts of laughter being less frequent yet by no means subsided; in full assembly of girls and officers, Tilly entered.

"The greatest part of my responsibility turned to pity. Inexpressible confusion had taken entire possession of his countenance, his fine hair hanging dishevelled down his shoulders, all splashed with mud, yet his fright, confusion and race had not divested him of his beauty. He smiles as he trips up the steps, briskly walked five or six steps, then stopped and took a general survey of us all.

"'Where have you been, Mr. Tilly?' asked one officer. (We girls were silent.)

"'I really imagined,' said Stoddard, 'that you were gone for your pistols. I follow'd you to prevent danger,' an excessive laugh at each question, which it was impossible to restrain.

"'Pray, where are your pistols, Tilly?'

"He broke his silence by the following expression, 'You may all go to the devil!'" In recording this, Sally somewhat shocked says, "I never heard him utter an indecent expression before."

"At last his good nature gained a complete ascendance over his anger, and he joined heartily in the laugh. Stoddard caught hold of his coat. 'Come, look at what you ran from,' he exclaimed, and dragged him to the door.

"Tilly gave it a look, said it was very natural, and by the singularity of his expression gave fresh cause for diversion. We all retired,--for to rest our faces,--if I may say so.

"Well, certainly these military folk will laugh all night. Such screaming I never did hear. Adieu to-night."

Such incidents as that did good service in giving a touch of humour to the soldiers' duller duties when in camp, and the vivid picture of Tilly and the grenadier comes down to us through the years as a refreshing incident of Revolutionary days.

On the next day Sally writes, "I am afraid they will yet carry the joke too far. Tilly certainly possesses an uncommon share of good nature or he could not tolerate these frequent teasings." Then she adds what is most important of all,--

"Ah, Deborah, the Major is going to leave us entirely, just going. I will see him first."

And on the next day, "He has gone. I saw him pass the bridge. The woods hindered us from following him farther. I seem to fancy he will return in the evening."

But he never did, and it is left to our imagining how much of her heart the gallant young officer took away with him. Whether much or little, there was no evidence of her loss of spirits, and other admirers came and went, in quick succession and apparently entirely engaged her attention.

On the 20th of December, she writes, "General Washington's army have gone into winter quarters at Valley Forge.

"We shall not see so many of the military now. We shall be very intimate with solitude. I am afraid stupidity will be a frequent guest," and again, "A dull round of the same thing. I shall hang up my pen till something happens worth relating."

There being such a lack of diversion at the farm, Sally gladly went to spend a week with her friend Polly Fishbourn at Whitemarsh, where she had an opportunity to climb the barren hills and from their tops saw an extended view of the surrounding country. She says, "The traces of the Army which encamped on these hills are very visible,--ragged huts, imitations of chimneys, and many other ruinous objects which plainly showed that they had been there."

Again back at the farm she had long weeks without any other real adventures,--a real one where Sally was concerned, being always one with an officer in the foreground, but when June came again there arrived at the farm the Virginian captain, Dandridge, who seems to have effectually displaced Major Stoddard in the fickle little lady's graces, and she described him in glowing terms to Debby, giving very diverting accounts of the spicy conversations they had together, for Captain Dandridge was famous at repartee, and Sally never at a loss for words to answer back. In fact there is no more charming bit of writing in the journal than the account of her intimacy with the Captain whom she speaks of as the "handsomest man in existence."

In one of Sally's conversations with Dandridge, an interesting light is thrown on the attitude of the Wisters in the struggle for independence. As Quakers, they professed to be in a neutral position, taking a firm stand against war, and preferring not to be drawn into discussions on political questions, which is shown by Sally's account of an evening when some officers having taken tea in the Wister parlour, she says, "the conversation turned on politicks, a subject to avoid. I gave Betsey a hint," she adds; "I rose, she followed, and we went out of the room." But although theoretically opposed to war, the Wisters, like a majority of the Quakers, were at heart friends of liberty. There is no doubt that Sally's sympathy was with the American cause, she was quick to deny Dandridge's accusation that she was a Tory.

All too soon, Captain Dandridge, like the other officers, rode away from the farm after a gallant leave-taking, but Sally's thoughts were soon otherwise engrossed. She wrote, "We have had strange reports about the British being about to leave Philadelphia. I can't believe it."

And on the following day, "We have heard an astonishing piece of news--that the English have entirely left the city. It is almost impossible! Stay--I shall hear further," and then on the next, "A light horseman has just confirmed the above intelligence! This is charmante! They decamped yesterday. He (the horseman) was in Philadelphia. It is true! They have gone! Past a doubt. I can't help forbear exclaiming to the girls, 'Now are you sure the news is true? Now are you sure they have gone?'

"'Yes, yes, yes!' they all cry, 'and may they never, never return!'

"Dr. Gould came here to-night. Our army are about six miles off, on their march to the Jerseys."

On the next day she adds, "The army began their march at six this morning. Our brave, our heroic General Washington was escorted by fifty of the Life Guards with drawn swords. Each day he acquires an addition to his goodness."

A fine tribute, indeed, to the moving spirit of American Independence, and with it let us close Sally Wister's journal, sure that with the retreat of the British from Philadelphia, she will soon be able to return to the friends from whom she has had such a long separation, and so will have no further need to record happenings at the farm as she has been doing so faithfully, but can presently relate them not to Debby alone, but to the whole "Social Circle," and we may be sure from what we know of Mistress Sally that her stories will lose no spice in the telling.

If there are those who are reluctant to part with pretty Sally, let them turn to the little journal and read it in its spicy entirety for themselves, and it were well also after reading this chronicle of a girl of the Revolution, to turn to the pages of history and paint in more accurate detail the background of our vivid picture of Sally, for only a short distance from the farm, across the hills of Gwynedd, the greatest actors in the Revolutionary drama were playing their parts--Washington, Lafayette, Wayne, Steuben, Greene, and many others--playing the hero's part at the battle of Germantown, at the battle of Burgoyne, in the skirmishes before Washington's encampment at Whitemarsh, suffering silently in a winter at Valley Forge.

Turn to the pages of history for the sombre background and glance once again at the piquant face and merry eyes of Sally Wister, half hidden under her demure Quaker bonnet, with her snowy kerchief crossed so smoothly over her tempestuous young heart, as she looked when soldiers and officers fell under the charm of her bewitching personality!

[The end]
Kate Dickinson Sweetser's short story: Sally Wister: A Girl Of The American Revolution