In this column, Alexis Coe, Lenny's historian at large, will conduct Q&As with specialists in archives across the country, focusing on one primary source. For this post, Alexis spoke with Holger Hoock, author of Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth*, about the deposition of Abigail Palmer, a teenager who, alongside two friends and a pregnant relative, was sexually assaulted by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.*
Alexis Coe: I recently heard you discuss your new book, Scars of Independence, in which you "write the violence back into the [American] Revolution." That includes violence against women, which isn't the narrative we normally hear about this war. Since then, I've thought about Abigail Palmer, a teenage girl who was, along with two friends and a pregnant relative, raped by soldiers. What happened to her?
Holger Hoock: Abigail Palmer was a thirteen-year-old girl. One day in December 1776, she had been at the house of her grandfather, Edmund Palmer, a farmer near Pennington, New Jersey. British soldiers straying from a nearby camp took control of the premises. For three days, several soldiers raped Abigail, her teenage friends, Elizabeth and Sarah Cain, and her aunt, Mary Phillips. In a war not short of atrocities on all sides, this stands out as a horrific, harrowing ordeal endured by girls and women who, as far as we know, played no active part in the conflict.
AC: So there's no evidence to suggest that any of the women were Revolutionary spies? Was Abigail's grandfather involved with the Patriot cause, or sympathetic?
HH: There's no evidence that these particular women were spies, or couriers, or otherwise actively aided the American war effort. The family does not seem to have been targeted for their allegiances. This was a crime of opportunity: soldiers roaming the environs of their camp came across the women at the Palmer residence and then abused them systematically.
AC: Were there any male relatives on the farm, or were the women alone?
HH: Abigail's grandfather was at the house at the time and attempted to shield her and Elizabeth Cain when several soldiers "pull'd them both into a Room" –– but, ignoring their screams, they "Ravishd them both." The families of raped American women often pointed out that British soldiers maximized the humiliating and demoralizing impact of their attacks by assaulting women in front of their fathers, husbands, and other close relatives. Assaults on the honor of American men who failed to protect their vulnerable women seemed as critical as defeat on the battlefield.
AC: Did the women or Abigail's grandfather go to the authorities on their own, or was she encouraged to do so?
HH: Neither, actually. Like most women raped by soldiers, Abigail had no chance to charge her assailants or seek justice in an American court. A few rape victims courageously visited the HQ of the occupying British forces to demand that their attackers be identified and tried. And at a time when tolerance of sexual violence was very high in the British army, officers did actually prosecute some rape cases: courts-martial sentenced several soldiers to execution by hanging. Abigail was in fact sought out by America's new leaders to tell her story. These men –– and they were all men, of course –– would deploy Abigail's story of personal suffering in their moral and propaganda war against the tyrannical British Empire.
AC: Who took Abigail's deposition, and why?
HH: That winter, of 1776 to 1777, the Continental Congress had appointed a committee to investigate British war crimes. They were asked to document not just battlefield atrocities and prisoner abuse, but also the "lust and brutality of the soldiers in abusing of women." America's new leaders were acutely aware that rape would be "more difficult to prove than any of the rest as the person abused, as well as the Relations are generally reluctant against bringing matters of this kind into public Notice." But George Washington identified specific New Jersey citizens who knew about rape cases, and a local justice of the peace was able to depose six girls and women in the area –– including Abigail.