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'Fighting as a Common Soldier'

Anna Maria Lane distinguished herself in battle and won a military pension

A great many women followed the Continental Army, earning their rations by doing laundry and sometimes by cooking or nursing or sewing. A few took up arms, most famously (though probably apocryphally) Molly Pitcher, who supposedly took her husband's place behind a cannon after he fell at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in 1778. Others dressed in men's clothes, and Deborah Sampson was perhaps the best known. She passed herself off as Robert Shurtleff and fought in several battles.

Perhaps the most mysterious Revolutionary career of any woman was that of Anna Maria Lane.

This much we know: In 1808 the Virginia Assembly granted Lane a pension of $100 a year for life because she "in the revolutionary war, in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military services, and received a severe wound at the battle of Germantown."

What were these "extraordinary services"? Historians don't know. But $100 was 2 1/2 times the normal pension for veterans.

Illustration by Michael Hoeweler

Historian Sandra Gioia Treadway has chronicled Lane's life — to the extent possible, given the very limited documentation.

Lane was born about 1735, possibly in Connecticut or New Hampshire. Her husband, John, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776. Anna Maria, like many impoverished women, may have followed John and taken on one of the traditional female roles of a "camp follower."

Sometime before October 1777, when the Battle of Germantown took place, she put on men's clothing, either with or without the knowledge of other soldiers.

Germantown is a few miles northwest of Philadelphia, which was under British control. George Washington's forces attacked on the 4th. Poor communication and a thick fog caused great confusion, and some Continental troops fired on each other. A large stone house served as a British stronghold, and bloody hand-to-hand fighting took place in the yard and hallways before the Patriots were forced to retreat.

"Was Anna Maria Lane one of these who entered the house, who picked up a fallen standard, who made a valiant final charge when others were retreating?" asked Colonial Williamsburg historian Joyce Henry in a 2010 podcast. "That's my thought."

Anna Maria was certainly among those injured. Whether doctors discovered she was a woman or whether she somehow managed to continue to disguise her gender remains unknown.

Anna Maria Lane was illiterate and signed for her pension by marking the receipt with an X.

After the war, the Lanes moved to Virginia, where John joined the Virginia State Legion in 1782. A year later, when the legion disbanded, John became a member of the Public Guard and the family moved to Columbia, southeast of Charlottesville. There, at Point of Fork, laborers provided arms and clothing for the state's militia. Anna Maria took on a more traditional role, earning extra money doing laundry.

By 1801, the arsenal at Point of Fork was moved to Richmond, where mostly disabled veterans were part of a guard garrison. Weapons were also produced and repaired at this location. John Lane, by then 75, may have assisted with other guardhouse duties. Anna Maria Lane, meanwhile, served as a nurse and received a small stipend at the recommendation of the city's health officer, Dr. John H. Foushee, whose father, William Foushee, was a member of Gov. James Monroe's council of state, the body that oversaw such decisions.

Anna Maria Lane's deteriorating health required her to stop working in 1804. Four years later, when the General Assembly reduced the size of the guard, John was discharged.

Aging and ill, the Lanes applied to the state of Virginia for a pension.

Virginia Gov. William Cabell championed the case of impoverished veterans. In his January 1808 message to the speaker of the House of Delegates, Cabell called for pensions for those "worn out in the public service."

Cabell's letter singled out Anna Maria Lane, who had been "disabled by a severe wound which she received while fighting as a common soldier, in one of our Revolutionary battles, from which she never has recovered, and perhaps never will recover."

Members of the House of Delegates may have interviewed Lane, but no record has survived. Judging from the pension they awarded Lane, though, the legislators were impressed by what they heard. Anna Maria Lane received the pension until her death in 1810.

For Joyce Henry, the language used by the Virginia Assembly signaled Lane could very well have been one of the soldiers injured in the stone house. "To me, that highlights … probably one of the bloodiest and heroic actions of the Battle of Germantown," she said.

Concluded Treadway: "Although we now know virtually none of the details of Anna Maria Lane's activities on the battlefield, the Virginia legislature's unusually generous pension is solid testimony that they were real and important, and that they deserve to be remembered."

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