Power  /  Q&A

How Rape Was Used as a Weapon During the Revolutionary War

"They threatened to poison the girls, to run a bayonet through their hearts."

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. (Read Alexis's first column, about a letter from Coretta Scott King, here.)

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.

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