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10 Revolutionary War Facts Even American History Buffs Don't Know

Conspiracy plots, soldiers in disguise, and Broadway excursions filled the days of Revolutionary troops.

If you grew up attending the American school system, you likely feel confident in your knowledge of the Revolutionary War. George Washington, Battle of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere, Surrender at Yorktown–what else could there possibly be? But as with any war, and especially any revolutionary period, there were a number of events so odd that teaching them is nearly impossible. Even before that shot heard 'round the world in 1775, revolution had been fomenting. The (soon-to-be) nation-wide feeling of youth, empowerment, and freedom made for strange bedfellows–and these strange Revolutionary War facts!

1. There was a secret plan to kill George Washington.

In 1776, shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed, a secret committee uncovered a plot to kill the future first president. The committee was appointed by Washington himself after he arrived in New York to prepare for a British attack. The most shocking part of the plan was that it was led by none other than his own personal bodyguard, Thomas Hickey. Several other prominent people were involved, including the New York governor and the city’s mayor. However, since Hickey was closest to Washington and was believed to be the one who would have carried out the killing, he was be the only one executed. The committee whose information saved Washington’s life would go on to lay the groundwork for the modern-day CIA. 

Related: 10 Revealing Revolutionary War Books

2. Some British soldiers were actors by night.

revolutionary war era theater sketch
  • Actors at the Old John St. Theatre, 1791.

  • Photo Credit: NYPL Digital Collections

While the British army held New York City, they passed the time by acting in Broadway shows. Their most popular shows were Shakespeare plays–chosen both for the sophisticated material and their British origins. Though they never wrote and performed any original plays, the soldiers-turned-actors were known for inserting their own prologues which were filled with pro-British sentiments. Some colonist armies attempted to put on their own theatrical performances, but never managed such fully realized plays.

3. 200 original copies of the Declaration of Independence were made.

signed Declaration of Independence
  • Photo Credit: National Archives

At the National Archives in Washington D.C., there is one copy of a fully signed and preserved Declaration of Independence. When the Declaration was created, printer John Dunlap printed a total of 200 copies. One copy was signed by all 56 members of the Second Continental Congress–the copy still seen at the National Archives today. The remaining 199 broadsides included only the names of John Hancock and Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Congress. Only 26 of those copies are around today, the rest lost in history. 

4. Some Revolutionary War veterans had their photographs taken.

Have you ever wondered what Revolutionaries in the late 1700s looked like? Fortunately, six of the men who fought in the war survived into the next century to witness the invention of photography. They were photographed in 1863 for a project to find any remaining Revolutionary War veterans. Some of the men even recalled speaking with George Washington and other notable figures of the time. 

Related: 6 Revolutionary War Veterans Survived Long Enough To Be Photographed

5. Invisible ink was used to communicate top-secret messages.

Doctor James Jay (brother of Founding Father John Jay) created an “invisible ink” made out of ferrous sulfate and water that could be used to write secret messages and would dry completely clear. To see the invisible messages, one would have to hold the paper to heat or douse it with a revealing chemical. George Washington and his men made great use of the invisible ink, using it to write between the lines in letters or in the backs of books.

Related: The Culper Ring: The Revolutionary Spies Who Helped Win the War

6. Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Deborah Sampson Revolutionary War soldier
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A fierce and loyal Patriot, Deborah Sampson wanted to contribute to the war in a different way than women were expected to. She disguised herself as a man named Robert Shurtleff to join the Continental Army. She was successful in going unnoticed for two years, despite her military prowess and rather frequent injuries. Her disguise lasted until she became very ill in 1783 and woke up in the hospital.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sampson was honorably discharged, given a full military pension, and went on to lecture across the country about her experiences as a hidden female soldier in the war. She also, with the help of Herman Mann, wrote a memoir about her experience in 1797. Sampson died at 66. Her husband petitioned Congress for spousal pay, as a woman would receive after her soldier-husband passed: His petition was successful. Although Sampson is the most famous (and historically proven) example of a woman on the battlefield, it is believed that a number of other women joined the fight for the young nation.

7. More troops died from disease than battle.

Constant contact with people from across the seas and different regions meant that soldiers often exchanged diseases unknowingly. For many who were not immune or previously exposed, these diseases were fatal. The most common killer was smallpox, which George Washington himself caught shortly before the revolution. Exact numbers have been lost to time, but it’s believed that for every troop killed on the field, about two more died of disease.

Related: 14 Little-Known Facts About America's Founding Fathers

8. Many Revolutionary women were spies.

Many women did not want to sit around and wait for their husbands to return from war. Since they could not personally fight (barring exceptions like Deborah Sampson), they contributed to the Patriot cause in other ways, such as spying on British soldiers who occupied their towns. Market-sellers and maids who seemed benign to the British were actually eavesdropping on their conversations and alerting the Patriot forces to any significant British movement. One such woman, Lydia Darragh, was able to warn Revolutionary forces that the British were planning an attack on Washington in Pennsylvania. This warning was key in preventing an outright slaughter at Whitemarsh.

9. Paul Revere was also a dentist.

The famous Paul Revere did more than just ride through Boston to let his neighbors know a British attack was incoming. Before the revolution, Revere was a talented silversmith who dabbled in dentistry on the side–a highly lucrative, if undertrained, trade at the time. Two months after his legendary midnight ride, Revere was asked to identify the body of a soldier he was believed to know. The body itself was too decomposed for Revere to identify, so he checked the man’s mouth to see if he had the same ivory teeth that Revere had made for him and wired into his jaw. It was indeed a correct match for Major Joseph Warren. It is believed that this was the first instance of identification through dental forensics.

Related: The Midnight Ride of Sybil Ludington

10. Minutemen helped win the fight.

The men who contributed to the war on a more local basis were known as Minutemen. Generally younger and less trained than general army forces, these men formed militias that protected their towns and were ready to go at a moment’s notice of a British attack. The Minutemen were self-trained and provided their own weapons but often lacked strong leadership. Many military actions before the start of the actual war were carried out by local militias, especially in Massachusetts.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 30 Jul 2019

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