Mrs. Graydon Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Mrs. Graydon has been made known to us in her son’s “Memoirs” of his own life and times. She was the eldest of four daughters; was born in the island of Barbadoes, and when but seven years old came with her family to Philadelphia. Her father was a German who had been engaged in trade in Barbadoes – her mother a native of Glasgow; but notwithstanding the want of national affinity, and the still greater differences of dialect and religion, there was no lack of harmony in their judgment with respect to the training of their children, who were brought up in strict principles, and after good example in both parents. The mother died before the commencement of hostilities, and it is not ascertained at what time the subject of this notice married Mr. Graydon. She was pronounced by one of her acquaintances (Dr. Baird), who has transmitted the record to posterity, to be “the finest girl in Philadelphia, having the manners of a lady bred at court.” Her house was the seat of hospitality, and the resort of numerous guests of distinction, including officers of the British army. The Baron de Kalb was often there; and among persons of rank from the mother country were Lady Moore, the wife of Sir Henry Moore, and her daughter; Lady Susan O’Brien and her husband; Major George Etherington, and others. Sir William Draper, who attained the rank of general in the British army, and, in 1779, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Minorca, was also a frequent guest.

      The account of Mrs. Graydon’s visit to her son Alexander, who had been taken prisoner at the battle of Fort Washington, has interest as exhibiting the strength of her maternal affection, with a fortitude and patriotic spirit worthy of an American matron. After having addressed a letter to General Washington, who could do nothing to accomplish the release of her son, she resolved on going herself to New York, notwithstanding the opposition of her friends on account of the difficulties of travelling, for the purpose of soliciting his freedom on parole, from the British commander. She accordingly purchased a horse and chair, and set out for Philadelphia, her residence being then at Reading. On her arrival in the city, one Fisher, a distant relative, was officious in tendering his service to drive her to New York, and the offer was accepted; but when they had nearly reached Princeton, they were overtaken, to their great astonishment, by a detachment of American cavalry – Fisher, it seems, being a loyalist. The lady found in such evil company was taken also into custody, and after some delay, was obliged to retrace her road to Philadelphia, under an escort of horse. When they reached Bristol on their return, means were found for the prisoner to go on without the chair, and Mrs. Graydon was accompanied by Colonel M’Ilvaine, an old friend, to the head-quarters of the American army, where proper measures could be taken for her proceeding within the British lines. After being conducted to the lines, she was committed to the courtesy of some Hessian officers. It happened, during the ceremony of the flag, that a gun was somewhere discharged on the American side. This infringement of military etiquette was furiously resented by the German officers; and their vehement gestures, and expressions of indignation, but imperfectly understood by the lady, alarmed her not a little. She supported herself as well as she could, under this inauspicious introduction into the hostile territory, and had her horse led to the quarters of the general who commanded in Brunswick, where she alighted, and was shown into a parlor. Weary and faint from fatigue and agitation, she partook of some refreshment offered her, and then went to deliver a letter of introduction she had received from Mr. Vanhorne of Boundbrook to a gentleman in Brunswick. Five of the Misses Vanhorne, his nieces, were staying at the house, and with them Mrs. Graydon became well acquainted, as they avowed whig principles. Their uncle had been compelled to leave Flatbush on account of his attachment to the American cause; but was permitted not long afterwards to return to his house there, accompanied by Mrs. Vanhorne and her daughters.

      After a detention of a week or more at Brunswick, Mrs. Graydon embarked in a sloop or shallop for New York. The vessel was fired upon from the shore, but no one was injured, and she reached in safety the destined port. Mr. Bache allowed Mrs. Graydon to occupy his part of Mr. Suydam’s house during her stay at Flatbush. Here, in the society of her son, her accustomed flow of good spirits returned: she even gave one or two tea drinkings to the “rebel clan,” and “learned from Major Williams the art of making Johnny cakes in the true Maryland fashion.” These recreations did not interfere with the object of her expedition, nor could her son dissuade her from her purpose of proving the result of an application. When she called in New York on Mr. Galloway, who was supposed to have much influence at head-quarters, he advised her to apply to Sir William Howe by memorial, and offered to draw up one for her. In a few minutes he produced what accorded with his ideas on the subject, and read to her what he had written, commencing with – “Whereas Mrs. Graydon has always been a true and faithful subject of His Majesty George the Third; and whereas her son, an inexperienced youth, has been deluded by the arts of designing men . . .”

      “0h, sir,” – cried the mother – “that will never do ! My son cannot obtain his release on those terms.” “Then, madam” – replied the officer, somewhat peevishly, “I can do nothing for you !”

      Though depressed by her first disappointment, Mrs. Graydon would not relinquish her object; but continued to advise with every one she thought able or willing to assist her. In accordance with the counsel received from a friend, she at length resolved upon a direct application to General Howe.

      After several weeks of delay, anxiety and disappointment, through which her perseverance was unwearied, the design was put in execution. Without having informed her son of what she meant to do, lest he might prevent her, through his fear of improper concessions on her part, she went one morning to New York, and boldly waited upon Sir William Howe. She was shown into a parlor, and had a few moments to consider how she should address him who possessed the power to grant her request, or to destroy her hopes. He entered the room, and was near her, before she perceived him.

      “Sir William Howe, I presume?” said Mrs. Graydon, rising. He bowed; she made known her business – a mother’s feelings doubtless giving eloquence to her speech – and entreated permission for her son to go home with her on parole.

      “And then immediately to take up arms against us, I suppose !” said the General.

      “By no means, sir; I solicit his release upon parole; that will restrain him until exchanged; but on my own part I will go further, and say that if I have any influence over him, he shall never take up arms again.” “Here,” says Graydon, “the feelings of the patriot were wholly lost in those of the war detesting mother.” The General seemed to hesitate; but on the earnest renewal of her suit, gave the desired permission.

      The mother’s joy at her success was the prelude to a welcome summons to the prisoners, to repair to New York for the purpose of being transported in a flag-vessel to Elizabethtown. The captives having been kept in the dark on subjects concerning which they most desired information – the state of the army and public affairs – one of those left behind furnished Graydon with a kind of cypher, by which intelligence could be conveyed to him. The disguise consisted in the substitution of one piece of information for another; for instance – a lady named was to signify the army; if that was prosperous, the fact was to be indicated by announcing the health and charming looks of the belle in question; there being a scale in the key, by which intelligence might be graduated.

      After some adventures, the travellers reached Philadelphia, where they dined at President Hancock’s. He had opposed Mrs. Graydon’s scheme of going to New York; and though apparently pleased with her success, could not be supposed cordially gratified by an event which might give to the adverse cause any reputation for clemency. Such is the policy of war, and so stern a thing is patriotism !

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