The story of female heroism, fidelity and piety, with which the name of Lady Harriet Ackland is associated, is familiar to the readers of American history. To the fairer page where such examples of virtue are recorded, we delight to turn from the details of military achievement. The presence that shed radiance on the sunny days of hope and success, relieved and brightened the season of disaster. Her offices of mediation softened the bitterness of political animosity. The benevolent and conciliating efforts are known by which this heroine endeavored to settle differences that arose between the captive British soldiers and their conquerors, at the time the troops were quartered at Cambridge after the surrender.
Lady Harriet was the wife of Major Ackland, an officer in Burgoyne's army. She accompanied him to Canada in 1776, and in the disastrous campaign of the following year, from Canada to Saratoga. Beautiful and admired as she was, and accustomed to all the luxuries and refinements incident to rank and fortune, her delicate frame ill calculated to sustain the various hardships to be undergone, she yet shrank not from her husband's perils and privations in traversing the dreary wilderness. When he lay ill at Chambly, in a miserable hut, her attention was assiduous, in defiance of fatigue and discomfort. When he was wounded at Hubbardton, she hastened from Montreal, where she had been at first persuaded to remain, and crossed Lake Champlain, resolved to leave him no more. Her vehicle of conveyance on the march of the army was part of the time a small two-wheeled tumbril, drawn by a single horse over roads almost impassable. The women followed in the rear of the artillery and baggage; but heard all the uproar in encounters with the enemy.
On the advance of the army to Fort Edward, the tent in which Lady Ackland lodged took fire, the light being pushed over by a pet Newfoundland dog; and she and her husband made their escape with the utmost difficulty. But no hazards dissuaded the wife from her purpose. She was not only the ministering angel of him she loved so devotedly, but won the admiration of the army by her amiable deportment; continually making little presents to the officers belonging to his corps, whenever she had anything among her stores worth acceptance; and receiving in return every kind attention which could mitigate the hardships she had daily to encounter.
In the decisive action of the seventh of October, Lady Ackland was again in the tumult of battle. During the heat of the conflict, tortured by anxiety, she took refuge among the wounded and dying. Her husband, commanding the grenadiers, was in the most exposed part of the battle, and she awaited his fate in awful suspense. The Baroness Riedesel, and the wives of two other field officers, were her companions in apprehension. One of the officers was brought in wounded, and the death of the other was announced. In the midst of the heart-rending scenes that followed, intelligence came that the British army was defeated, and that Major Ackland was desperately wounded and a prisoner.
The unhappy lady, sustained by the counsels of her friend the Baroness, determined to join her husband in the American camp. She sent a message to General Burgoyne, through his aid-de-camp, Lord Petersham, to ask permission to depart. The British commander was astonished at this application. He was ready to believe patience and fortitude most brightly displayed in the female character; but he could hardly understand the courage of a woman, who after suffering so long the agitation of suspense, exhausted by want of rest and want of food, was ready to brave the darkness of night and the drenching rain for many hours, and to deliver herself to the enemy, uncertain into what hands she might fall! "The assistance I was able to give," he says, "was small indeed. I had not even a cup of wine to offer her. All I could furnish was an open boat, and a few lines written on dirty and wet paper to General Gates, recommending her to his protection."
How picturesque is the grouping of scenes we have at this point, and how do woman's strength of character and ardent affection shine amid the surrounding gloom! The army on its retreat - the sick and wounded abandoned to the mercy of the victors - the state of confusion following disasters so fatal to British power -the defeated general appealing in behalf of the suffering wife, by his tribute, written in haste and agitation, to her grace and excellence, and his expression of compassion for her hard fortune, and her own forgetfulness of danger, in hastening to her husband's aid!
She obtained from the wife of a soldier the refreshment of a little spirits and water, and set out in an open boat, accompanied by the British chaplain Brudenell, her own waiting-maid, and her husband's valet, who had been severely wounded in the search for his master when first missing from the field of battle. They went down the river during a violent storm of rain and wind, and arrived at the American outposts in the night, having suffered much from wet and cold. The sentinel of the advance-guard heard the sound of oars, and hailed the boat. What must have been his surprise to hear that a woman had braved the storm on such an errand! He sent for Major Dearborn, the officer of the guard, before he would permit the passengers to land. Major Dearborn invited Lady Ackland to his guard-house, offered her a cup of tea, and every accommodation in his power, and gave her the welcome intelligence of her husband's safety. In the morning she experienced the kindness of General Gates, who treated her with the tenderness of a parent, bestowing every attention which her sex and circumstances required. She was conveyed, under a suitable escort, to the quarters of General Poor on the heights, to her wounded husband; and there remained till he was taken to Albany. Her resolution, and devotion to him, touched the feelings of the Americans, and won the admiration of all who heard her story.
It is related that Major Ackland showed his sense of the generous treatment he had received, by doing all in his power, while in New York on parole, to alleviate the condition of American prisoners of distinction. After his return to England, he lost his life in defence of American honor. At a dinner of military gentlemen, a Lieutenant Lloyd threw out sneering remarks upon the alleged cowardice of the American troops. This was an indirect aspersion on the bravery of the unfortunate officers who had been taken captive with Burgoyne's army, and was felt and resented by Major Ackland. High words ensued, and a duel was the consequence, in which Ackland fell at the first fire. The shock of his death deprived Lady Harriet of reason, and she remained two years in that sad condition. After her recovery she quitted the gay world, and gave her hand to the Rev. Mr. Brudenell, who had accompanied her on that gloomy night to the camp of General Gates. She survived him many years, and died at an advanced age.
The narrative of that celebrated campaign contains an anecdote of female compassion which, though not connected with the subject of this notice, may be properly mentioned here.
"Colonel Cochran having been sent to Canada as a spy, his mission was suspected, and a large bounty offered for his head. While there he was taken sick, and knowing that he was suspected, concealed himself for a few days in a brush heap, within about two miles of the American lines, unable to make his escape, or even to walk. Having suffered much from his sickness and want of nourishment, and having discovered a log cabin at considerable distance from the spot where he was concealed, the only one in sight, he crept to it on his hands and knees, for the purpose of soliciting assistance.
On his approach to the rear of the cabin; he heard three men in earnest conversation; and it happened that he was the subject of their discourse. Having heard of the heavy bounty offered for the Colonel, and having seen a man in the vicinity a few days before, answering the description of him, they were forming their plans, and expressing their determination to find his whereabouts, and take him for the sake of the bounty.
One of the men was the owner of the cabin. His wife was also present; and the others were his brother and brother-in-law. Soon after this conversation, the three men departed in pursuit. He crept into the cabin, and frankly told the woman, who seemed favorably impressed towards him on account of his almost helpless condition, that he had overheard the conversation; that he was the man of whom they were in search; and that he should throw himself entirely upon her mercy, trusting to her fidelity for protection. This she very kindly promised him to the utmost of her ability. Having received some restoratives, which seemed to give relief, and taken suitable nourishment, he lay down on a bed in the room for the purpose of taking some repose. After the men had been absent about three hours, they returned; when she concealed him in a closet by the side of the fireplace, and shut the door, taking good care while the men were in the house, to keep near it, that if anything should be wanted from within, she might be ready to get it herself. During the time the men were in the cabin, they expressed much confidence in the belief that the Colonel was concealed somewhere in the vicinity, and named many places in which they intended to look for him. Having taken some food, and otherwise prepared themselves, the men departed to renew their search.
"Soon after they retired, the woman, not considering the Colonel's present situation safe, proposed that he should conceal himself at some distance from the cabin, where she might secretly bring him food, and render such other assistance as he needed. She accordingly directed him to take post on a certain hill about half a mile distant, where he might be able to discover any person's approach, and to flee, if he was able, should it become necessary. He manifested an inclination to resume his former position in the brush heap, which was in the midst of a patch of ground that had been cut over for a fallow; but she told him her husband intended to burn it the next day, and in that case he would certainly be discovered, or perish in the conflagration. He then submitted entirely to her directions; and crept along to the hill in the best way he could. He remained sometime in this place of concealment, undiscovered by any one except this faithful Rahab of the forest, who like a good Samaritan, poured in the oil and wine, until his strength was in a measure restored, and he was enabled to return to his country and his home.
Some years after the close of the war, and while the Colonel lived at Ticonderoga, he accidentally met with this kind-hearted woman, whose name I have not been able to ascertain, and rewarded her handsomely for her fidelity."