Little is known about Elizabeth Burgin except that she played a significant role in aiding American soldiers who were prisoners of the British during the Revolutionary War.
During the Revolutionary War, the British held many American prisoners-of-war on prison ships in Wallabout Bay. The conditions were criminal and led to the largest loss of life during the revolution. Some say eleven thousand patriots perished on the ships. Diseases like small pox and yellow fever spread easily and over seven thousand prisoners died while on the ships.
A resident of New York, Burgin was able to help the prisoners by visiting them and bringing them food. One evening when she returned home from visiting a prison ship, an American officer asked to meet with her about a plan to help the prisoners escape. The British only allowed women on the prison ships, so the officer wanted Burgin to alert the prisoners to be ready for the escape and to help with the plan of smuggling them off the ship. Burgin complied and helped more than 200 prisoners escape over the next several weeks. Because of her part, the British offered a two hundred pound reward for her capture. This amount was equal to twenty years of pay for a British soldier, so there was a great incentive for them to try to capture her. Burgin narrowly escaped being captured and left the area. Burgin wrote to General George Washington, asking for his help now that the British had all of her possessions.
General Washington wrote to the Continental Congress about Burgin’s role:
“Regarding Elizabeth Burgin, recently an inhabitant of New York. From the testimony of our own (escaped) officers…it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners, and for the facilitation of their escape. For this conduct she incurred the suspicion of the British, and was forced to make her escape under disturbing circumstances.”
In 1781, the Continental Congress awarded Burgin with a pension for her part in helping the Patriots’ cause.
But, who was Elizabeth Burgin? How did she free prisoners without the guards knowing? How did they finally discover her part in the missing prisoners? These questions are difficult to answer. As to the first question, not much is known about her early life or her marital status at the time she freed the prisoners, but we do know that she lived in New York during the American Revolutionary War and was the parent of small children. She was obviously a staunch patriot who had heard about the terrible suffering American prisoners were undergoing on the hellish prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Since only women were allowed into the prison ships, she visited the prisoners as often as she could. She brought food, comfort, and cheer to the discouraged Americans.
An American officer named George Higday was part of Washington’s secret Culper Soy Ring in New York, which is now featured in the AMC series Turn. His name is mentioned for the first time in General Washington’s correspondence on June 27, 1779. George Washington was casting about for an agent to spy on the British in New York. George Higday was brought to the attention of Benjamin Tallmadge and General Washington by three officers whom he freed from captivity on Long Island. These were the same officers Elizabeth Burgin mentions in her letter to General Washington on November 19, 1779. “…Major Van Burah, Captain Crain, Lieutenant Lee, who made their escape from the guard on Long Island.” Washington suggested to Benjamin Tallmadge, who was then in Connecticut, that he contact, “a man on York Island, living on or near the North River, of the name of George Higday.”
George Higday was freeing American prisoners (mainly officers) and might have already been helping the Culper Ring spy on the British in Long Island. In General Washington’s words, George Higday: “hath given signal proofs of his attachment to us…”
If this is true, how does Elizabeth Burgin fit into this picture? How did George Higday know about her? Was she part of the Culper Ring? Was this plan to free the American prisoners birthed in General Washington’s headquarters? A tantalizing hint that this might have been a planned event is found in Elizabeth Burgin’s letter, “George Higby brought a paper to me from your aide directed to Colonel Magaw on Long Island.” Colonel Magaw was an American officer who had been in captivity on Long Island ever since the fall of Fort Washington in 1776. General Washington could still have been in contact with him via one of his aides, as Elizabeth Burgin states. Also, if George Higday was a spy, then he could easily have slipped into Colonel Magaw’s quarters to pick up the letter. George Higday then would probably have approached Elizabeth Burgin with this plan to free the prisoners, asking her to participate, knowing that only women were allowed on the prison ship. He wanted her to tell the prisoners of his plans and to prepare for their escape. He told her to free two hundred prisoners, which she did. How she smuggled them out is up for conjecture; we are given no clues to aid us in figuring out how or when.When the British found the letter and the word C___r, they became suspicious. Earlier, the British had intercepted another letter from General Washington with the word C___r written in plain view. Like a fox after the hound, the British began to sniff out the American patriots who could tell them where and who the mysterious C___r was. Their lead was George Higday. On July 13, using General Washington’s intercepted letter to find Higday, British troopers broke into Higday’s home and arrested him. They dragged him off to the infamous Provost. His wife, probably concerned that the British would hang him as a spy, decided to tell the British about Elizabeth Burgin. How she came by this information is unclear. According to Elizabeth she, “Told General Patterson that he carried out two hundred American prisoners for me.”
The British immediately counted the prisoners on the prison ship. (They never bothered to count, thinking escape of that magnitude was impossible) Upon finding it was true, they placed a bounty of two hundred pounds on Burgin’s head so that if she ever tried to flee New York there would be great incentive to recapture her. The British placed her under house arrest. Through the help of her friends, Burgin fled to Long Island and stayed there five weeks. Who hid her there, we will never know. Then, “William Sheriddon came to Long Island in Whale boat and I made my escape with him we being chased by two boats half way to the Sound then got to New England and came to Philadelphia.” Once in Philadelphia, Elizabeth wrote to the Board of War asking for a flag of truce into New York. Elizabeth had left her children behind and she wanted to return to New York. (She must have left her children in the care of her friends who helped her escape.) On September 15, 1779, she received a reply from the board of war, “Madam, Last evening took an opportunity of writing upon Mr. Mattock, informed him of your circumstances and particularly in the manner and for what you were obliged to leave New York. Also informed him that you intended making application for a flag. From my representation of your character, your polite and humane conduct towards the American prisoners in general, and one in particular, he has promised to pay particular attention to your application and grant you anything in his possession were it possible. I shall wait upon you this evening and depend a stone shall not be left unturned by me to procure anything you may want. Madam, I am your Most Obedient Servant, Robert Campbell. ” Accordingly, she received the flag of truce from the Board of War. “Then I got a pass of the Board of War to go to Elizabeth Town to try to get my Children from New York which I obtained in three or four weeks but could not get my clothes or anything but my children when application was made by Mr. John Frankling my clothes and furniture they should be sold and the money given to the Loyalist.”
She closed her letter to General Washington by saying, “I am now sir very desolate without money without clothes or friends to go to. I mean to go Philadelphia where God knows how I shall live a cold winter coming on for the truth of the above your Excellence can inquire Major John Franklings and by their desire make this application if your Excellence pleases you can direct Mr. Thomas Frankling in Philadelphia where I can be found. If the General thinks proper I should be glad to draw provisions for myself and children in Philadelphia where I mean to remain.”
If this escape was planned by General Washington, then it would make sense that she would write to him about her distress.
In reply, General Washington wrote to Congress about her plight.
Congress responded by giving her a pension for her part in the patriot’s Cause. Elizabeth Burgin was also given money by a friend, one Leonard van Buren. She traveled to Philadelphia where we last see her staying at a Mr. Frankling’s house. George Higday was eventually released by the British. He returned to his home in Long Island where he disappeared from public view. As for Elizabeth, the rest of her life remains a mystery as is the story of her heroic part in one of the greatest escapes in American History. We may never know all the details nor all the facts of how she freed the prisoners, or if it was part of a greater plot masterminded by General Washington. What we do know is that she never regretted what she did. In the closing line to General Washington she wrote this unselfish sentence: “Helping our poor prisoners brought me to want which I don’t repent.”