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“it is truly distressing . . . to beg”

Wives who lose their soldier-husbands during a war are not usually considered casualties. But in a real sense they are and ought to be, especially during the American Revolution. American battle casualties in that war range from 4,435 to 6,824, some 90% from the Continental Army.* The ratio of American deaths to the free white male population (aged sixteen to 45) who served in the war is approximately 1 in 20 (this would be the equivalent of about 3 million people today).** Furthermore battle casualties did not include the wounded, those who died from disease (many more than those killed in action), or those who died in British prisons. Many war widows with children to support and without families to rely on existed in virtual poverty. Mary Cox was one of these, and in 1779, she filed a petition for relief directed to the governor of the state of Maryland Thomas Johnson. While the outcome of her suit is not known, she had a better chance of success than most widows because her husband was an officer.

I am the unhappy widow of Major James Cox who fell in his country’s cause at German Town on 4 October 1777. By industry we lived comfortably. His spare cash he laid out in lands from which now I can reap no benefit. His own cash he left with me did not exceed £50 and the public money which he had to pay off his company was lost at his death which I have since refunded. I have five small children to maintain. I expected the benefit of the law in that case provided. Consequently six months after my husband’s death I applied to the Orphan’s Court. They put me off to the next session [?]. I applied again [and] they granted me half pay for eight months in which time I sold all my spare furniture and part of my stock raised a little cash and went to shop-keeping. I found I could not keep my stock good which I began with; I again applied to the Court their reply was you are making money fast and we don’t think you are entitled to the benefit of that law. Sir, it is truly distressing to a mind not entirely depraved to beg and to dig I am not ashamed though my natural strength will not admit of it.

Now sir, as you are the guardian of this state and more especially of the widow and fatherless I will expect a few lines from you informing me whether I may expect the benefit of the law or not—I have three sons and two daughters, all promising children, would be glad they might be properly educated and instructed to get a living in a genteel way which cannot be the case without assistance. Now Sir when you consider the irreparable loss I have sustained by the death of the best of husbands, the weak infirm state of my body and numerous helpless family to provide for and the [amazing?] prices of the necessaries of life, I say when you consider these things I doubt not but you will do everything in your power to alievate such distresses and as in duty bound I will for your welfare ever pray.
Mary Cox * Howard H. Peckham, ed., The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), page 76.
** Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), page 160.

Of note is the fact that the money Major Cox had in his possession to pay his troops was lost at his death. His wife made good on that amount. It is also interesting that Cox was enterprising enough to set up shop to support herself although she failed, not making enough money to replenish her stock. She found herself in dire straits and was not ashamed to beg for assistance.

The petition is included in New World, New Roles: A Documentary History of Women in Pre-industrial America by Sylvia R. Frey and Marian J. Morton (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Imprint, 1986), pages 150-51, taken from Maryland state Papers, The Red Books, XXV, page 80. The information footnoted in the introductory section came from this SOURCE.

posted November 20th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Military Service,Poverty,Widows

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