Top Unsung American Revolution Heroes

Throughout American history, numerous individuals have played pivotal roles in shaping the nation's journey toward independence and liberty. While some names are etched prominently in the annals of history, others remain less recognized despite their significant contributions. This article highlights several such figures whose actions were instrumental during the Revolutionary War era.

1. Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks, a multiracial sailor of African and Native American heritage, played a pivotal role at the onset of the American Revolution. On March 5, 1770, he found himself at the center of the Boston Massacre, an event that ignited widespread colonial unrest against British rule.

In Boston, colonial tensions with British troops had been brewing. That fateful night, a skirmish erupted between the colonists and soldiers, escalating rapidly. Attucks stood at the forefront, defiant and unyielding. The confrontation turned deadly when British soldiers opened fire, killing five colonists. Attucks was the first to fall, earning him the posthumous title of "the first martyr of the American Revolution."

Paul Revere immortalized the event through his widely circulated engraving, which depicted the British troops as ruthless aggressors. This powerful imagery rallied colonial sentiment and helped galvanize the movement for independence.

Attucks' story emphasizes the diverse contributions to America's fight for freedom. As a man of mixed heritage, his involvement underscores the varied backgrounds of those who fought against British tyranny. The recognition of Attucks and his sacrifice serves as a reminder that the quest for liberty and equality was a collective effort, encompassing individuals from all walks of life.

2. Polly Cooper

Amidst the adversity faced by the Continental Army during the harsh winter at Valley Forge, Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, emerged as an unsung hero whose contributions were pivotal. As the winter of 1777-1778 set in, the Continental Army suffered from severe food shortages, frigid temperatures, and inadequate shelter. Understanding the dire situation, Cooper and her fellow Oneidas embarked on a mission of support, bringing essential supplies, notably large quantities of corn.

Cooper's role was not limited to delivering provisions. She remained at Valley Forge, educating the Continental soldiers on how to properly prepare and cook the corn. Through her guidance, Cooper ensured that the corn could be transformed into nourishing meals, playing a critical role in sustaining the army.

General George Washington recognized and appreciated Cooper's invaluable assistance. In a gesture of gratitude, Martha Washington presented Cooper with a shawl, hat, and bonnet. Despite Washington's offer of payment, Cooper graciously declined, underscoring her selflessness and commitment to aiding the patriots without expecting recompense.

Polly Cooper's actions at Valley Forge exemplify the broader alliance between the Oneida people and the Patriot forces during the Revolutionary War. By recognizing Polly Cooper, we honor the collective endeavors of indigenous allies and their critical contributions to America's fight for liberty and self-determination.

Polly Cooper, an Oneida woman, teaching Continental soldiers how to properly prepare and cook corn at Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-1778. Cooper is shown demonstrating the techniques, with soldiers gathered around her, watching attentively. The setting is a camp at Valley Forge, with simple log cabins and tents visible in the background.

3. Esther de Berdt Reed

Esther de Berdt Reed stands as a remarkable patriot whose efforts significantly bolstered the American cause during the Revolutionary War. In an era when women's roles were often limited to the domestic sphere, Reed harnessed her organizational skills to rally the support of women for the revolutionary efforts.

In 1780, Reed founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to raise funds and provide essential supplies for the Continental Army. Central to the Association's mission was Reed's stirring broadside publication, "The Sentiments of an American Woman," which galvanized women across Philadelphia and beyond by appealing to their patriotic duty.

Reed's initiative quickly expanded beyond Philadelphia, inspiring similar efforts in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. The collective interstate endeavor culminated in the impressive sum of $340,000, which was used to supply troops with new shirts based on George Washington's recommendation.

Tragically, Reed succumbed to an epidemic in September 1780. Yet, her legacy endured through the continued efforts of the Ladies Association, led by Sarah Franklin Bache and other dedicated women who crafted and distributed homespun shirts to the soldiers.

Reed's work was fundamental in mobilizing and legitimizing the role of women in the revolutionary effort, paving the way for future generations involved in public service and civic activism. Her story illustrates that the contributions of women were integral to the success of the revolutionary cause.

Esther de Berdt Reed, an American woman in her 30s, writing her influential broadside, 'The Sentiments of an American Woman,' which rallied women to support the Continental Army. Reed is shown sitting at a desk, quill in hand, with a look of determination on her face. The setting is a simple, candlelit room in Philadelphia in the 1770s.

4. Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett)

Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett, represents a pioneering spirit whose courageous legal battle laid groundwork in the fight against slavery and highlighted the evolving struggle for liberty and justice in America. Born into slavery during the colonial era, Freeman's story is a testament to the endurance and tenacity of those who risked everything for the principles of freedom and equality.

After suffering a brutal assault at the hands of her master in 1780, Freeman seized the revolutionary fervor of the time to assert her right to liberty. She sought out the legal assistance of Theodore Sedgwick to challenge her bondage under the new Massachusetts Constitution, which explicitly guaranteed personal liberty.

Mum Bett's landmark case, Brom and Bett v. Ashley, resulted in a historic decision granting Freeman her freedom. This outcome set a powerful legal precedent and contributed to the 1781 Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruling that effectively abolished slavery in the state.1

Freeman's courageous stand serves as a reminder that the American Revolution's struggle for liberty included battles fought in the courts and in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Her determination provided an influential push toward the broader abolitionist movements that would ultimately unfold in America.

Following her emancipation, Freeman took the surname "Freeman" and continued to work as a midwife and healer. Her legacy demonstrates that the principles enshrined in the fledgling republic's founding documents could—and should—be applied universally.

By honoring Elizabeth Freeman, we pay tribute to an unsung hero whose life and legal battle advanced the cause of freedom, demonstrating that the fight for liberty involved a diverse array of individuals.

Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, an African American woman in her 30s, standing in a courtroom in Massachusetts in the late 1700s, challenging her enslavement. Freeman is shown standing tall and dignified, with a look of determination on her face. The judge and lawyers are visible in the background, their expressions serious, as Freeman makes her case for freedom.

5. William 'Billy' Lee

William 'Billy' Lee, an enslaved man born into bondage, emerges as a compelling figure in the annals of the American Revolution. Often relegated to the shadows of history, Lee's contributions as the personal valet to General George Washington provide an intimate glimpse into the intricacies of loyalty, service, and the evolving notions of liberty in the fledgling nation.

For nearly two decades, Lee's unwavering service to Washington was characterized by his remarkable skills, endurance, and steadfast companionship. He accompanied Washington through the hardships of the war, including the brutal winters at Valley Forge and the decisive battles that determined the outcome of the struggle for independence.

Lee's intimate proximity to Washington provided him with unique insights into the general's strategic thinking, the logistical challenges of maintaining an army, and the personal tribulations faced by the Patriot leader. It is believed that this close relationship may have had a profound impact on Washington's perspective on the institution of slavery.

Over time, Washington's stance on slavery began to shift. By the end of his life, Washington's evolving views culminated in his decision to free his enslaved individuals in his will, with Billy Lee being the only one granted immediate emancipation.2

Lee's legacy is a testament to the intricate interplay of loyalty, service, and the quest for freedom that defined the American Revolution. His story challenges us to consider the multifaceted nature of the fight for independence, highlighting that the path to liberty was traversed not solely by prominent figures, but also by those like Billy Lee, whose daily acts of dedication played an indispensable role.

In recognizing William 'Billy' Lee, we honor a man whose contributions helped shape the course of American history and underscore the enduring struggle for justice and equality.

William 'Billy' Lee, an African American man in his 30s, riding on horseback alongside George Washington during the American Revolution. Lee is shown in his military uniform, sitting tall and proud on his horse. Washington is visible in the background, also on horseback, with the two men appearing to be in conversation. The setting is a battlefield, with other soldiers and tents visible in the distance.

6. Mammy Kate

The tale of Mammy Kate is one of ingenuity, bravery, and a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who contributed to the American Revolution, despite the harsh limitations imposed upon them by their circumstances. Mammy Kate, an enslaved woman from Georgia, performed an extraordinary act of valor by rescuing her master, Stephen Heard, from British captivity with a clever and daring plan.

In 1779, as Stephen Heard was held prisoner by British forces, Mammy Kate devised a plan to free him:

  1. Approaching the British camp under the pretense of a washerwoman, she offered to launder their clothes. This provided her with the necessary access to carry out her rescue mission.
  2. Mammy Kate requested permission to wash the clothes of the prisoners, including those of her master. The British allowed her to enter and exit the prison with baskets of laundry.
  3. When the time was right, Mammy Kate hid her master inside one of the large laundry baskets and managed to carry the precarious load past unsuspecting British soldiers.

Once outside the British encampment, Mammy Kate and Stephen Heard fled on horses she had previously secured. In recognition of her heroism, Heard granted Mammy Kate her freedom and provided her with a small house and plot of land.

Mammy Kate's courageous act of subterfuge and liberation highlights the vital contributions of enslaved Africans to the Revolutionary War and underscores the diverse nature of the struggle for American independence.

By honoring Mammy Kate, we shed light on the profound bravery and ingenuity that individuals exhibited in the face of oppressive circumstances. Her story serves as a powerful reminder that the fight for freedom and justice was fought on many fronts and by people of various backgrounds, united by the pursuit of liberty.

Mammy Kate, an enslaved African American woman, bravely rescuing her master, Stephen Heard, from British captivity during the American Revolution. Kate is shown carrying a large laundry basket with Heard hidden inside, walking past unsuspecting British soldiers. The setting is a British camp in Georgia, with tents and soldiers visible in the background.

7. Judith Sargent Murray

Judith Sargent Murray was a distinguished advocate for women's rights during the American Revolutionary period. Born in 1751 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Murray grew up in an era when women's roles were confined predominantly to the domestic sphere. However, her progressive thoughts and writings ignited a crucial discourse on women's intellectual and educational rights, challenging the societal norms of her time.

Murray's most influential work, "On the Equality of the Sexes," was published in 1790. In this essay, Murray argued that women possessed equal intellectual abilities as men and should be afforded the same opportunities for education. She questioned why women were allowed only limited schooling, emphasizing that any perceived inferiority was due to the lack of opportunity provided to them.

Apart from "On the Equality of the Sexes," Murray was a prolific writer who used various pseudonyms to express her views on gender equality. Through essays, poems, and plays, she articulated her vision of a society where women could pursue knowledge freely and participate as equals in civic life.

Murray believed that the principles of the American Revolution—liberty, equality, and justice—should apply universally, including to women. Her efforts laid the groundwork for subsequent generations of women's rights activists, inspiring figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the fight for women's suffrage and broader civil rights.1

Despite her significant contributions, Judith Sargent Murray remained marginalized in the patriarchal narrative of American history for many years. However, her role as an early advocate for women's rights is now recognized as an essential part of the revolutionary framework that sought to redefine societal structures.

Judith Sargent Murray, an American woman in her 30s, writing her influential essay 'On the Equality of the Sexes' in the late 1700s. Murray is shown sitting at a desk, quill in hand, with a look of concentration on her face. The setting is a simple, well-lit room in Massachusetts, with books and papers scattered on the desk.

8. Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson's story stands as one of unparalleled courage and fortitude, marking her as a true unsung hero of the American Revolution. Born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts, Sampson grew up in impoverished conditions. Despite her hardships, she had an unyielding determination to break free from the confines of her era's gender norms.

In 1782, Sampson took the extraordinary step of disguising herself as a man to enlist in the Continental Army. She adopted the alias "Robert Shurtleff" and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. For two years, she served with distinction, participating in several key battles against British forces.

Sampson's dedication to her role as a soldier was unwavering. During a skirmish where she was wounded, she treated herself rather than risk discovery by seeking medical help. She extracted one musket ball from her thigh but was unable to remove another, which remained lodged in her leg for the rest of her life.2

Her true identity was eventually revealed when she fell ill and lost consciousness, thus receiving medical attention that uncovered her secret. Despite this revelation, her service was honored and she was discharged with a pension. In 1802, Sampson took to the stage, sharing her experiences in the war, often donning her military uniform for these public appearances.

Deborah Sampson's story illustrates the multifaceted nature of the fight for freedom. Her courage in challenging societal constraints provides a broader understanding of the Revolution's ideals of liberty and equality. Despite the significant risks, she fought not only for the young nation's independence but also silently championed a cause that would take another century to manifest—the broader rights and recognition of women.

Deborah Sampson, disguised as a man named Robert Shurtleff, fighting in a battle during the American Revolution. Sampson is shown in a Continental Army uniform, wielding a musket, with a look of fierce determination on her face. The setting is a chaotic battlefield, with other soldiers and smoke visible in the background.

9. Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley stands out as a pioneering figure in American literature. Born around 1753 in Gambia, Wheatley's early life was marked by the brutality of enslavement. Captured and transported to America, she was purchased by the Wheatley family in Boston. Recognizing her precocious intellect, they provided her with an education that was unparalleled for an enslaved person at the time.

Wheatley's literary talents quickly blossomed. By the age of 12, she was reading classical literature and writing poetry that captured the attention of Boston's elite. In 1773, she authored "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral"—the first book of poetry published by an African American woman.3 This work was a testament to her extraordinary talent and a profound statement on the intellectual capacities of African Americans, challenging the pervasive racist attitudes of her time.

Wheatley's literary works were intertwined with the revolutionary spirit of the era. Through her poetry, she articulated support for the American cause and lent her voice to the burgeoning movement for independence. Her poem "To His Excellency General Washington" (1776) lauded the leadership and valor of George Washington, earning her an invitation to meet the general himself.

Wheatley used her platform to decry the institution of slavery, eloquently arguing for the application of revolutionary principles of freedom and equality to all individuals, regardless of race. Her writing exposed the glaring contradictions between the American fight for liberty and the continued practice of slavery. In poems such as "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Wheatley subtly yet powerfully critiqued the systemic racism of her time.

Wheatley's life and work exemplify the broader struggle for equality that paralleled the American Revolution. Her success as an African American woman in a predominantly white, male literary scene was itself a revolutionary act, challenging deeply entrenched social hierarchies.

Phillis Wheatley, a young African American woman, writing poetry in the late 1700s. Wheatley is shown sitting at a desk, quill in hand, with a look of thoughtful concentration on her face. The setting is a simple, candlelit room in Boston, with books and papers scattered on the desk.

10. Haym Salomon

Haym Salomon epitomizes the unsung hero whose significant contributions to the Revolutionary War were performed not on the battlefield, but through financial acumen and an unwavering commitment to the cause of American independence. Born in 1740 in Poland, Salomon moved to England and ultimately settled in New York, where his skill in finance and languages established him as a proficient financial broker.

As an active member of the Sons of Liberty, Salomon was deeply involved in the Patriot cause. His proficiency in languages such as German and French, along with his knowledge of European finance, made him an invaluable asset to the American revolutionaries. Salomon utilized his linguistic skills in espionage, serving as a translator for Hessian mercenaries while simultaneously dissuading them from supporting the British.

Salomon's most significant contributions came through his role in financing the revolution. Captured and imprisoned twice by the British, Salomon managed to escape and fled to Philadelphia, where he resumed his work as a financial broker. Recognizing the dire financial straits in which the Continental Army often found itself, Salomon employed his expertise to raise funds crucial to sustaining the revolutionary effort.

Salomon's financial strategies were pivotal at key moments during the war. His endeavors helped fund the final campaign leading to the British surrender at Yorktown, ensuring the Continental Army had the resources needed to seize victory.4 Despite his significant contributions, Salomon's efforts left him virtually penniless by the war's end. He had expended his personal fortune to keep the revolutionary cause afloat.

Salomon's dedication was acknowledged by notable figures such as George Washington, who relied on Salomon's financial ingenuity to overcome the monetary challenges of the revolution. Though Salomon did not live to see the long-term fruits of his labor, dying in 1785, his legacy endures through his substantial impact on the success of the American Revolution.

Haym Salomon, a Jewish immigrant, working as a financial broker to help fund the American Revolution in the late 1700s. Salomon is shown sitting at a desk, surrounded by papers and ledgers, with a look of concentration on his face. The setting is a busy office in Philadelphia, with other people visible in the background, representing the bustling nature of his work.