13 Heroic American Women Of War Who Deserve Recognition

For most of US history, it's been against the rules for women to fight in wars, but that didn't stop them from trying. While regulations confined women to roles such as nurse, administrator, and cook, a number of badass American women snuck their way onto the battlefield or gained access by alternate means (volunteering as a doctor, for instance) in order to help the cause. 

Deborah Sampson, for example, disguised herself as a man to enlist in the American Revolution. Other female war heroes have worked within the rules but with intense courage. In some cases, these badass women of war fought against officials in the United States government: one was a Confederate spy; one was a Native American who helped kill Custer. 

Read on to learn about badass American women of war - those who challenged convention and braved death to fight for what they believed was right.

Photo: Tech Sgt. Keith Brown / United States Airforce / Public Domain

  • Hannah Duston

    In 1697, Hannah Duston, a farmer's wife who had given birth just a week earlier, was at home in Haverhill, MA, when a group of Native Americans who were likely Abenaki kidnapped her, her newborn daughter, and her neighbor. According to some versions of Duston's story, which come from racist Puritan minister Cotton Mather, the Native Americans took the life of Duston's baby by bashing its head into a tree while Duston watched.

    Duston and other captives were marched north into New Hampshire. Two weeks into their journey, late in the night as the Native Americans slept, Duston and two other captives awoke in silence, procured hatchets, and killed and scalped 10 Native Americans (including six children). They escaped and Duston eventually presented the scalps to authorities in Massachusetts as proof of her actions. She received a reward of 50 pounds and statues were erected in her honor - a point of controversy today. 

  • Molly Pitcher
    Photo: Currier & Ives. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    "Molly Pitcher" is the name of a semi-legendary figure based on the real hero Mary Hays. When William Hays went to war in the late 1770s, his wife Mary tagged along. She was a camp follower, doing chores like cooking, caring for the sick, and bringing pitchers of water to cool off soldiers and their cannons during combat, hence the moniker “Molly Pitcher.”

    According to the legend of Molly Pitcher, during the Battle of Monmouth, NJ, on July 28, 1778, William Hays collapsed. His wife took over and continued operating his cannon, even after a shot from an enemy flew between her legs, ripping away the bottom of her petticoat. Years later, Mary Hays was acknowledged for her bravery and received a government pension for her wartime service.

  • Deborah Sampson
    Photo: George Graham / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When a piece of shrapnel punched into US soldier Robert Shurtleff's upper thigh during the American Revolution, the soldier wouldn't let a medic see him. Why? Because the soldier was actually Deborah Sampson, a young woman who posed as a man to join the army. While Sampson's motives are still unclear (was it for patriotism, money, or adventure?), there is evidence that she tried to join the army several times before finally enlisting under her deceased brother's name in 1782.

    Samson was so tough that she allegedly dug the pistol ball out of her leg herself. Sampson hid her secret identity until another illness caused her to lose consciousness and she was taken to a hospital. Despite her deception, the Army gave Sampson an honorable discharge and Sampson settled down into the life of a farmer's wife. She later gave a lecture tour about her wartime experiences.

  • Rose O'Neal Greenhow

    A Washington, DC, socialite with friends in high places, Rose Greenhow was also a Confederate spy. Before the first Battle of Bull Run, for example, she learned about Union troop movements and passed the info to General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who led his "Rebels" to victory.

    Detective Allan Pinkerton uncovered Greenhow's spying and put her under house arrest in 1861, but Greenhow kept gathering intel and sending it south. So, Greenhow and her daughter were put temporarily in prison, where Greenhow continued to send coded messages. She was finally exiled to the Confederacy and traveled to Europe to advocate for the South and publish a memoir. After meeting Queen Victorian and Napoleon III, she set sail for the South, but her boat ran aground after encountering a Union ship near the coast of North Carolina. She tried to escape in a rowboat, but was carrying too much gold and drowned. 

  • Mary Edwards Walker

    Mary Edwards Walker
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When the Civil War started, experienced surgeon Dr. Mary Walker volunteered to be a Union Army medical officer, but the Army said no. Unstoppable, Walker simply went to the front lines, where she knew that doctors were scarce, and began treating men wounded in Virginia. She was accepted there as a volunteer, paid only in food and shelter. In 1864, she was offered a job as a civilian contract surgeon and traveled to the Chattanooga, TN, area where she treated soldiers from both sides and civilians in need of help. 

    When Walker accidentally crossed Confederate lines, troops caught her and imprisoned her in terrible conditions near Richmond, VA, for months. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor - as of 2017, she remains the only woman to receive the medal. Walker wore it proudly, refusing to give it up even after the government rescinded it in 1917 when they decided that it should only go to those who engaged in direct combat. 

    In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored the medal, citing Walker's "dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

  • Harriet Tubman
    Photo: Horatio Seymour Squyer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Harriet Tubman is famous for leading slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, but she outdid herself when she became the first woman to help plan and lead an armed military raid during the Civil War.

    By 1863, Tubman was a spy for the Union, gathering information that would prove useful to ending slavery. She helped abolitionist Colonel James Montgomery direct a Black regiment to raid plantations near South Carolina’s Combahee River. In a heroic effort, they freed more than 700 enslaved people (many of whom joined the union army) and torched plantation grounds. Tubman passed in 1913 and was buried with military honors.