Along the grand corridor at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is an exhibit “I Was There,” which features photographs of veterans of the Revolutionary era who lived long enough into the 19th century to have their images recorded for posterity. One of them is a woman named Sarah Osborn Benjamin.
Sarah is a major part of our storyline in the galleries. She followed her soldier-husband’s service with the Continental Army, and spoke to George Washington at the Siege of Yorktown. We learn this from her 1837 pension deposition, and we imagine the moment as the scene unfolds in our 4D Siege Theater film.
“Are you not afraid of the cannonballs?” Washington asks a weary but determined Sarah, carrying hot coffee to the soldiers in the trenches. “No,” she replied, “the bullets will not cheat the gallows. It will not do for the men to fight and starve too.” A cannonball whizzes past, and finds its target not far away. Sarah is shaken, but not deterred. True to her real 19th-century deposition, the film follows Sarah’s perspective of Cornwallis’ surrender. In her deposition, Sarah recalled hearing drums ad nauseam, and the tired Sarah asked the cheering officers, “What is the matter now?” “Are you not soldier enough to know what it means?” they ask. “The British have surrendered.” Sarah witnessed the despondent British army surrender, “playing a melancholy tune,” even noting a “portly” British general crying at the scene.
The same eyes that witnessed the surrender at Yorktown stare back at you from a 19th-century photograph.
I remember the first time I came face to face with Sarah. I was a grad student studying history at the College of William & Mary on a class trip to the museum, known then as the Yorktown Victory Center. Ever the material culture nerd, I was sketching a women’s jacket on display when I turned a corner and saw Sarah’s image on an exhibit panel. Her eyes met mine, and I was paralyzed with awe and wonder: before me sat a woman who lived through the American Revolution, the era I could only read about in books or primary sources, or momentarily brush against when beholding a period antique or artifact. She spoke with George Washington, a figure we so deify but she knew in the flesh. She participated in the Siege of Yorktown, traversing the very landscape where I stood. In that moment, our paths intersected, though separated by more than 200 years.
I wasn’t looking at a portrait, which so often reminds me of modern-day airbrushing, devoid of all the things that make us humans in the flesh. Rather, here she was, staring back at me with her own two eyes, with wrinkles and a furrowed brow, and an expression that both commands respect but hints at a wry smile. In one hand she holds a book—I want to know what she’s reading—perhaps a book about the historic moments through which she lived. The way her other hand awkwardly lays on her lap reminds me of my grandmother’s, riddled with arthritis and pain. Her clothing also reveals the passage of time. Sarah wears a checked dress with a gathered or fan-front bodice and voluminous dropped sleeves, with a white collar at her neck. No longer in the stays and round gowns and petticoats that would have defined the fashions of the 1770s and eased women’s bodies into conical figures, Sarah doesn’t appear to be sporting a corset under her dress; the style itself hints at changing ideals of both desirable shapes and modesty. A cap, often preferred by older women in the mid-19th century, sits far back on her head, covering white hair parted down the middle and smoothed over her ears. A dark ribbon secures the cap under her chin.
Through Sarah’s photograph, we bear witness to the hardships of her life, the hardships that were certainly responsible for the wrinkles and furrowed brow that seems seared on Sarah’s face. Sarah’s first husband, William Reed, died early in the war. After the Revolution, her husband Aaron Osborn, the soldier with whom she traveled during the war, left her. Three months after giving birth to their son, Osborn left and simply never returned, but it wasn’t long before Sarah heard rumors that Aaron was only 15 miles away living as husband and wife with another woman. With determination and fury we can only now imagine, Sarah got on her horse, and rode those 15 miles to the woman’s house to demand answers from both parties. After finding the family living together (complete with the other woman’s parents) Sarah bid Aaron adieu, returned home, and vowed to start her life without him.
At the time she gave her deposition for a pension in 1837, Sarah had remarried but was widowed from her third husband, John Benjamin. Sarah died perhaps not long after she sat for her photograph. The Lewisburg Chronicle recorded her death in an article published on May 14, 1858, noting her tenacity during the uncertain and often violent Revolutionary era: “her temperament was such that she could not be an idle spectator of events.” Sarah apparently relished opportunities to share her own stories of her Revolutionary experiences, and would “relate the events of her early days with all the vivacity of youth.” True to her form, the article also reveals that she once stood in her husband’s place as a sentinel at Kingsbridge, New York. Sarah was dressed in her husband’s heavy overcoat and wielding his gun when Washington came by. “Who placed you here?” he asked. “Them who had a right to, Sir,” she replied.
I wonder if Washington recognized Sarah, without her husband’s coat and gun, when he again approached her at Yorktown. Twice Washington stared into the eyes of Sarah Osborn Benjamin and marveled at her unflappable grit and sense of duty and adventure. Perhaps, like me, Washington met Sarah’s gaze with awe and wonder.
This Women’s History Month, I invite you to stare into the eyes of a woman who lived and breathed the Revolution. She was there. And, she has stories to tell.
Katherine Egner Gruber
Special Exhibition Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
For Further Reading:
“Deaths of Centennarians,” 14 May 1858, The Lewisburg Chronicle, Page 1
“Sarah Osborn Recollects Her Experiences in the Revolutionary War, 1837,” History Matters, George Mason University
“Sarah Benjamin’s Eyewitness Account of the Surrender at Yorktown, 11/20/1837,” National Archives