Esther Reed

Esther DeBert Reed, by Charles Peale
public domain image.

Esther Reed was the wife of a Revolutionary War General, and a civic leader who formed the Ladies Philadelphia, provided relief for soldiers, and spoke politically to gain support for the war effort.

Esther DeBert Reed was born in London in 1746. She met her future husband Joseph Reed in 1763, when he traveled to London from the colonies to study law. The couple formed a tentative engagement, and Joseph traveled back to America. Five years later, he returned and the couple married in May, 1770. Shortly after their wedding, the Reeds and Esther’s newly widowed mother moved back to the states.

Joseph Reed established a flourishing law practice in Philadelphia, and the couple dined with some of the most prominent politicians such as the Washingtons and the Adams. At first, Esther Reed was torn between her old country and the new, but she soon saw the effect Britain’s laws had on the colonists and grew to see things from their side. When the war broke out, Reed joined the war effort as an aide to General Washington, but eventually he became a General in his own right.

Esther Reed stayed in Philadelphia and raised the couple’s 6 children, and threw her time and money into helping the soldiers. Even though she was British, she told people she worked on behalf of freedom and to prove that women were the political equals of men. She wrote and published a broadside garnering female support and patriotism. She raised support and collected 39 women, the Ladies of Philadelphia, to help her.

Together, they went door to door and raised over $300,000. At first she wanted to give the money directly to the soldiers, but General Washington was convinced that money would be wasted on alcohol. He suggested the ladies make clothes instead, though he left the final decision to her. 

Esther Reed and her ladies used the money to purchase linen. They sewed over 2,200 shirts. Women in the other colonies copied her example and began their own organizations for military relief. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the final product of her work or the women she inspired. In 1780, she died, leaving her work to be taken over by Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin.

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