At the age of fourteen, Margaret Moncrieffe, the daughter of a British major finds herself alone behind Rebel lines in 1776 New York City. Desperate, she seeks protection among the Continental Army’s most senior officers. While in their care, Margaret enters into an amorous relationship with the twenty year old Aaron Burr, who served on George Washington’s and later Israel Putnam’s staff. Reputed to be a ladies man, it’s not known how the future Vice President and killer of Alexander Hamilton felt about Margaret. But Margaret was clearly smitten by the dashing Burr.
In Margaret’s memoirs, she recounts a dinner with Washington, Putnam and other Continental Army officers at which she offers a toast to British General William Howe. With diners in an uproar, Washington galantly offers her a way out. When she is sent back through the lines to the British Army and reunited with her father, she would drink a toast to Putnam or Washington in a dinner with British commanders. She kept her promise.
However, shortly after the British captured New York City, Major Moncrieffe forces his young teenaged daughter to marry British Lt. John Coghlan. From the beginning Margaret deplores the marriage. In 1778, Coghlan sells his army commission and the Coghlan’s return to Britain. The couple soon separate but they did not divorce. A beautiful woman, to subsist, Margaret engages in a series of high profie affairs with prominent men. As her youth fades, she no longer could subsist as a mistress or in high style. She turns to writing to keep her creditors at bay and out of jail. In 1793, her two volume memoir is published. The memoir had a bit of “kiss and tell” which created some sensation in British high society. More importantly the memoir contained political thoughts from an independent woman, a rarity to be published in the 1790’s.
In her lifetime, the well-written and engaging memoir did not become a best seller and over the next twelve years, she continued to go in and out of debtor’s prison. Margaret dissappears from the historical record in 1805 with her husband passing two years later.
I highly recommend reading Margaret’s memoirs. Though it will induce a melancholy feeling, Margaret’s life story helps to better understand the plight of many women in the 18th century. Her memoirs can be read on-line.
Coghlan, Margaret. Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan, (Daughter of British Major Moncrieffe) written by herself, and Dedicated to the British Nation; being interspersed with Anecdotes of the late American and present French War with remarks Moral and Political, London: Printed for the author and sold by C. and G. Kearsley, Fleet-street, 1794.
For more information on the life of Margaret Coghlan, see Rusell Shorto’s book Revolutionary Song. Margaret is one of six lives that Shorto chronicles in this book. Shorto provides the most comprehensive account of Margaret’s captivating, though sad life.
Shorto, Russell. Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
For more British Diaries and Memoirs during the American Revolution, click.