Imagine a column of one thousand soldiers led by General Zachary Taylor marching down a Texas road in 1846 during the Mexican War. Imagine hearing a yell, “Cross this stream and you’ll be killed.” Then imagine a six-foot-two-inch woman with blazing red hair and blue eyes appearing at the head of the line of soldiers, telling the general, “If you’ll give me a strong pair of tongs, I’ll wade that river and whip every sorry scoundrel that dares to show himself.”
The woman was Sarah Knight Boujette Bowman and she soon earned the nickname of The Great Western which was the name of the largest U.S. battleship. After delivering the request to General Taylor, she helped rout the enemy then stood in the stream and helped some of the less able travelers across.
Sarah Knight was born in the wilds of Missouri between civilization and wilderness. She had no formal schooling but that didn’t seem to matter. She was ironclad in appearance and personality and never let anything or anyone get the best of her as she served in the capacity of an army laundress and cook.
When General Taylor took his troops down near the Rio Grande where he erected Fort Brown, she went along. I doubt the Mexican War could’ve gone well without her. The majority of troops had been sent to Port Isabel to defend a supply post 20 miles away from them, leaving only left five hundred troops to face a Mexican force numbering five thousand. At five o’clock in the morning of May 3, 1846, the enemy began shelling the fort. Most of the women retreated to an underground shelter to begin sewing sandbags, but not Sarah. Sidestepping cannonballs, she whipped up a meal and made coffee, delivering it out to the fighting men. The shelling continued around the clock for 7 days. During that time, Sarah carried food and coffee to the troop.
During the siege, one bullet left a trail through her bonnet and another pierced her bread tray. A Mexican saber left a long scar on her cheek, but she didn’t slow or waver from her duty. This brave woman carried wounded men to the shelters and treated them. Not surprising, she picked up a musket and joined the fighting men. Finally, after one solid week, the fighting ended. They only had two dead and seventeen wounded.
From battle to battle, she followed the army, doing whatever she could. Sarah seemed to have an aura around her that protected her from the dangers of frontier life. Indians and outlaws alike were awed by her epic proportions and sexuality—not to mention the willingness to use her guns. She married at least four times but never found a man who didn’t disappoint.
She moved from Texas to California and points in between. In 1864 in Yuma, her last husband, a much younger man, left her for a younger woman. She adopted several Mexican and Indian children and taught them to cook and do laundry. Sarah had a saying that there was just one thin sheet of sandpaper between Yuma and hell. Legend has it that she died from a tarantula bite in 1866 and everyone in Yuma turned out for her funeral given with full military honors. Memories of her bravery in battle were second only to her kindness. She was long remembered and eulogized in newspapers and books as the Great Western.