8 Fast Facts About Camp Followers

campfollowers

They were always there, but are seldom mentioned.  Name any major battle or campaign: New York, Brandywine, Germantown, Saratoga, Yorktown, Camden, Kings Mountain, Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens, Charleston; there are accounts of Camp Followers at each of them.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Does it matter?  Think you know about soldiers’ wives?  Read on . . .

8.  They were women of good character

Our knowledge of Camp Followers often comes through the filter of Nineteenth Century writers.  They imposed their Victorian values and were judgmental and critical of these women.  Later works using these sources continued to cast them as low characters, without morals.  Peeling back the layers to the primary sources reveals otherwise. As it turns out, most Camp Followers were wives or girlfriends of soldiers.  They were expected to be “honest, laborious Women.” [1]

To be clear, this article deals specifically with soldiers’ wives.  There were various types of camp follower, male and female, servant and slave.  Not everything stated below applies to all other camp followers, though there are some generalities.

Soldiers’ wives had to prove their worth to the army.  Both Continental and British army orders stipulated that they had to be of good character, and had to be productive.  They had to pull their weight.  With limited supplies and enough logistical and discipline challenges already, why would the armies do otherwise?

There was never an official policy from British high command respecting wives accompanying the army, but many examples exist of orders from various times and locations.  One, for example, stated that an officer had to make a “strict inquiry . . . into the morals of the Woman.” He was to determine “whether she is sufficiently known to be industrious, and able to earn her bread.”[2]

7.  They comprised a significant percentage of the armies in the field

We will never know exactly how many German, British, and American wives served with their respective armies.  We do know was in the thousands.

Numbers depend on time and location.  In general about 4,000 British wives accompanied British forces in America, and nearly 1,000 German wives were with the various German units sent here.  In the Continental Army, perhaps 4,000 served through the course of the war.[3]

It is important to note that when in garrison or in camp, numbers were higher than when the armies took to the field.  When actively campaigning, commanders usually assigned a quota per company or regiment.   Thus, numbers were always fluctuating, and there was no standard ratio of women to soldiers.[4]

6.  The armies couldn’t function without them

Overstated?  Think again.  There were many tasks that the armies did not generally have soldiers assigned to do.  Eighteenth century armies lacked extensive infrastructure such as well-developed medical and logistical support systems.  Soldier’s wives filled some of those roles.[5]

The list is endless: nursing, laundry, sewing, tending cattle, guarding baggage, and other odd jobs.  Often these were tasks with which women had experience; they were “domestic” tasks, to use a term of the period.  Except cooking. These women in fact did just about everything BUT cook.

Women were accepted by the army, though regulated to serve in domestic capacities, chores that were, in this era, typically performed by women.  The most common duties for women among the British army were doing laundry and nursing the wounded.  Women could also perform odd jobs like sewing, selling supplies, or herding sheep and cattle.  Some women earned their keep as servants for officers. For washerwomen, the most numerous occupation, army officers set rates for laundry and oversaw the businesses like any other civilian contractor or supplier.[6]

Tasks like washing and sewing were often done for the small group in which a woman’s husband or boyfriend belonged – the squad, platoon or company. The importance of these support services increased as the war went on and the American army’s infrastructure wore down.  The Continental Army had difficulty through the entire conflict with its supply and transportation system, which only worsened as the war progressed.  The women were tolerated, and permitted to be present, since they served a useful purpose.[7]

Although clothing was, in general, made by contractors and altered by army tailors when regiments received it, sometimes army wives assisted in making clothing that was needed quickly. In Charleston in 1780, orders for the British Brigade of Guards noted that, “The taylors and Women of the whole Brigade to be Employed in Compleating the First Battalion in Trousers . . .”[8]

Depending on circumstances, they did a variety of other things to keep the armies running.  The following British marching orders from 1781 shows how women could be caught in situations that require nontraditional acts from them: “ . . . in Case the Brigade Should be ordered forward . . . they will form a Guard to the Baggage, Packs, or what else May be left in their Charge.”[9]

5.  They were officially part of the army

The army’s women were subject to military discipline.  As with soldiers, army life both restricted their personal liberty, but also provided a measure of protection. Take the case of Ezekiel Adams, a private in the 6th South Carolina Regiment, who received thirty-five lashes for “abusing” his wife in 1779.[10]

Wives and girlfriends followed the rules and regulations of the army – because they were part of it.  Remember, they had to have an officer’s approval to accompany a unit, and had to carry their weight.  Women serving with armies received rations, were paid for work that they did, were the responsibility of their husbands’ units, and were under martial law like any soldier with the army.  Military documents referred to them as “on the strength” of the regiment.[11]

The number of wives allowed to accompany each unit on campaign was set by the local commander. Examples abound in the northern campaigns. In 1776 and 1777, British General Sir William Howe allowed six women per company with his forces in the field as they campaigned across New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. His fellow officer, General John Burgoyne, allowed three per company in his campaign of 1777 that ended at Saratoga.[12]

4.  Following the army was difficult

Soldier’s wives shared the hardships of the army.  That included irregular rations, exposure to the weather, lack of adequate supplies, forced marches, and all sorts of hard, physical work.  It often meant long hours and short rations.

In June of 1778 British General Henry Clinton ordered that “The Women of the Army are constantly to march upon the flanks of the Baggage of their respective Corps, the Provost Martial has received positive Orders to Drum out any Woman who shall dare to disobey this Order.” Other punishments included the stocks and pillory, whipping, loss of rations, and even death.[13]

The following orders from General Charles Cornwallis in 1781 reflect these realities:  ”. . . the officers commanding companies, cause an immediate inspection of the articles of clothing at present in possession of the women in their companies and an exact account taken thereof by the pay Sergeants, after which their necessaries are to be examined at proper opportunities and every article found in addition thereto, burned at the head of the company, except such as have been fairly purchased on application to the commanding officers and regularly added to their former list by the Sergeants as above. The officers are . . . ordered to . . . prevent the women (supposed to be the source of the most infamous plundering) from evading the purport of this order.”[14]

He also wrote that he was determined to “. . . punish all men and women so offending, with the utmost severity and example.”  Frequent roll calls were implemented to discourage straggling and looting.  Orders stated that “Women to attend all Roll-calls in the rear of the companies, (except such as are in the service of officers) any and every one found absent to be immediately whipped and drummed out of the brigade.”  The army’s women were also ordered to “attend all punishments” so that the message was delivered clearly.[15]

Perhaps the greatest difficulty of all was giving birth during the hardship of a campaign. Roger Lamb, a British soldier on Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign, recounted at length the story of a wife in his company who had set out on her own from Fort Ticonderoga to catch up with her husband on the march towards Saratoga. Alone in the woods, she went into labor; she had the good fortune to be found by a local inhabitant and taken to his house to bear her child. Not to be deterred in her journey, she set out the very next day and successfully joined the army. After Burgoyne’s army surrendered they marched from Saratoga to Boston; an officer who was on the march wrote, “We were two days in crossing the Green Mountains. The roads were almost impassable, and to add to the difficulty when we had got half over, there came on a heavy fall of snow. In the midst of the heavy snow‑storm, upon a baggage cart, and nothing to shelter her from the inclemency of the weather but a bit of an old oil‑cloth, a soldier’s wife was delivered of a child, she and the infant are both well.”[16]

3.  Following the army was dangerous

Females with the army shared in its fate, good or bad.  Soldier’s wives suffered from lack of adequate clothing, poor food, and lived outside without shelter when on the march. They shared the sufferings and deprivations of the soldiers they accompanied.[17]

Women, especially those in a camp or among wagons in the rear, could find themselves caught up in a battle. In one engagement a Connecticut soldier witnessed women “exposing themselves where the shots were flying, to strip the dead.” He stated that, “I saw one woman while thus employed struck by a cannon ball and literally dashed to pieces.”[18]

During the battle of Brandywine, Pennsylvania in September, 1777, the women of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment “frequently cautioned as to the danger of coming into the line of fire,” took “empty canteens of their husbands and friends and returned with them filled with water” during the “hottest part of the engagement.”[19]

At Camden, South Carolina in 1780, many soldiers’ wives were caught up in the American retreat.  One soldier noted, “The waggoners [sic] . . . drove on at full speed, and now and then coming in contact with a  stump, overset, and away went the camp-women, dashed twelve or fifteen feet . . .”[20]

Even the routine of camp life had its dangers.  A soldier recorded that a soldier’s wife was killed when a wagon overset at Valley Forge in 1777.[21] Often alone at times and obviously vulnerable, these women lived in fear of robbery, murder, rape, and abuse.  Many who became widows had nowhere else to go, but to continue on with their husband’s unit.[22]

2.  They are mostly forgotten

Sad, but largely true.  Few women’s names are recorded in military records; we have muster rolls to identify soldiers, but seldom more than numeric information to indicate the presence of women.  References are fleeting, and fragmentary.

There are monuments to a few notable women.  Margaret Corbin, wounded at Fort Washington, New York in 1776, is remembered with a plaque at the battle site in upper Manhattan.  A state historic marker in Richmond, Virginia commemorates the service of Anna Maria Lane, who accompanied her husband through the war. Markers recall the deeds of Mary Ludwig Hays at Monmouth, New Jersey, and an impressive monument stands at her grave in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

There are monuments to women who were not with the armies but nursed the wounded or assisted in other capacities.  Two stand at North Carolina battlefields: the Slocomb Monument at Moores Creek and the Karrenheppuch Monument at Guilford Courthouse.

Unlike the experiences of the soldiers, those of their wives are little commemorated at historic sites.

1.  They made a difference

In the end, it comes down to this.  They performed vital services and often passed on vital information.  Their support roles allowed the armies to function and kept them going.

Here is one example: Years of inconsistent pay and poor rations were taking their toll on the men of General Nathanael Greene’s army in South Carolina. In the spring of 1782, Sergeant Richard Peters of Maryland was recruited by British spies to “corrupt” the soldiers in his command. Peters was to get his fellow officers to mutiny, and march the men who were willing to follow them to a designated place where they would meet up with British troops.[23] A sergeant’s wife named Becky overheard the plot one evening and reported it the next morning. Greene ordered General Mordecai Gist of Maryland to “take Down in writing the Substance of Becky’s evidence against Gosnell etc.” Peters was convicted and hung, and Sergeant Gosnell (or Gornell) of Pennsylvania was tried and shot on April 22nd. The mutiny never got off the ground due to the fast action of a Camp Follower.[24]

The army’s wives appear briefly in the records, and are hard to pin down amid the larger historical events.  Yet we should never forget the service, and contributions, that they made.

[Featured Image at Top: Detail of cover art from Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers.]

 


[1] Don N. Hagist, “The Women of the British Army in America,” http://revwar75.com/library/hagist/britwomen.htm ; Robert M. Dunkerly, Women of the Revolution (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007), 24, 81-83.

[2] Hagist, “The Women of the British Army in America.”

[3] Walter Blumenthal, Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: G.S. MacManus Co., 1952), 19, 93, 94; Nancy K. Loane, Following the Drum (Washington, DC: Potomac Books Inc, 2009), 133.

[4] Loane, Following the Drum, 3.

[5] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 51.

[6] Holly Mayer, Belonging to the Army (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 13-14, 17, 137, 138, 275, 218, 233; Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, 51, 59, 57-8.  Unlike what is seen in modern reenacting, historically women did not cook for the men in camp.  Their most common chore was laundry.

[7] John U. Rees, “The Multitude of Women.”  http://revwar75.com/library/rees/wnumb1.htm.

[8] Hagist, “The Women of the Army.”

[9] Hagist, “The Women of the Army.”

[10] Alexander Salley, Records of the Regiments of the South Carolina Line (Baltimore: Clearfield Co., 1977).

[11] Linda Grant DePauw, “Women in Combat: The Revolutionary War Experience,” Armed Forces and Society 7 (1981), 212; Mayer, Belonging to the Army, 138, 155, 255, 258; Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, 51-3, 56.  Information varies on whether American women received half or full rations.  There was also variation by state, as each had its own regulations for its troops.

[12] Edward E. Curtis, The British Army in the American Revolution (Gansevoort NY: Corner House Historical Publishing, 1998), 10-11; James K. Martin and Mark E. Lender, A Respectable Army (Arlington Heights, IL: Harland Davidson Inc, 1982), 186.  Accurate figures are available for many campsites in the northern theater.  For example the American army was 10,000 men strong with 1,000 women at Newburgh, New York at the end of war.

[13] Blumenthal, Women Camp Followers, 43; Paul E. Kopperman, “The British High Command and Soldier’s Wives in America, 1755-1783,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. 60 (Spring, 1982), 25; John Womack Wright, Some Notes on the Continental Army (Vails Gate, NY: National Temple Hill Association, 1975), 63; Mark Tully, The Packet II (Baraboo, WI: Ballindaloch Press, 2000), 22, 23.

[14] Eli Caruthers, Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches of Characters Chiefly in the Old North State (Philadelphia: Hayes and Zell, 1854), 223.

[15] Caruthers, Revolutionary Incidents and Sketches, 223.

[16] Don N. Hagist, A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Baraboo, WI: Ballindalloch Press, 2004), 43-44; Thomas Anburey, Travels through the Interior Parts of America Vol. 2 (New York: New York Times & Arno Press, 1969), 14.

[17] Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, 54.

[18] Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, 55.

[19] Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers, 59.

[20] Guilford Dudley, “A Sketch of the Military Services Performed by Guilford Dudley, then of the Town of Halifax, North Carolina, During the Revolutionary War,” Southern Literary Messenger (March-June 1854).

[21] Loane, Following the Drum, 113.

[22] Cynthia Kierner, Southern Women in Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 181.

[23] Mayer, Belonging to the Army, 143; Edward McCrady, A History of South Carolina in the Revolution (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), 614, 621.

[24] Mayer, Belonging to the Army, 143; McCrady, A History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 521-22; William Johnson, Sketchesof the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene Vol. 2 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), 319; Dennis Conrad, ed., The Papers of Nathanael Greene, vol. X (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 81-2.

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