Most of their names are forgotten or were never recorded. They were wives, daughters, and girlfriends of British, American, and German soldiers and officers. Some followed the army looking for food and protection and work because they were no longer able to support themselves after the men left for war. Others were determined to be with their husbands no matter the cost. These women played a vital role in the American Revolution, sewing, nursing, cooking, guarding baggage, and offering support only they could provide their husbands. They suffered giving birth while enduring the hardships of war and moving armies.
Today, women who followed the army are referred to as “camp followers,” even though that term was not used in the eighteenth century. While General George Washington and many officers did not like to admit it, the army needed them even though the army could barely provision its own troops. But, if women were not permitted in military camps, the army stood to lose a number of good soldiers. Men with families in need asked for furloughs or deserted in order to provide for their destitute loved ones.
On August 4, 1777, Washington wrote:
“the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement. The Commander in Chief earnestly recommends it to the officers to use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary.”
In fact Washington’s disdain for the camp followers was demonstrated three weeks later on August 24, 1777, when he marched his army through Philadelphia. Washington ordered that “not a woman belonging to the army is to be seen,” so the considerable number of camp followers were spirited off into alley ways and side streets. As the women tramped along parallel to the army’s line of march, they seethed with resentment and “poured after their soldiers.”
Washington’s resentment seems somewhat hypocritical. Martha Washington spent every winter with her husband in the Continental Army camp. She performed a lot of the same tasks as the camp followers, but she also brought an air of gentility and insisted on some formal social activities, as did American general Nathanael Greene’s wife, Caty, General Henry Knox’s wife, Lucy, and Sarah Alexander, wife of Major General Lord Stirling, when they were in camp. Caty sometimes brought her children to camp. Other times, she left them with relatives.
A year before Washington’s march through Philadelphia, American General William Smallwood and his Maryland Battalion consisting of nearly 700 men, joined General Washington’s forces in New York. The battalion included wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses, and other assorted women looking for safety and work. Captain Nathaniel Ramsey’s wife, Margaret Jane Peale “Jenny” traveled in a small carriage and endured many of the hardships of army life with her husband. Jenny didn’t perform manual labor. Instead, she acted as a hostess, and her quarters became the center of social life for the Maryland officers.
A month later, in August 1776, when British General William Howe’s army landed on Gravesend Beach on the southern tip of Long Island in preparation for their first battle for New York with the Continental Army, women and children were among the British troops.
There were some 250 women and 500 children among British General John Burgoyne’s army that marched south from Montreal, Canada in June 1777, with the ultimate intention of taking Albany, New York. Burgoyne had his mistress with him. His German commander, General Fredrich von Riedesel Baron of Eisenbach, was accompanied by his wife, Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel. Frederika spent a year traveling from Germany with their three small daughters to be with her husband.
Frederika and her children joined other officers’ wives who followed at some distance behind the first line of advance. Frederika wrote about Burgoyne’s small tactical victory at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September and his retreat at the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, a turning point in the American Revolution. She also documented her own harrowing experiences in her journal:
I saw the whole battle myself, and, knowing that my husband was taking part in it, I was filled with fear and anguish and shivered whenever a shot was fired….
It was a terrible bombardment, and I was more dead than alive … Little Frederika, was very much frightened, often starting to cry, and I had to hold my handkerchief over her mouth to prevent our being discovered.
The greatest misery and extreme disorder prevailed in the army. The commissary had forgotten to distribute the food supplies among the troops … more than thirty officers came to me because they could stand the hunger no longer.
My children lay on the floor with their heads in my lap. And thus we spent the whole night. The horrible smell in the cellar, the weeping of the children, and, even worse, my own fear prevented me from closing my eyes.
An incident occurred a few months earlier on the morning of July 27, 1777, as a group of Native Americans, an advance party from Burgoyne’s army led by a Wyandot called Panther, descended on the village of Fort Edward. Two warriors, one of whom was Panther, were escorting twenty-five-year old Jane McCrea and her companion, Sara McNeil, to the British camp. McNeil was related to one of Burgoyne’s generals and McCrea was engaged to a loyalist. The women became separated and McCrea was killed and scalped.
American Benedict Arnold claimed that both women “were shot, scalped, stripped, and butchered in the most shocking manner…” Arnold’s outrage served to help make the death of Jane McCrea a sensation.
Mary McCauley followed the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. Her husband, John, was an artillery man. During the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, Mary carried water from a nearby spring to the thirsty men on that hot and smoky battlefield. The water was also used to cool the blazing cannons. John collapsed during the battle, perhaps from the heat, and Mary immediately took his place at the cannon. She assisted in firing it with the rest of the crew for the remainder of the battle.
Women who offered their services to the army chose to give up the security of home (if they had one left) and embark on a journey that offered discomfort, hardship, and danger. They worked just as hard and suffered just as much as the men they worked beside. Many of the contributions of Revolutionary War era women have been forgotten. It is only appropriate to remember their courage and sacrifice, honoring them as well as the fighting men they supported.
O’Donnell, Patrick K. Washington’s Immortals New York: Grove Press, 2016. Print.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition New York: Penguin Books, 2016. Print.
Pancake, John S. 1777 The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Print.
O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America New Haven & London Yale University Press, 2013. Print.