"The proportion of Women which ought to be allowed..."
Female Camp Followers with the Continental Army


By John U. Rees


Like all the armies which preceded it the Continental Army was not just a community of men. Numbers of women and their accompanying children followed the troops throughout the war and performed a number of tasks which contributed to the welfare of the soldiers.


The number of women present with the army throughout the war was, on average, about one for every thirty men or approximately 3 percent of the total number of troops. It is evident that from the beginning of the war the numbers of women fluctuated greatly from regiment to regiment and, apparently, from company to company within each regiment. In December 1777 the return for the main army at Valley Forge showed a total 400 women present or one woman for forty-four enlisted men (though it is possible that there were more women with the army during the summer of that year). In January 1783 a return for the main army at New Windsor gave an average of one woman for every twenty-six enlisted men. During the intervening years the average ratios may have been within the range of one to thirty and one to thirty-five. From the avaible information it seems that early in the war it would not have been at all remarkable for an individual company to contain no women. This situation had changed by 1783 when the average was two women for each company with the main army.


The information which we do have concerning female camp followers with the American army is particularly interesting when compared to the numbers attached to the regiments of the Crown forces, especially those of the British troops. In February of 1783 Robert Morris referred to "the british Prisoners of War who have Herds of Women with them." This comment is borne out by the returns of British camp followers throughout the war. In May of 1777 the ratio of women with the British forces in New York was about one for every eight men, while the Germans had approximately one woman for every thirty men. Later in the war, during August of 1781, the troops in New York and its outposts were shown to have a ratio of one woman to every four and a half British troops, and one to fifteen for the Germans.


Regardless of their numbers, the women who followed the Continental Army during the war were important in a number of ways. Unlike some of their British counterparts most could not pay their own way if they were not on the list of those who drew rations. In their own words they "could earn their Rations, but the Soldier, nay the Officer, for whom they Wash has naught to pay them." They did, however, perform duties such as washing and cooking for those men they were related to or had some association with. Additionally, it seems that as the war progressed these dual duties (most particularly laundering) were increasingly required of them in return for their continued acceptance with the army. Most importantly, besides these practical tasks, they provided some semblance of home life for the men in the army. This seemingly minor service was extremely important considering that the war of the Revolution continued for eight years and the soldiers fought tedium more often than they did the enemy. This was in some part attested to by Washington himself when he. wrote that "I was obliged to give Provisions to the extra Women in these Regiments, or loose by Desertion, perhaps to the Enemy, some of the oldest and best Soldiers in the Service."


"Rations... Without Whiskey"
The Food Allowance for Women


It has generally been assumed that British General William Howe's orders of 1776 allowing a half ration per women and a quarter ration per child was the system followed by the Continental Army during the war. Contrary to this belief there is no concrete evidence that the Continental Army ever made use of this system of rationing for soldier's dependents. There is quite a bit of evidence, however, that Washington's forces took as their precedent the ration issues for women in the British and Provincial forces during the French and Indian War. In 1781 the returns for Colonel Joseph Vose's Light Battalion show two rations for each officer and one ration for each common soldier and woman. A "Return of the number of Women and Children... that drew drew Rations under the late Regulations..." lists the specific number of rations that were allowed prior to January of 1783. Under the "late Regulations" each women was given one full ration and each child a half ration. This is similar to the women's allowance during the period of the French and Indian war which consisted of either a full ration or two thirds of a ration of food.


The food ration issued to the troops and their followers was based on a standard originally set in 1776 as follows: One pound of beef, or 3/4 of a pound of pork or one pound of fish, per day. One pound of bread or flour per day. Three pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent. at one dollar per bushel for peas or beans. One pint of milk per man per day. One half-pint of rice, or one pint of Indian meal per man per week. One quart of spruce beer, or cider, per man per day, or nine gallons of mollasses per company of one hundred men per week. Three pounds of candles to one hundred men per week, for guards. Twenty pounds of soft, or eight pounds of hard, soap for one hundred men per week." Eventually a small amount of rum or other alchohol was included in the basic ration. In 1782 the returns of women and children in Colonel Henry Jackson's Regiment stipulated that they be given "Rations... Without Whiskey."


Necessity and nutrition required that some method be found by which this basic ration could be supplemented. This was especially important since items such as milk, cider, vegetables and soap proved to be difficult, and often impossible, to obtain. In July of 1777 it was stipulated that "As nothing can be more comfortable and wholesome to the army than vegetables, every encouragement is to be given to the Country people, to bring them in [to market]:... The General recommends temporary ovens to each brigade, which, by men who understand it, can be erected in a few hours. Bread baked in these, will be much wholesomer than the sodden cakes (firecakes] which are but too commonly used."


To add to the problem of feeding the army the system of supplying the troops sometimes failed due to bad weather, crop failure, economic conditions or ineptitude In the quartermaster department. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1778 it was necessary to temporarily adjust the daily rations for the army. In the General Orders of February 8th it was noted "that instead of the ration heretofore Issued there should be Issued a pound and a half of flouer, one lb of Beef or 3/4 Salt pork and a certain Quantity of Spirits..." In addition to this It had been previously ordered on January 29th that "The Commissaries in future to Issue (a] quart of Salt to every 100 lb fresh Beef." This was to prove more or less the common ration for the army during their winter cantonments.


Finally, the 1776 British system of a half ration for women was stipulated to be issued to those women left behind at Halifax after the army sailed on to New York. It is entirely possible, and even probable, that women with the British army when on campaign were given a larger amount of food.


"...some men washed their own clothing."
Women's Duties and Shelter


In August of 1777 General George Washington wrote that "the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement. The Commander in Chief therefore earnestly recommends it to the officers commanding brigades and corps, to use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary..." He was, however, to find it impossible to rid the army entirely of these persistent females who performed any number of "necessary" tasks. As Washington admitted later in the war, he "was obliged to give Provisions to the extra Women in these Regiments, or loose by Desertion, perhape to the Enemy, some of the oldest and best Soldiers In the Service."


Any females who chose to follow the army may have been alloted provlslons but in return they were expected to perform some sort of service for the benefit of the troops. Their primary task was that of "Wash Women", a role which various documents describe them as performing from 1776 through 1783. During the 1776 campaign in the Mohawk Valley in New York one company of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment contained seventy-one enlisted men and three "Washer-Women", giving a ratio of one woman to twenty-four soldiers. In sharp contrast to these numbers was the proportion used In Colonel John Lamb's Artillery Regiment in September of 1780; "one Woman to Wash for ten." A final comparison is the number of "Wash Women" in the 9th Massachusetts Regiment over a period of three and a half months during the summer of 1782. The approximate average for those months was one laundress for every thirty-five enlisted men.


It is evident that although some women washed primarily for the enlisted men of the army others performed the same services for officers only. During the Siege of Yorktown follower Sarah Osborn "took her stand just back of the American tents, about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females; some men washed their own clothing (author's emphasis)." Another women, Maria Cronkite the wife of a fifer in the let New York Regiment, stated that she "accompanyed her husband... in the service... and continued in said service in the capacity of washerwomen for the officers untill the close of the war where her husband was duly discharged. That she had while in said service several children..." Due to the small numbers of women with the army, especially early in the war, many if not most of the men would have done their own washing.


The task of cooking provisions was usually performed by the men themselves in messes of six, the same number of men usually assigned to a tent. There were occasions when women were available or the soldier's duties made it necessary to have the followers prepare the food. At the Battle of Brandywine Jacob Nagle served with Proctor's Artillery. He described his situation at the onset of the action: "The provision waggons being sent a way, we ware three day without provisions excepting what the farmers brought in to sell in their waggons and what the soldiers could plunder from the farmers. I went to my father (the lieutenant colonel of the 9th Pennsylvania Reglmentl, his rigment being on our right, and received a neats tounge from him, and Mr. Hosner bought some potatoes and butter the evening before the Brittish arrived, and we concluded to have a glorious mess for breakfast. Mr. Hosner gave it to one of the soldiers wives that remained with the army to cook for us in the morning. Early in the morning, she had the camp kittle on a small fier about 100 yards in the rear of the Grand Artilery, with all our delicious meal, which we expected to enjoy. The Brittlsh at this time hoisted the red flag on the top of the farm house on the rige of the hill a breast of us, and their artilery advancing towards us down the ploughed field, we then begin a cannonading... Unfortunately one of the enemies shot dismounted the poor camp kettle with the fier and all its contents away with it. The woman informed Mr. Folkner. He replied, "Never mind, we have no time to eat now." Therefore we made another fast day." At Yorktown in 1781 Sarah Osborn mentioned that she "cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (In a gallon pot) to the soldiers In the entrenchment." On the day of Cornwallis's surrender she stated that "having provisions ready, (she] carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts."


In many respects the women in the various regiments were accorded the same treatment as the common soldiers. As was previously noted they were given the same basic food ration as the enlisted men and it seems that this parity was extended when it came to shelter. General John Sulitvan's division orders of August 17, 1777 not only stipulated that six enlisted men occupy a tent but alloted one tent for every six "Waggoners [or] weomen" as well. In conjunction with this order is a listing of mess squads in Captain Ross's Company of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment in June of 1777. In this roster of eight messes, seven contained five or six people, the same number assigned to a tent or approximately so. Two of the mess squads contained women, one of whom was Margaret Johnson, wife of Sergeant Samuel Johnson, and the other Elizabeth Evans, wife of Private Emmanuel Evans. It is probable that, due to the exigencies of army life, the women included in these two mess squads shared a tent with the men of their squad.


"...coming into the line of fire."
Women on the March or on Campaign


The followers of the army occasionally were exposed to the dangers of the battlefield, though this was the exception rather than the rule. The stated practice in the Continental Army through most of the war was that any women attached to the various regiments were to travel with the baggage of the army when on active campaign. However, when a detachment was formed for a short-term expedition or mission these women were often left behind at their current post or at some other designated location. On General John Sullivan's expedition against the Indians of Pennsylvania and New York In 1779 the women and children accompanied the troops only as far Tioga in Pennsylvania. At that place a fort was built and only those women "as may be applied to the use of the Hospital, or may be deem'd necessary to keep the Soldier's clean at their Return" were to remain at the new post. The remainder were to be sent back to Wyoming where orders were given "to the Commissary... to Issue Rations to those Women & Children." A year later on August 1, 1780, when Washington's Army was preparing to move against the British in New York City, it was ordered that the division and brigade commanders were "to exert themselves to get in readiness as fast as possible... Convalescents and such men as are otherwise absolutely unfit to march yet capable of doing duty in a fixed post are to be left at Verplanks and Stoney points... All the Women and Children of the Army are also to be left at these Posts for a few days where the commanding officers will see that they are furnished with rations as usual." When a detachment of troops under the Marquis de Lafayette was sent south in February of 1781 the wives of the soldiers were left behind, it being thought that the "service will be but a temporary one." It was later discovered by both the women and the soldiers themselves that they were to be absent longer than they thought and from May through July four women made their way south to join Vose's Massachusetts Light Battalion. Presumably other females also were able to rejoin the men in Lafayette's forces In Virginia. And in the summer of 1781 when a portion of the army was readying itself for the southward march to Yorktown it was desired that "as the Detachment under... Major General Lincoln are to consider themselves as Light-troops who are always supposed to be fit for action and free from every incumbrance [the Commander in Chief] cannot help advising them to take the present opportunity of depositing at West Point such of their Women as are not able to undergo the fatigue of frequent marches and also every article of Baggage which they can in any wise dispence with..."


The women following the troops were, as previously stated, supposed to march with the baggage wagons. The first such order was issued in July of 1777 and was repeated at least once each subsequent year until 1781. In 1780 one such order stipulated that the officer commanding the baggage escort "is to allow no women to ride in the waggons unless their peculiar circumstances require it." Sarah Osborn, the wife of a commissary sergeant who in the company of three other females traveled with the baggage of Washington's Army as it marched to Yorktown in the late summer of 1781, was one of the lucky ones. She was allowed the use of a horse for at least part of the trip southward, though at other times she walked or rode in a wagon. It is extremely doubtful that many female camp followers were afforded the use of a horse. If the women with the troops elected (and were permitted to stay with the soldiers, they would have had to rely primarily on their own two feet.


An example of the occasional disregard for standing orders was given by those women who were present at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. One account (previously given) describes a woman from an unknown regiment trying to cook while under fire during the battle while another describes the women of the 6th PennsylvanIa Regiment who took "the empty canteens of their husbands and friends and returned with them filled with water... during the hottest part of the engagement, although frequently cautioned as to the danger of coming into the line of fire." The day before the action a directive was given that "No baggage is to be kept (with the army]... that can be dispensed with..." The inclusion of women with this unnecessary baggage is inferred by the General Order of July 10, 1777 that all "Women [were]... to march with the baggage." Additionally the General Orders for September 13th attempted to rein in any recalcitrant camp followers by ordering that "No woman under any pretence whatsoever to go with the army, but to follow the baggage." This last order indicates that the disobedience of the female followers was an ongoing problem. Other women known to have marched among the troops or to have been present on the field of battle, were Mrs. Grier and Mrs. Warner who marched with Arnold's troops to Quebec in 1775, Margaret Corbin who was wounded at Fort Washington in 1776. Anna Maria Lane, wounded at the Battle of Germantown, and Mary Hays at the battle of Monmouth in 1778.


(primary source, John U. Rees "'... the multitude of women' An Examination of the Numbers of Female Camp Followers With the Continental Army", The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution) three parts; Vol. XXIII, No. 4 (Autumn 1992): Vol. XXIV, No. 1 (Winter 1993): Vol. XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1993))



General Bibliography


Blumenthal, Walter Hart, Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution (New York. 1974)
"British Camp Women on the Ration": numbers of women with the army. pages 15-21, 24-26, 28-29, 33-34, 38-39; numbers of women with individual regiments, 16, 19, 32:
"Irregular Women" and allotted women, 23, 37-38, 40-41, (French & Indian War) 46-47, 49-50; description of women with Burgoyne's army, 27-28: clothing allotment for women and children, 38; rations, 41, (French & Indian War) 51; duties, 40, 45-46.
"American Camp Women Under Washington": duties, 61-62; description, 65-66; women with the Pennsylvania Line in the winter of 1781, 75-76.


Copeland, Peter F., Working Dress in Colonial And Revolutionary America (Westport. 1977)


De Pauw, Linda Grant, "Women in Combat - The Revolutionary War Experience", Armed Forces and Society, Vol. 7, No. 2. Winter 1981, pages 209-226. An interesting though flawed article which contends, without sufficient evidence that "tens of thousands of women were involved in active combat." For a rebuttal see McKenney's "Comment."


Kopperman, Paul E., "The British High Command and Soldiers' Wives In America, 1755-1783", Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, No. 60 (1982), pages 14-34. Married women, pages 14; women's duties, 15-16, 21; number of women in the Continental Army, 16; the thoughts of the high command concerning women, 16: the number of women in the army and individual regiments, 19-20, 26-28; women's rations, 22-23: women as patients in hospital, 31, 33.


Heitman, Francis B., Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution - Aprll 1775 to December 1783 (Baltimore, 1982)


Mayer, H.A., Belonging to the Army: Camp followers and the Military Community during the American Revolution, PH.D. dissertation (College of William and Mary. 1990) An excellent work which covers both male and female camp followers serving in many capacities. pages 39-40, female nurses, washerwomen and prices charged for laundering; pages 41-48, women on campaign and disregard of orders - on Quebec expedition 1775, at Ticonderoga 1776, during Philadelphia campaign, with Anthony Wayne's Pennsylvania troops 1781, with Washington's army on the march to Yorktown 1781; page 52, horses belonging to women; pages 57-58, women passing through the lines of the army; page 62, dispute between female follower and sergeant; page 77, women as cooks; page 80, smallpox inoculation for women and children; pages 82-83, huts for women in winter; page 85, rations for women; pages 136-137, orders against soldier's wives selling alchohol and difficulty of enforcement; pages 137-139, lewd women and prostitutes; pages 161-162, camp women as housekeepers for officers; pages 169-208, soldier's families, officer's wives and class status, numbers of women in the Continental and British armies, the treatment of women and children in hospitals, women and military law, with the baggage on campaign, service as nurses and washerwomen, women in combat; pages 272-277, matrons and nurses in hospitals, women's rations; pages 294-301 and 314, women and the military legal system; pages 339-340, overview of females with the army during and after the war.


McKenney, Janice E., "'Women in Combat': Comment', Armed Forces in Society, Vol. 8, No. 4, Summer 1982, pages 686-692. A well reasoned rebuttal to De Pauw's article which refutes most of the claims that author made concerning women in combat.


Copyright © 1995 John U. Rees. All rights reserved.