Camp followers were unfortunate wretches, men, women, and children, whose best hope for their well-being was to follow the army and work at anything for which they could be paid and/or receive rations from the army. The first thing that comes to mind for many is prostitutes, however, those were few, there being more washer-women, seamstresses to patch and repair, cooks, nurses, sutlers, carriers of water, communications, and ammunition, laborers and even a precious few women known to have taken their place alongside their soldier husbands in battle or provided aid for the fighting troops.
John Joseph Henry left an account of two of these women, Mrs. Grier, wife of Sgt. Grier, “a large, virtuous and respectable woman”, and Jemima Warner, “the wife of a private in our company”. He said of Mrs. Grier that as long as she was known to the soldiers, no one dared intimate a disrespectful idea of her.
Jemima’s husband was James Warner, private in Capt. Matthew Smith’s company of Col. William Thompson’s 1st Pennsylvania Regt. She accompanied her husband on Col. Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec through Maine in the fall of 1775.
History has not been kind to these women in that few of them were documented well enough for their descendants to honor their service in lineage societies such as DAR, SAR, or Descendants of Washington’s Army at Valley Forge (DVF), but there are a few who are remembered.
We find mention of women followers but usually not by name, for example a woman at the Battle of Brandywine in 1767 cited as trying to cook while under fire. Another was women of the 6th PA Regt. who took empty canteens from their husbands and friends and returned them filled with water, “during the hottest part of the engagement” [Birmingham Hill]. There were two accounts of unknown American camp followers killed in fighting near Saratoga, NY in 1777.
Anna Maria Lane is remembered as dressing in men’s clothing and contributed the same sort of service as the other soldiers. On February 6, 1808 John and Ann Maria Lane were placed on the pension roll to receive $40 each, “and the said Ann Maria, who in the Revolutionary War, in the Garb, and with the courage of a Soldier, performed extraordinary Military Service and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown [Oct. 4, 1777] shall in consideration thereof, be entitled to receive one hundred Dollars per annum from the public Treasury”. Anna Maria died June 13, 1810.
Some 400 women were reported present at Valley Forge in December 1777, roughly one woman for every forty-four enlisted men. In January 1783 the return showed one woman for every twenty-six enlisted men at New Windsor.
Four months prior, General 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 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…”.
Sarah Osborn was one such washer-woman who, “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…”.
Sarah was the wife of Aaron Osborn, a blacksmith and later commissary Sgt. in the American Revolution. In her pension application she, “recollects no other females in company but the wife of Lieutenant Forman and of Sergeant Lamberson” and further down included “a colored woman by the name of Letta”.
Mrs. Osborn “cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee to the soldiers in the entrenchment” at Yorktown in 1781. She “carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning [Cornwallis’s surrender] and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts”.
Maria Cronkite accompanied her husband into the service with the First New York Regiment. He was the fifer while she, “continued in said service in the capacity of washerwoman for the officers until the close of the war where her husband was duly discharged. That she had while in said service several children…”.
Margaret Johnson, wife of Sgt. Samuel Johnson and Elizabeth Evans, wife of Private Emanuel Evans, were noted in two mess squads of Capt. John Ross’s Co., 3rd New Jersey Regt in 1777. These women shared tents with the men.
Having been turned away because of being a woman when she first tried to offer aid, Deborah Samson next went against traditional behavior and pretended to be a man (Robert Shurtleff) in order to enlist and fight. It wasn’t until she was injured and examined by a physician that her secret was discovered. A neighbor discussed in his diary the scandal this caused in their neighborhood.
Others, like Mary Ludwig Hayes, joined the men in battle without any effort to disguise their gender. Mary is remembered as one of the women who inspired the legend of “Molly Pitcher”.
Mary was the daughter of German immigrants; the wife of John Hays having married in 1769. Her war record starts June 28, 1778 when she signed up two years after her husband and served with Capt. Francis Proctor’s Co. in the Pennsylvania Artillery. She was described by the men as being 22 years old, illiterate, pregnant, smoked and chewed tobacco and swore as well as her male counterparts. Mary Ludwig Hayes McCauley drew a pension of $40 for her heroism at Monmouth. She died Jan. 22, 1833 and was buried at the Old Graveyard near Carlisle, PA.
Margaret Corbin, wife of artillery man John Corbin, served in the same artillery regiment as Mary, without any pretense of being a man, under Capt. Francis Proctor, First Company of PA Artillery. Mary was pensioned by the Continental Congress (reported to be the first woman to receive a disabled veteran’s pension), and also said to be the only soldier of the Revolutionary War buried at the Military Academy at West Point, NY.
“Resolved, That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive, during her natural life or the continuance of the said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states; and that she now receive out of the public stores, one complete suit of cloaths, or the value thereof in money”.
Private Joseph Plumb Martin wrote in his famous diary about the woman firing cannon. “A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece for the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky It did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation”.
Mary Waters, born in Dublin, immigrated to PA in 1766 and became a nurse when the war started, working with physician Benjamin Rush.
A multitude of images document women working near the army such as A Military Encampment in Hyde Park, 1785 by Paul Mellon reminding us how prevalent their presence was. It is a shame more of these women aren’t remembered by name for their heroic efforts at gaining independence whether it be in any of these capacities or simply feeding hungry soldiers from their homes.
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