Revolutionary War Historical Article
Camp Followers of the American Revolution
By Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 2001 Edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter
At a recent discussion regarding reenacting, a listener commented "How can you get your wives to portray lowly camp followers?" The implication was all too obvious! Hence this brief article. The confusion the listener had was between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The camp followers that trailed behind the Union Army during the Civil War were not the same as those authorized during the Revolution. The number of women that offered their services to Gen. Joseph Hooker's Union Division were so numerous that they earned the nickname of "hookers". That nickname still applies today!
But in the eighteenth century, armies permitted a certain number of women to become part of the Army. But there were several restrictions. It is necessary to understand the strict class structure that existed in the colonies at the time. The officers had ladies, the sergeants and corporals had wives, and the men had women. It appears that the 'informal regulations' applied only to the soldier's women. The first was that the camp follower had to be married to one of the soldiers. They would be entitled to one half of the rations provided to the men. If they had children with them, those children were entitled to one fourth ration. They were not paid by the Army, or as General Washington explained, from public funds. The officers and soldiers usually paid them for sewing, cooking, etc. The subject of camp followers was understood, hence little was recorded regarding their governing rules and regulations.
An interesting letter from General Washington to General John Stark on August 5th, 1778 regarding camp followers: "I cannot see why the soldier's women in Albany should be supported at public expense. They may get most extravagant wages for any kind of work in the country and to feed them, when that is the case,would be robbing the public and encouraging idleness. If they would come down and attend as nurses to the hospitals they would find immediate employment]".
However, it appears that, as usual, the women got their way. A letter exists to General Henry Knox in which General Washington wrote: "Dear Sir: The Women of the New York Regiment of Artillery have applied to me on the subject of allowing them and their children provisions. The number of women and children in the New York Regiments of Infantry before the new system of issues took place obliged me, either to depart from that system and allow them provision or by driving them from the Army risk the loss of a number of men, who very probably would have followed their wives. I preferred the former and accordingly directed that the whole of the women and children then with the Troops, should be allowed to draw as usual".
Camp followers also created a real problem when they were captured - were they Prisoners of War, or civilians? Gen. Washington wrote to General William Smallwood: " . . . it is a matter you must determine yourself I imagined they had been sent to Philadelphia, soon after the prize was taken. I do not suppose, that the public will suppose themselves liable for it, as they do not consider themselves prisoners, and it might be deemed ungenerous to make the Ladies pay it themselves, after so long a detention. As you and your Officers only, have had the pleasure of their company and conversation, I believe you must adjust the matter among you, as well as you can. But it were to be wished, the ladies may be sent into their friends without further delay".
The vast majority of camp followers were seasonal. Warfare in the 18th century was usually suspended during the winter months. Many of the ladies, wives and women of the men in the Army would travel to the winter encampment and spend that time with their husbands. Lady Martha Washington joined the General every winter of the eight year war! Others were forced to become camp followers because their homes were either destroyed by the war or were in enemy held country.
A surprising aside exists from the Revolutionary War. We have seen no record of there being a 'love triangle' or any related difficulties in the official records or in the number of diaries that still exist.
The ladies, wives, women and children that comprise our camp followers today are recreating people that were among the most dedicated and patriotic of our ancestors!