8 Year Anniversary party winners: Joan Hochstetler's book winner is -- Caryl Kane, Naomi Musch's ebook goes to Crissy Yoder Shamion, Roseanna White's winner is -- Connie Saunders, Pegg Thomas's "A Bouquet of Brides" goes to Deanna Stevens, Debra E. Marvin's winner is -- Becky Dempsey, Carrie Fancett Pagels' giveaway of Colonial Michilimackinac: Michigan State Parks goes to Wilani Wahl, Carla Olson Gade's winner is Leila Reynolds, Shannon McNear -- Kaitlin Covel

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Camp Followers' Lot

“I was obliged to give Provisions to the extra Women in these regiments, or lose by Desertion, perhaps to the enemy, some of the oldest and best Soldiers in the Service.” —George Washington to Robert Morris.

“The number of Women and Children in the New York Regiments of Infantry . . . obliged me . . . to 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.” —George Washington to Major General Henry Knox

“A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement attended her husband at the piece 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.” —At Monmouth, from Diary of Joseph Plumb Martin

Battle of Monmouth
Molly Pitcher at Battle of Monmouth
J. C. Armytage, c. 1859
During the American Revolution the majority of officers were not overjoyed to have women following the army. Their main objections were that they made the army look unprofessional, created disorder, interfered with military operations, and distracted the soldiers, even tempting them to desert. But blocking women from military camps resulted in the loss of many good soldiers whose families were in need or who simply missed their wives. Some asked for furloughs, and then deserted if denied. Others cut to the chase and simply deserted. It was a Catch-22. Although Washington, like many other officers, hated to admit it, the army needed women as much as the women we call “camp followers” needed the army.

Camp Follower Saluting General Washington
Today we lump all these women into one category, but technically, the term “camp follower”—never used in the 18th century—refers to women who performed paid services such as laundry and nursing, for which they usually received a half or quarter of a soldier’s pay and rations. They were required to obey applicable army regulations that, among other things, forbade riding on the baggage carts, gambling, and engaging in prostitution. Of course, human nature being what it is, not all of them refrained from doing so. Other women who traveled with or visited the army—officer’s wives, refugees, sutlers, and so on—didn’t fit into that category.

Women followed an army for a variety reasons: They wanted to stay with their husbands. They needed an income. They were forced to flee from their homes and had no other options. The army provided a measure of safety, shelter, food, and work. In return the women also endured plenty of discomfort, hardships, and danger. They worked as hard and endured the same suffering as the soldiers. Some even broke out of traditional roles by serving in the ranks alongside their husbands. But a women had to be married to a soldier in order to get one of the limited number of the army’s paying jobs. If he died, she would have to marry another soldier within a short period of time to hold onto her job.

Doing laundry in a British camp
Washington couldn’t afford to lose men because of their families, but he also couldn’t afford to feed every one of the hungry mouths applying for subsistence when the army could barely support its own troops. Women who worked for the army received anywhere from one-quarter to one full ration, depending on what duties they performed, so officers tried to keep a lid on the army’s dependents. “The multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement,” Washington wrote in August 1777. “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.” To that end commanders called for regular reports the women in their units and sent away those who weren’t married, didn’t perform necessary tasks, behaved badly, or were sick.

Many women earned their rations by washing and mending clothing. Not only could women draw provisions, but they could also charge by the piece. The army regulated prices, however, and overcharging was a serious offense. Women also worked as cooks, but mostly for officers and support personnel such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and farriers. Regular soldiers formed “messes” composed of six men who shared chores such as hauling water, chopping wood, and cooking.

Following the Army, Pamela Patrick White
Women also earned money and rations by nursing. Women traditionally served as nurses, and in the army they freed the men to fight. Throughout the war nurses were in short supply, therefore in constant demand. Nurses received regular pay for keeping the hospital and its patients clean and assisting the surgeons, the least desirable jobs in medical care that also exposed them to deadly diseases such as smallpox and all kinds of camp fevers. Officers went as far as promising full rations and an allowance to women who agreed to serve as nurses and threatening to withhold rations from those who refused.

Imagine being a camp follower in the 18th century. You’re lacking the comforts and conveniences of home, so daily chores are much harder and privacy virtually nonexistent. And you’re thrown into the company of women from a variety of social classes whose way of life and behavior are very different from yours. Plus you may often be on the road and in the midst of battle. What do you think would be your hardest challenges, especially if you also had children to care for?
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers, a lifelong student of history, and an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, releases in June 2019. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.


  1. This was a great post! I never even thought of women following their husbands into battle in those days! You've gone into more detail than other snippets I've read about it. Thanks!

    1. You're so welcome, Connie! It was a different world back then for sure. lol!

  2. A great post Joan! I knew some women were "camp followers" but did not realize how many. How hard that must have been for the women, espcially those with children. I can't imagine bringing children along during a war/battle.
    Blessings, Tina

  3. They were clearly made of sterner stuff back then, Tina. lol! I'm with you about the children. My mind boggles at the thought of managing child care, and even birth, while trailing an army!

  4. Indeed Joan. We have become "soft" in so many ways.

  5. Thanks, Joan, for such an interesting post.

  6. My first message didn't show up. So, let's try this again. I could never be a camp follower!I'm that brave a person to have done something like that.The women were much stronger back then to be able do all the things that had to be done. Another great post, Joan!

  7. Nice post! I've always found this to be an amazing bit of history. Desperate times, desperate measures.


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