The Role of Camp Followers in the American Revolution

by Laura Webb Thomas

Many visitors to re-enactments express surprise that women and children accompanied the troops throughout the war. Many sources indicate that this practice was more common with the British forces than those of the Americans. As you walk through an encampment at any re-enactment, you will see women and children present. Many of these women have spent years researching the role of the camp follower and easily carry out the day to day routine of getting water, cooking, mending, and laundering clothes. Others tend to the wounded or serve as sutlers to the troops, setting up shop when the march stops.

Camp followers, throughout history, have been a necessary presence during war time. During the Revolutionary War, women tended to laundering and mending clothing, cooking meals and nursing the wounded. On the march, they were expected to keep up, often carrying pots and pans, personal belongings and children as they struggled to keep pace. Also accompanying the troops were civilian drivers, sutlers (who set up their stores for the soldiers to purchase necessary items), and members of the clergy. There are accounts of women stopping along the way to give birth, only to rejoin the march in order to stay with their spouse.

Camp followers were not from any select social class. Officers' wives and mistresses accompanied them on the march. Women of more learned background, however, were also able to provide services such as copying correspondence, knitting and managing field hospitals. Able women were often under orders to assist in tending to the wounded. It was not unheard of for women to take up arms or to assist the canon crews in the heat of battle. They led hard lives, being fully expected to earn their keep. One does not often think of Martha Washington as a camp follower, but she and other women did join General Washington at Valley forge from time to time, although their presence was not a constant one.

Women were shipped from England and the British Isles on the same transport ships that brought the British troops to America. The British Army used this as a form of enlistment incentive. Of course, as a result, the population for which they were to provide grew as children were born during the American campaigns. Orderly books clearly annotate when the commanding officer requested all of the names of women and children and to which soldier they "belonged"and unaffiliated women would not receive rations. Therefore, it was not uncommon for women to marry immediately following the demise of their spouse.

The women's presence forced the British Army with a new problem of how to manage this special population. Women who straggled off to plunder abandoned houses during one particular campaign elevated the risk of bringing smallpox into the camp since the structures they visited had been quarantined. In order to enforce some sense of order, efforts were made to limit the number of women and children in tow and specific orders governing the conduct of camp followers were written, setting the expectation that they were to adhere to the rules or suffer the same punishment that a member of the ranks would receive. The Orderly Book of the Maryland Loyalists Regiment, compiled by Caleb Jones, edited by Paul Leicester Ford, specifically cites Clinton's order that women were to march with the baggage with punishment awarded to those who failed to obey. Another officer tried a different approach to curtailing looting activities - he had the women marched down the center of the road, under noncommissioned officer guard, at the head of the troops. It appears that on both sides of the lines, managing the women was a difficult job.

An entry in the orderly book dated July 3, 1778 describes how two camp followers, Mary Colfritt and Elizabeth Clark were tried for plundering. Mary Colfritt was found not guilty, however Elizabeth Clark was sentenced to "Receive 100 Lashes on her Bear Back and to be drumd out of the armey in the Most Publick manner." Records also indicate women receiving punishment for selling liquor to the troops.

Women and children's names were submitted to the commanding officers and these camp followers were entitled to receive a portion of a ration. Those women less formally affiliated with the soldiers relied on the soldier to give up a portion of his own rations or she had to fend for herself. Quite often, women who suddenly found themselves far from home and widowed quickly remarried one of her husband's comrades. When forces surrendered or were captured, the women accompanied their regiments.

The term camp follower does not merely apply to women and children. There were men who were hired as drivers and to fill other occupational needs who were in the employ of, but not a member of, the Army.

Sources for this article were:

Campfollowers of the American Revolution, by Walter Hart Blumenthal 1994 Ayer Company Publishers, Inc. Salem, New Hampshire ISBN# 0-405-06077-7

Belonging to the Army, by Holly A. Mayer 1996 University of South Carolina Press
ISBN# 1-57003-108-8

Liberty's Daughters, by Mary Beth Norton 1996 Cornell University Press, New York
ISBN# 0-8014-8347-6

The Way of Duty , by Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel Jr. 1984 W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. New York, ISBN# 0-393-31210-0

Orderly Book of the Maryland Loyalist Regiment, compiled by Caleb Jones, edited by Paul Leicester Ford, 1996 reprinted for Clearfield Company, Inc. by Genealogical Publishing Co.,Inc. Baltimore, MD, I.S.B.N # 0-8063-4645-0