So what were women doing with the military in the eighteenth century?
In today's military, support roles like cooking, cleaning, repair, maintenance, are all handled by are covered by military personnel or by private contractors. One estimate from World War II indicated that, for every man in combat, there were five or six men behind the lines serving in support roles. In the eighteenth century, many of these roles were filled by women. Soldier's wives often followed the army, serving as official (on the roster) and often unofficial support staff. Women served as nurses in camp hospitals, mended clothing, gathered firewood, cooked (though men were also expected to be able to cook their own rations if needed), and did laundry.
Laundry was actually a booming business in camp--the men were responsible for having their own laundry done, so entreprenurial women would set up shop near camp and render these services--for a fee. Sometimes these women followed the army, or were spouses of men serving in the regiment, but often were not--they had found a good way to support themselves during the turmoil of wartime.
So how did these women get there, and why were they allowed? "Camp followers" have earned the misnomer of being synonymous with prostitutes, and this simply wasn't the case. In fact, women found to be dabbling in prostitution were "drummed out" of camp, as shown below--they were formally marched from camp, humiliated by a chorus of drummers. I enjoy the camp woman, accompanied by two small children, waving a stick at the prostitute in this scene:
As for the Continental and State troops during the American Revolution, their system for allowing women seems to have been looser. For one, they weren't transporting men across the ocean, so women were more able to come and go, never officially making it "on the ration"--or anyone's roster. Washington seems to have had his issues with women in camp--he complained that they didn't stay with "the baggage" where they were supposed to and (heavens have mercy) the pregnant ones kept trying to ride on the wagons. (Washington may also have been a touch OCD, but that's another discussion.) Their tenures with the army may have been shorter and less regular--women briefly visited and pitched in while their husbands' regiments were camped nearby, then stayed at home rather than following the troops.
Though some edicts of the period indicate that women were supposed to camp separately from the men (with the "baggage") it seems that this was not always adhered to. For one, many prints (like the one below) show women working alongside men in camp. For another, archaelogical finds show the presence of items such as rough children's toys in areas known to be military camps.
Though most women following the army were of the lower class, officer's wives occasionally joined their husbands, as well. Many only stayed with their husbands for the winter "off season" (eighteenth century campaigns took place, generally, during the spring, summer, and fall months only, breaking for the winter), but some stuck it out, seeing their role as boosting morale as well as providing domestic support (darning socks, much?).
And this gets us to how women could end up on the battlefield. Women weren't expected to follow the troops all the way into battle, but sources show that they often operated at the periphery of the field, running supplies such as ammunition and bringing water. During one summertime battle, for instance, women gathered canteens from the men on the lines, ran to a nearby spring to refill them, and returned them to the men. In a circumstance where heatstroke was a real threat, this may have saved lives.
Tomorrow, a bit more about Molly Pitcher--the legend of one woman (or, perhaps, not just one woman) who found herself doing more than just supporting an artillery crew--she found herself a part of it.
Good reading on the subject: Belonging to the Army by Holly Mayer