Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

CW Foundation navigation

Looking to Buy Tickets & Gifts or Book a Vacation? Click Here

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

Women’s Service with the Revolutionary Army

The American Revolution has proven to be a fertile ground for study. One can find works as theoretical as the ideological nature of the war, and as practical as detailed troop movements in particular battles. The contributions of the men who drafted the documents of the Revolution, commanded the forces, fought in the war, and offered support have been well documented. The Revolution was not a one-gender war, however. Many women contributed to the effort, and it is time their stories are told.

Today, women who followed the army are referred to as "camp followers," even though that term was not used in the eighteenth century. Females who followed Washington's army were seeking safety, shelter, food, and work. They needed the army, and while Washington and many officers did not like to admit it, the army needed them. Some officers thought that the presence of women in an army camp distracted the soldiers, claiming that they got in the way of operations, detracted from the professional appearance of the camp, and even enticed soldiers to desert. But, if women were not permitted in military camps, the army stood to lose a number of good soldiers. Men with families in need asked for furloughs or deserted in order to provide for their destitute loved ones. For example, Private Ralph Morgan sought a furlough in December 1775 because his wife and children had no roof over their heads. Morgan received a discharge. Since the Continental Army could not afford to discharge a soldier every time he needed to assist his family, Washington was obliged to permit some women to follow the camps. He wrote to Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris, "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." In the same vein, Washington wrote to Major General Henry Knox, “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."

General Washington could not afford to lose men because of their families, but neither could he afford to feed every hungry mouth that sought assistance from the army. Throughout the war destitute civilians fled to the army for safety and food, while the army could barely provision its own troops. Washington and his officers attempted to keep the number of dependents traveling with the army to a minimum. On August 4, 1777, 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 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."
Women sewed, mended, and washed clothes for the armyTo ensure that only those who were absolutely necessary to the army drew provisions, commanders continually called for reports concerning how many women they had, their marital status, their health and the duties they performed. In 1776, General Andrew Lewis, wrote from near Williamsburg, Virginia, that "Officers of Companies are to return a list of the names and number of women they have, and whether single or married, in order to have them examined." Women who did not pass muster, that is, those who were unmarried, did not perform a necessary task, misbehaved, or were ill, were often sent away. Those fortunate enough to obtain permission to stay were given anywhere from one-quarter to one full ration, depending on what duties they performed.

The Militia Law of 1775 stipulated that a soldiers ration should consist of
"One pound of beef, or 3/4 of a pound of pork or one pound of fish, per day. One pound of bread or flour per day. Three pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetables equivalent, at one dollar per bushel for peas or beans. One pint of milk per man per day. One half-pint of rice, or one pint of Indian meal per man per week. One quart of spruce beer, or cider, per man per day, or nine gallons of mollasses per company of one hundred men per week. Three pounds of candles to one hundred men per week, for guards. Twenty pounds of soft, or eight pounds of hard, soap for one hundred men per week."

A good portion of women earned their rations by doing laundry and mending for the soldiers and the officers. Colonel Ebenezer Huntington wrote that he was "endeavoring to hire some women to live in camp to do the washing for [him] self and some of the officers." Laundresses were permitted to remain in the camp as a reward for their own or their husbands' good service. In a letter to Colonel Lamb, Captain George Fleming pleads the case of an army wife,

"I have been unfortunate in losing Peter Young, by his taking a hearty draught of cold Water [dying]. I propose continuing her [Young's wife] still a Washerwoman belonging to the Company, as a small recompense for her long Service & late Husband's, in case she chooses."
Not only could women draw provisions if they performed laundry services, but they could charge for each piece they washed. The army did regulate prices when it believed women were overcharging. In 1780, officers at West Point, New York fixed laundry rates. The orders stated that
"the following Prices be paid for Washing; to the Women, who draw provisions, with their respective Companies; For a Shirt two Shillings; Woolen Breeches, Vest and Overalls, two Shillings, each; Linen Vest, and Breeches, one Shilling, each; Linen Overalls, one Shilling and Six Pence each; Stock, Stockings and Handkerchief, Six Pence each; the Women who wash for the Companies, will observes these regulations."

Overcharging soldiers for washing was a serious offense. In 1770, Sergeant John O'Neill made it clear that "those who will presume to Charge more than the price afore mentioned [one half-dollar per dozen articles] will immediately be ordered out of the Camp & not to be suffered to return." Although some officers feared laundresses may have extorted the soldiers, they still recognized the need for the services washing women provided and set about trying to regulate them to assure their good behavior and to prevent their becoming nuisances. In October of 1778 in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, officers were ordered to watch the laundresses to prevent them from washing clothes in the river the men used for drinking water. If any woman was guilty of such an action, she was to be placed in the guardhouse. And in July of 1779, orders of the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment forbade women to wash in front of the tents or to throw soap suds or any other refuse on the parade grounds.

Women also worked as cooks to assist the army and, perhaps, earn extra cash. When soldiers entered the army, they formed "messes." These messes were generally composed of six men who shared housekeeping chores, including getting water, chopping wood, and cooking meals. However, on occasion, women of the regiment earned extra money by cooking for men who could afford to pay them. Hannah Thomas earned wages for cooking for twelve men in the Quartermaster General’s Department during October 1780. In Fishkill in 1782, Sarah Parsell cooked for the wheelwrights, a Mrs. Creiger cooked for the blacksmiths, and Mrs. Lloyd cooked for the express riders. For 12 days of work done that January, Parsell and Creiger were paid 2 shillings per day. Lloyd worked from May through September at $10 per month.

The key to this clever arrangement was that the work of women freed up the men to soldier on. Richard Platt wrote to a Mr. Else,

"The [Quartermaster General] Having agreed, in consideration of the Wives of Hezekiah Gibson and Elihu Cary, cooking for each, for a mess of artificers [skilled tradesmen], which superseded the necessity of two men being employed on that Business, that one Ration should be allow'd, daily, to each of those women."
Women also worked as cooks to assist the armyOne should note, however, that in most of the examples, women cooking for the army were cooking for retainers to the camp, such as blacksmiths and wheelwrights, not for regular soldiers. Most often, soldiers did their own cooking, unless they could afford to pay someone else to do it, or unless a soldier’s wife was kind enough to do it for free. One example of a woman cooking for regular soldiers is that of Sarah Osborne, who followed her husband throughout the war. Osborne testified in a pension application that she washed for the soldiers, in addition to sewing and baking. She also remembered cooking behind the American line, one mile from the battle of Yorktown. She carried beef and bread to soldiers in the trenches, saying, "It would not do for the men to fight and starve too." Osborne recalled being in the habit of cooking for four soldiers, and she carried their breakfasts to them on the morning of Cornwallis's surrender. Osborne appears to have been able to draw rations for her services, but she does not mention receiving payment for cooking for the soldiers.

Another way for women to earn money and rations with the Continental army was through nursing. The army preferred female nurses to male ones, not only because nursing the sick has traditionally been a female responsibility, but also because every woman nursing meant one more man freed for fighting in the line. Therefore, commanders desired to hire women to perform the difficult tasks of nursing. Individuals who would care for the sick were in constant demand and short supply throughout the war. Although a woman serving as a nurse could hope to receive regular pay and retain a job throughout the war, the job brought with it hazards. Exposure to deadly diseases such as smallpox and all manner of camp fevers; in addition to being relegated to the dirtiest jobs connected to the medical profession. Officers therefore alternately bribed and threatened women to take up nursing. They promised full rations and an allowance for volunteer nurses or threatened to withhold rations from women who refused to volunteer.

A Congressional resolution of July 27, 1775 allowed one nurse for every ten patients in Continental hospitals. The Congress allowed two dollars per month as a salary for these nurses, though matrons (women who supervised nurses and acted as liaisons to surgeons) were allotted four dollars per month. In 1776, Congress raised nurses’ pay to four dollars per month, and in 1777, to eight dollars per month, possibly in an attempt to entice more women into nursing or to retain nurses dissatisfied with their jobs. Despite Congressional efforts to increase the number of female nurses for the army, there remained a shortage throughout the war. Regiments constantly sought women to nurse their sick and wounded.

The General Hospital in Massachusetts needed nurses for Cambridge and Roxbury in the spring of 1776. Advertisements promised preference to Boston and Charlestown women. A few months later in Williamsburg, the Virginia Gazette advertised a request for nurses. In July of 1776, Nathanael Greene wrote:

"The sick Being Numerous in the Hospital And But few Women Nurses to be Had, the Regimental Surgeon must Report the Number Necessary for the sick of the Regt and the colonels are Requested to supply accordingly."

Indeed, the need for nurses was so great that commanding officers, in their eagerness to procure them, sometimes overlooked suspicious circumstances in order to obtain women for nursing. In April of 1777, General Israel Putnam questioned a woman named Elisabeth Brewer after she left British-occupied New Brunswick, New Jersey. Putnam wrote to Governor William Livingston that Brewer

" . . . has an Inclination of entering the Hospital as a Nurse; in which employment she has been before employ'd at this place, and the Surgeon giving her a good Character, I have that purpose to detain her here for that purpose—If you have any Objections and will let me know, I will send her Immediately to you."
Apparently, Brewer was permitted to take up nursing duties with Putnam's units. The fact that she had arrived from a British-held town did not cast enough suspicion on her to prevent the army from using her skills. Perhaps Putnam should have inquired more carefully into Brewer’s background and motives, for in June 1777, Brewer was found guilty of espionage. Fortunately for the Continental Army responsible patriot nurses also answered the call. In July of 1776, orders for the Pennsylvania battalions at Ticonderoga stated that one woman be chosen from each company to go to the hospital at Fort George to nurse the sick. Returns for the hospital at Albany in July 1777 record nine female nurses. In 1778, Washington ordered his regimental commanders to employ as many nurses as possible to aid regimental surgeons. In March 1780, an Albany hospital provided provisions for female nurses and their children, as well as for female and child patients. Nurses Rachel Clement (with two children) and Mary DeCamp (with one child) received two rations each, while Mrs. Perkins (with three children) and Sarah Lancaster (with one child) received one ration each. Nurses working there who were without children received one ration each.

Nurses' duties were generally related to keeping the hospital and its patients clean. The "Rules and Directions for the better regulation of the military Hospital of the United States" described nurses' duties. They must stay clean and sober, empty chamber pots as soon as possible after use, wash new patients, wash the hands and faces of old patients, comb patients' hair daily, change linen, sweep out the hospital, sprinkle the wards with vinegar (as a disinfectant) three to four times a day, and deliver dead patients' belongings to the ward master. Nurses were forbidden to be absent without the permission of their supervising physicians, surgeons, or matrons.

Women provided all of the above services to the army, content to do so while remaining within their traditional female role. There were some women, however, who chose to break out of traditional gender roles and defend their country by taking up arms against the enemy. A few examples exist of women who, by virtue of circumstances, fought the enemy as women. There were also women who concealed their sex and joined the army disguised as men.

Controversy exists over how exactly women participated in the war as combatants. Many have heard stories of "Molly Pitcher," who attended the cannon of her fallen husband. Some scholars believe "Molly Pitcher" to be a generic term for all women of the army who may have assisted soldiers in this way. Direct evidence exists of at least two women who did perform such duties—Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley and Margaret Cochran Corbin.

Mary McCauley followed the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. Her husband, John, was an artillery man. During the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, Mary hauled water to the cannon so the sponger could swab out the barrel. John collapsed during the battle, either because of a wound or the extreme heat of the day, and Mary immediately took his place at the cannon. She assisted in firing it with the rest of the crew for the remainder of the battle.

"Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, June 1778," engraved by J. C. Armytage after a painting by Alonzo Chappel, ca. 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.Margaret Corbin was the wife of John Corbin, an artillery man, who was killed in the battle of Fort Washington in November 1776. Margaret stepped up to fill her husband’s place at the cannon, assisting in sponging and loading. Margaret was wounded by grape shot in the arm and the chest, and as a result was disabled for the rest of her life. She was an original member of the Invalid Regiment that Congress created in 1777 to care for disabled soldiers. In 1779, Corbin was granted a stipend of $30 and a lifelong pension of half a soldier's pay. She was the first American woman to receive a disabled veteran's pension.

Other women served in the war by passing themselves off as men. Deborah Sampson Gannet and Anna Maria Lane fought with Washington’s army dressed as male soldiers. Sampson was born in 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts. She enlisted in 1782 with Captain George Webb’s Company of the 4th Massachusetts, passing as Robert Shurtleff. Sampson performed admirably, achieving the rank of corporal, fighting in the battle of White Plains, and sustaining injuries twice in the service of her country. Upon discovery of her sex, she was honorably discharged and later granted a pension for her services. The Massachusetts legislature declared, "that the Said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier." As compensation, the legislature awarded her $4 per month, commencing from January 1, 1803. In 1816, the legislature increased her pension to $6.40 per month and, in 1819, to $8.00 per month. Sampson spoke about her wartime experiences as a circuit lecturer. She recalled that she enlisted because she wanted to avenge all the wrongful deaths of colonists by British soldiers. Though she appeased those who would call her unfeminine by saying, "I indeed recollect it [her enlistment] as a foible, and error and presumption,” she did “recollect it with a kind of satisfaction." Despite her experiences, or perhaps because of them, Sampson went on to praise motherhood and encourage women to raise children and leave wars and politics to men.

Anna Maria Lane was another woman who was not content to leave such affairs to men. Lane most likely married her husband, John, before 1776, when he enlisted in the Connecticut line under General Israel Putnam. Lane accompanied her husband, though it is unclear if she did so as a woman of the army or a disguised soldier. By the Battle of Germantown, however, she was attired in men’s clothing. According to the Virginia General Assembly, Lane, "in the revolutionary war, in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military services, and received a severe wound at the battle of Germantown." After the war, Lane and her husband relocated to Virginia. John served in the Public Guard, and both were permitted to draw pensions for their service. History knows of two other women who fought for their country. One, Sally St. Clare, was a Creole girl who lost her life in the war, and the other is known only as "Samuel Gay," discovered and discharged for being a woman. One can only theorize about others who may have masqueraded as men in the service of their country and remained successfully undetected.

Women who offered their services to the army made a difficult decision. They chose to give up the security of home and embark on a journey that offered discomfort, hardship, and danger. They worked hard to make a living for themselves and their families, in addition to supporting the army and its cause. Some even broke traditional gender roles in order to serve their country. They worked just as hard and suffered just as much as the men they worked beside. Despite Abigail Adams’s famous plea to "remember the ladies," many of the contributions of Revolutionary War era women have been forgotten. It is only appropriate now to remember their courage and sacrifice, honoring them as well as the fighting men they supported.

This article is excerpted from a Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter article written by Kaia Danyluk. Kaia is a graduate of the College and William and Mary and former member of the interpretive staff at the Military Encampment.