With great anticipation, a large area behind the $50 million American Revolution Museum at Yorktown opens shortly as a reproduced army camp, complete with female interpreters. They cooked, cleaned and cared for the troops. The following excerpt from Holly A. Mayer’s “Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution,” introduces the different types of camp followers and the services they provided the army.
–Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
“In fostering the image of a successful republican, volunteer army, both contemporaries and later historians tended to overlook or dismiss camp followers. Many equated ‘camp follower’ with ‘whore.’ Even [when historians] were not quite so derogatory, they saw such a being as part of the lower orders that did not seem representative of or equal to the ideal of the American citizen.
“They were not officially in the army [as] they made no commissioning or enlistment vows. What kept them with the army was their desire to be near loved ones, to support themselves, and in some cases to share in the adventure.
“The lives of female followers were particularly illustrative of the hardships and hazards of attaching oneself to the military. Carrying babes in their arms and their household goods on their backs, these women trudged after the men and armies that gave them work and bread. They cooked the food, did the wash, mended clothing, took care of the sick and wounded, helped their fellow women, lay with men, and then bore and raised their children.”
“This diverse company encompassed both patriots who embraced the cause of independence, and leeches for personal gain. A few prostitutes and scavengers trailed after the army, but family members, servants and authorized civilians outnumbered them by far. Article 23 in Section XIII of the 1776 American Articles of War provided a definition of camp followers: ‘all sutlers and retainers to a camp, and all persons whatsoever serving with the armies of the United States.'”
“Sutlers were merchants or traders permitted to sell provisions to the troops. Whether self-employed peddlers or representatives of some of America’s bigger mercantile concerns, [they] saw opportunity beckon as early as the spring of 1775 when New England militia units camped around Boston. They carted their goods in and set up shop. Military commanders tried to prevent problems by permitting only a select few merchants to sell their goods within the army’s lines.
“Retainers followed the army because of personal inclination, pleasure or the possibility of provisions and paying positions. They included women, children and servants. By attaching themselves to officers or soldiers, retainers helped form domestic units, families or circles of intimates within the broader military community. Most could be labeled attendants. A few volunteers were men who just preferred to fight as independents, but most planned to join the service. After presenting their petitions for officer’s appointments at headquarters, they socialized and even fought side-by- side with the officers and units they wished to join as they awaited word on their commissions. They could have returned home to await the answer, but volunteers generally were men who preferred action in the interim.”
“Finally, civilian employees working in or affiliated with the military’s staff departments received the designation ‘persons serving with the armies.’ They worked in the public service, often maintained at public expense. Their work facilitated army operations and released soldiers from noncombatant duties. They [were] deputies, clerks, conductors, wagoners, artificers, nurses, and laborers.
“All of these people helped create the Continental Community [as] a society made unique by its American social, political and military origins. As long as there have been armies, there have been camp followers. They are a military tradition.
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