Big Idea 4: A Women's War
The Revolutionary War affected the lives of women in many ways. Leading up to the war, women participated in boycotts and protests. During the war, women continued to help the war effort in important ways, such as maintaining their homes and communities, making military supplies, following the army, and even fighting in battle. After the war, they navigated and tried to influence what revolutionary ideals meant for them in their newly independent states and then new nation. While challenges and opportunities existed for all women, however, their experiences often differed due to their social status, education, location, loyalties, religion, race, and more.
Women at Home
When the Revolutionary War began, many women — free, indentured, and enslaved — saw their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons head off to war, some for a few months, some for years. Because work still needed to be done, women took on a range of roles traditionally reserved for men. Women took on additional tasks as “deputy husbands,” such as running a farm, managing finances, making house repairs, chopping wood, and hunting. In addition, women used their own skills to assist the armies by sewing clothing, raising money, producing food, and making military supplies. As armies marched through their communities, women were often forced to house soldiers — friend and foe — in their homes, which meant taking care of the soldiers' food and supplies, in addition to their own family’s needs. Holding different beliefs from other members of their communities could make life particularly difficult for women at home.
Loyalist women often faced scorn from their neighbors, which added extra worries for them. They were often excluded from social circles and were victims of robbery and property damage. Some Loyalist women were even forced to flee their homes. Quaker women also experienced hostility because supporters of the Revolution considered their desire to stay out of the war as support for the British.
Some women experienced violence when enemy armies raided their homes and communities. Artist Don Troiani’s Raiders of the Mohawk Valley illustrates the aftermath of a raid against an American settlement on the Mohawk River, in what is today central New York. Loyalists and British-allied Native Americans targeted this area because of its Revolutionary sympathies. Most of the nearly 700 people (over half of them children) who lived in the community — over half of them children — fled to local forts after receiving an early warning of the attack. But the British-allied soldiers destroyed houses, barns, and mills, and carried off hundreds of horses, hogs, cattle, sheep, and even people. In Troiani’s painting, the raiders transport both stolen goods and two captured women. When in the hands of the opposing army, women were often considered prisoners of war and taken to enemy camps. There, they may have been traded in a prisoner of war exchange and released. Others were forced to remain with the opposing army. In some cases, these women became targets of abuse.
Women at War
Some women were forced away from their homes during the war, and others remained home and took on more responsibilities, but some willingly left. Many chose to follow a male relative to the army and provided services to the troops like doing laundry or nursing, in exchange for food, pay, and the relative safety of being near their loved one and the military. Some women, unexpectedly or on purpose, ended up in the thick of the action!
Near the end of the war in 1782, a woman named Deborah Sampson dressed in men’s clothes and successfully enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtliff. This was her second attempt, as she had been quickly discovered on her first try. For two years, Sampson fought as part of the army’s light infantry, managing to keep her gender a secret. She was taller than the average soldier and claimed she was a teenager to avoid questions about her lack of facial hair. While in battle, Sampson suffered multiple wounds but refused to go to the doctor out of fear he would discover her secret. However, when she was hospitalized for an illness, a doctor identified Sampson as female. Soon after, she was honorably discharged from the army, a surprising outcome for a woman who had broken the rules to serve as a soldier.
Sampson went home to Massachusetts and married just a few years later. However, she did not forget her experiences in the war. She successfully petitioned the state government for pay owed her as a soldier that she had not received because she had been discovered to be a woman. In 1797, she became a minor celebrity when a book about her time in the army, The Female Review, was printed. Sampson went on a speaking tour and performed military exercises on stage. She then sought a veteran’s pension — the first woman in U.S. history to do so — and succeeded, with the help of her friend Paul Revere.
Women also helped men on the battlefield, taking over when men were injured or killed. The two most famous of these women were Margaret Corbin at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776 and Mary Ludwig Hays at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778.
Margaret Corbin was in her twenties when she decided to follow her husband to war. She most likely served as a laundress to her husband’s company in the Continental Army, for which she was probably paid and drew half-rations in exchange for this labor. At the battle of Fort Washington, Corbin was bringing water to the soldiers when her husband, who had been working a cannon, was killed. As Hessian soldiers continued to attack the Continental Army, Corbin took her husband’s position at a cannon and continued to fight. Artist Don Troiani depicts what happened next in his painting Margaret Corbin, Fort Washington. Struck by three grapeshot, Corbin fell seriously injured in her arm, jaw, and chest. When the fort fell, the Hessians took her prisoner. However, she was treated by their doctors and survived, though she was never able to use her left arm again. After her release from captivity, Corbin became the first woman pensioner of the United States — before Deborah Sampson — when the Continental Congress awarded her soldier’s half-pay for life. Corbin, who passed away in 1800, is buried near the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Mary Ludwig Hays also participated in battle. Hays was one of hundreds of women and children who marched with the Continental Army across New Jersey after leaving Valley Forge in 1778. In the sweltering heat of the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, Hays, the wife of artilleryman William Hays, did something unusual for a woman following the army: she fought. Hays served with her husband’s cannon crew that day. One soldier remembered seeing a woman, likely Hays, take her husband’s place at a cannon in the middle of the battle. Don Troiani highlights this moment in the painting Molly Pitcher, Battle of Monmouth, 1778. The story of “Molly Pitcher” at Monmouth is now an American legend, though the tale is based on reality. Mary Ludwig Hays likely carried water at the battle, probably in a bucket rather than a pitcher, as part of her husband’s cannon crew. In 1822, Pennsylvania awarded Hays (then known as Mary Hays McCauley) a pension for her service.
Did You Know?
Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier with the Continental Army, witnessed Mary Ludwig Hays nearly struck by a cannonball at the Battle of Monmouth. “A woman whose husband belonged to the Artillery, and who was attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with 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.”
Before the moments that brought them fame on the battlefield, both Margaret Corbin and Mary Hays had traveled with the army as camp followers. Both the Continental Army and the British Army included thousands of women and children camp followers, typically the wives and children of soldiers. Statistics show that for the American Army there was at least 1 woman to every 24 soldiers. For the Hessians, the German soldiers who served alongside the British Army, the ratio was 1 to 15. For the British Army itself, the ratio at one point was 1 woman to every 8 soldiers.
To officially “belong” to the army, a follower had to work to “earn her bread.” These women — and their children — performed a variety of duties. One of the most common and important professions for a camp follower was laundering soldiers’ uniforms. Since soldiers did not often have the time to clean their bodies, having laundered uniforms helped to keep soldiers cleaner and healthier than they otherwise might have been. In addition, clean uniforms also boosted morale and helped the soldiers look professional.
Camp followers also became nurses. Today, soldiers fighting on the front lines often have rapid access to medical care, but during the Revolutionary War, there were few established hospitals and doctors. Camp followers nursed the wounded and cared for the sick, working alongside the few army doctors. Camp followers also served as merchants, called “sutlers.” Unless the army was camped near a town’s market, there was no easy way to get food and supplies, besides what was provided in their rations. Sutlers were licensed by an army to sell all manner of things to the soldiers, including soap, food, coffee, and often alcohol. Sutlers often produced their own products like baked goods, fruits, and vegetables. Others were middlemen who purchased goods and then resold them to soldiers. Camp followers also supported the army by repairing clothing and other fabric goods, carrying supplies, and sometimes cooking food. They were so critical to the functioning of each army that they were considered a formal part of the armies and were issued food rations and pay for their work.
Camp followers endured the same conditions as male soldiers. They marched long distances alongside the army and baggage. They worked long hours and had little rest or leisure time, often sleeping outside or in crowded tents. Many women brought their children with them — or bore new ones — and had to watch and feed them while doing work for the army. Following the British and Hessian surrender at Saratoga, an eyewitness observed that the British Army included “great numbers of women, who seemed to be the beasts of burthen, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double.” Don Troiani’s painting, Brunswick Camp Follower, 1777, features a German female camp follower and her child during the hardships of that campaign, closely resembling that observer’s description.
Why Follow the Army?
Why would a woman choose to follow the army and experience such harsh conditions? Women became camp followers for various reasons. Many women did not want to part with their husbands and joining the army was the best way to keep them close. Others were poor and saw the army as a way to earn income for themselves and their children. Wives of enlisted soldiers had few options for employment or education on their own. Other women were frightened by the uncertainty of war and following their husbands and the army seemed to offer more safety and security than remaining at home.
For British and German women who needed their husbands’ income for survival, accompanying their husbands to America might have been their only option. When a soldier fought in North America, their pay was sent back to their families across the Atlantic Ocean. This meant the money often took a long time to arrive, if it arrived at all. Without that income, a woman and her children could face homelessness and starvation. Some women saw following the army as their best choice for survival.
Women who followed the army did not keep many diaries of their experiences, but their presence is recorded in accounts of rations drawn by soldiers, general orders issued to the army, and the written memories of male soldiers who fought in the war. Some followers, like Sarah Osborn, shared their experiences when they applied for pensions after the war. Describing her role at the Siege of Yorktown, Osborn stated she “took her stand just back of the American tents, about a mile from the town, and busied herself washing, mending, and cooking for the soldiers, in which she was assisted by the other females.”
Camp Followers of African Descent
There are several records of women of African descent who followed the Continental Army. Free women of African descent could follow the army only if their husbands were soldiers or if they were hired by an officer to do work. Some officers of the Continental Army owned enslaved people and brought them on campaign as servants. Enslaved women could not legally follow the army without the permission of their owners. Even still, some enslaved people of African descent saw the Continental Army as a path to freedom. An enslaved woman named Sarah, for example, followed the 1st Maryland Regiment. She may have done so to gain her freedom. Based on a runaway ad, Sarah claimed to be the wife of a soldier and one officer accused her of saying she was free even though the officer said that she was still enslaved. It is unknown if Sarah ever gained her freedom. Hannah Till, an enslaved woman of African descent, served as one of George Washington’s cooks. She had been loaned to Washington by her owner, but it was agreed that she could work to earn her freedom. She did, in 1778, and continued to serve with Washington — earning pay — for almost the entirety of the war.
Women camp followers of African descent were also present in the British Army. In 1775, during the first year of the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, made an important announcement. He proclaimed that any enslaved man owned by a “rebel” who came to fight for the British would be given their freedom. Hearing this news, men, women, and children of African descent traveled to the British in large numbers. The number of freedom seekers, including women, greatly increased after British commander Sir Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation in 1779, offering protection to any enslaved person owned by a “rebel” that would join the British. In April of 1781, Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old woman at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, took advantage of an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom. Deborah escaped on a British ship with sixteen other enslaved people and became a camp follower with the British army.
Escaping to the British had risks, rewards, and challenges. It meant leaving behind the familiar, including their families and communities, for uncertain opportunities and treatment. Women of African descent who joined the British Army worked as servants for officers, cared for the wounded, and performed manual labor. As in the Continental Army camps, they often worked in an environment that included people who were still enslaved. When the war in the South turned against the British, many freedom-seeking people were left behind and captured back into slavery. Others, like Deborah, left on British ships to Canada or England as free people. Their bold gamble had paid off, but they faced ongoing hardships as they fought against racial prejudice in the places where they settled.
Native American Women
During the war, Native Americans were forced to choose the best strategy for protecting their homes, land, and cultures. Native American women, often well-respected members of and leaders in their societies, took part in the deliberations. Molly Brant, for example, played an important diplomatic role for the Mohawk Nation. She helped her brother, Joseph, negotiate with the other Haudenosaunee nations (which Europeans called the Iroquois Confederacy) to support the British. But the war threatened to bring changes to politically active and socially powerful Native American women’s lives. The greater their contact with Europeans and American colonists became and the more powerful either group grew, the more likely it was that their cultural practices — like generally excluding women from political decision-making — would shape Native American communities.
Nevertheless, Native American women made decisions to get involved in the war efforts. According to oral tradition, an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper, for example, joined the Continental Army at Valley Forge and taught soldiers how to properly cook white corn. Sometimes their service included fighting in battle. In his painting The Oneida at the Battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777, artist Don Troiani shows Tyonajanegen (also known as Two Kettles Together) fighting alongside her husband, war captain Thawengarakwen (Honyery Doxtater) in the thick woods of the Mohawk River Valley. Thawengarakwen can be seen fighting in close quarters, wielding a tomahawk, while his wife Tyonajanegen reloads his firearm for him. Native American women, like others, exhibited bravery and faced danger as they navigated the Revolutionary War.
The Revolutionary War presented opportunities and challenges for women. Some were forced to take on new roles, carrying the burden of running homes and businesses without the labor of the men they usually worked alongside. It was hard, but sometimes empowering. Other women risked seeing their power reduced, but made decisions to try to find the best way forward in a challenging and changing time. And some women sought to take control over their lives, using the chaos of the time and military decisions to their advantage.
Don Troiani’s paintings of women in wartime remind us that women played active roles in the Revolutionary War. As you explore these paintings and the stories behind them, consider what these women may have experienced, how and why we do (or do not) know their stories well, and what other stories there may be to dig into to learn more about women in the Revolutionary War.