“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.” Thus, wrote General George Washington on August 4, 1777.
The General would find this easier to recommend than to actually do, given the number of “necessary” tasks performed by women for the army. These included cooking, sewing, mending, washing clothes, and nursing the sick and wounded. Doing this work freed the men for their soldier duties. And commanders came to realize that driving out these women, who were often wives, daughters or mothers of soldiers, could lead to the loss of good men. In return for their labors, women traveling with the army sought safety, shelter and food. Over the course of the American Revolution, thousands of women, along with many children, trailed behind the troops. Generally, it was a relationship that worked. These women needed the army, and the army needed them.
Commanders periodically called for reports on the number of women with a unit, their marital status, and duties performed. It was not uncommon for them to be given from one-quarter to one full ration, depending on the tasks performed. Laundresses also could charge for each piece of clothing they washed.
Who were these women of the army?
Maria Cronkite, the wife of a fifer in the 1st New York Regiment, accompanied her husband into service as a washerwomen for the officers. Even though she gave birth to several children during this time, she remained with the army until the close of the war when her husband was discharged.
Mary Waters, a native of Dublin who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1766, became a nurse when the war broke out. She worked closely with physician Benjamin Rush, who praised her professionalism and deference to the doctors.
Sarah Osborn (later Sarah Benjamin) traveled with her soldier husband’s 3rd New York Regiment from 1780 to 1783 washing, sewing and baking for him and his comrades. She witnessed firsthand the siege and British surrender at Yorktown, carrying beef, bread and coffee to the men in the entrenchments.
Mary Ludwig Hays (later Mary McCauley) followed her husband, John, with the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment. He was an artillery man, and during the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1778, Mary hauled water so the sponger could swab out the cannon barrel. When her husband collapsed, Mary took his place, firing the cannon with the rest of the crew for the remainder of the battle. Some historians believe she inspired the Molly Pitcher story.
Margaret Corbin, wife of artillery man John Corbin, also stepped in to man the cannon when her husband was killed during the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776. Margaret was herself wounded in the arm and chest. In 1779, Margaret was granted a stipend of $30 and a lifelong pension of half a soldier’s pay, becoming the first American woman to receive a disabled veteran’s pension.
Not all of these courageous women were wives of the common soldier. Martha Washington traveled every year to winter quarters with her husband. At Valley Forge she arrived with needed supplies from Mount Vernon, and throughout the war became indispensable as a nurse and comfort to Washington and his men. A witness to her work later wrote, “I never in my life knew a woman so busy from early morning until late at night as was Lady Washington, providing comfort for the sick soldiers.”
Many women sacrificed the comforts and safety of home to follow the American army into war. They labored to support themselves and their families, while making significant contributions to the Revolutionary War effort.
Who is your favorite woman of the Revolutionary army? Share their story with us.