A little recognized fact of the American Revolution was the contribution – indeed, the critical needs fulfilled – by women during the American Revolution. They acted as cooks, maids, laundresses, water bearers and seamstresses for the always-moving Patriot army in order to free up the Minutemen to fight, and they were the bulk of George Washington’s famous spy network because they also were employed by the British to cook and clean. They eavesdropped on British conversations regarding troop movements, battle plans, shortages and resupply efforts and then got the information back to Washington.
In fact, the war could not have progressed without the efforts of the women of the Revolution.
Many acted as nurses taking care of sick and wounded soldiers. The surgeons would perform the skilled surgeries, but it was the female nurses who provided the post-op care, did the feeding and bathing and sanitary functions for these soldiers. In fact, it was female nurses who often created inventions and processes to help care for their patients. These included ways to keep their patients more comfortable and recover more rapidly, including stone hot water bottles, different sizes of feeding cups depending on the dexterity of the patient, wheelchairs and combination lamp/food-warmers. They even came up with a highly nutritious food called “pap”: oatmeal cooked in milk which would then be strained and had egg yolks, butter and orange flavor added. Another innovation was beef juice for the protein content. Think of our beef broth or bouillon today. The risk was high, however, and many died taking care of the sick. (www.historyofmassachusetts.org) Remember that there was a small pox epidemic raging through the country during the American Revolution and more people died of this than battle wounds.
“Although most women were noncombatants, they still suffered the same consequences of war as the militia. Those who struggled to maintain their homesteads in the absence of their husbands and sons as fighting raged nearby confronted the real threat of violence. Rape by the enemy troops was always a possibility as well as having their homes looted and burned to the ground.” www.womenhistoryblog.com
Some women 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. It had to do with attrition. Many soldiers would leave to take care of their families. General Washington couldn’t afford to lose men because of their family needs, but neither could he afford to feed every hungry mouth that sought assistance from the army, so it was a delicate balancing act. Throughout the war, destitute civilians fled to the army for safety and food even though the army could barely provision its own troops. www.history.org
Such was the influx of people to the army that camp commanders called for continual reports detailing how many women they had, their marital status, their health and the duties they performed to ensure that only those who were essential to the army drew provisions.
Even wives of high-ranking Revolutionary soldiers – such as Martha Washington – visited camps frequently to help wherever they could, even if it was more of a symbolic gesture providing motivation and spiritual comfort, a message of “we’re all in this together.” In fact, Martha Washington was at Valley Forge for much of that fateful winter (see earlier story about Martha and her contributions to the war effort) nursing troops and cooking meals.
Other women at home running the homesteads supplied the provisions needed by the army as it meandered from battle to battle. So successful was the effort to provide for the militia that the British began burning homes and crops to the ground and slaughtering farm animals as they moved through an area to keep the provisions out of Patriot hands. Without the efforts of the populace supporting them, the American Revolution would have had a very different outcome.
It is conservatively estimated that 3% of camp populations were women, but it fluctuated greatly depending on the area the army was in. As a working camp follower, a woman was paid a small wage and was given a half-ration of whatever food had been procured. The nurse corps tried to employ one nurse for every ten sick or wounded soldiers. They began with pay of $2 per month and, by 1777, were paid $8 per month and a whole daily ration. That is, if George Washington could get Congress to provide the funds for paying the army, which was another iffy proposition. Even George Washington had a do-nothing congress!