Daughters of the Regiment

There was a wonderful story in the in the New York Times on August 5th called “Women at War” by C. K. Larson about the activities that women on both sides undertook in fighting the American Civil War. Larson reminded us that these Civil War women were doing what Continental Army women had done in the past.

Indeed. During the American Revolution, while it is true that women usually stayed behind and provided for their families while their husbands, brothers, and sons were off fighting the British, there were those who played more active roles. A few disguised themselves as men and fought on the battlefields. The record on the right below shows that there was a woman soldier at the Peekskill barracks.
Other women were camp followers. These women, often with children, traveled with the armies—American, British, and Hessian—performing tasks such as cooking, sewing, laundering, and nursing the sick and injured.

Needless to say, it is difficult to find writings by camp followers. The best sources are depositions such as the one given by Sarah Matthews Osborn. Sarah accompanied her husband when he re-enlisted and was stationed at West Point in the winter of 1780. In the deposition applying for her husband’s pension (in 1837) she said that she “lived at Lieutenant Foot’s, who kept a boarding house,” and that she “was employed in washing and sewing for the soldiers.” She and her husband moved south with the army and were part of the decisive battle at Yorktown in 1781. Her statement continues.

Deponent took her stand just back of the American tents, say 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; some men washed their own clothing. … deponent cooked and carried in beef, and bread, and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment. On one occasion when deponent was thus employed carrying in provisions, she met General Washington, who asked her if she “was not afraid of the cannonballs?” She replied … that “It would not do for the men to fight and starve too.” …

[A]ll at once the officers hurrahed and swung their hats, and deponent asked them, “What is the matter now?”
One of them replied, “Are not you soldier enough to know what it means?”
Deponent replied, “No.”
They then replied, “The British have surrendered.”
Deponent, having provisions ready, carried the same down to the entrenchments that morning, and four of the soldiers whom she was in the habit of cooking for ate their breakfasts.

I loved the way the Times story ended. “Whatever duties they performed, the Civil War women who valiantly served their causes distinguished themselves from men in one major way: They were all volunteers, as has been every woman who ever enrolled in military service in our nation’s history.”

Osborn’s deposition is from In the Words of Women, pages 153-54.

posted August 9th, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Battles, Camp followers, Military Service, Patriots


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