||On the Strength:
and Children of the British Army
A British Regiment, having the more typical ten companies,
was allowed six women to each company for embarkation, or about one woman for every ten men.
There was no single, hard
and fast proportion of women allowed to accompany a regiment on foreign serve. The ratio varied, and can only be determined
for certain by finding the orders given to each specific regiment.
More importantly, it is not necessarily true that the orders were followed.
The number of women and children with the
regiments generally exceeded that allowed in the embarkation orders. In explaining the discrepancies (assuming that the orders were at least sometimes enforced), we must remember
that the orders concern transportation, and do not address the number of women allowed to be with regiments after arrival
at their destination.
It is important to note that not all soldiers' wives chose to accompany their husbands to British
Columbia. We have no documentation of how many soldiers were married
but not accompanied by their wives. There
is clear evidence, however, that some wives remained in England, never attempting to journey to British Columbia.
a regiment went into an encampment or on campaign, orders were given regulating the number of women who could accompany it. The numbers given in orders for campaigning are usually lower than the total number of
women belonging to a given regiment. We can assume,
then, that only a portion of the women went into the field with the regiments, while the rest remained in the garrisons.
numbers of women allowed to accompany a regiment on campaign are usually found in orderly books, and are sometimes mistaken
for the total number of women that were accompanying a regiment. In fact, it is clear that regimental women and children continued to be provided for on the regimental accounts
even if they did not accompany their regiments into the field.
Married to a
We have referred to regimental women strictly
as wives of soldiers. This is because there is no reason to believe that the women of a regiment were anything but wives
of soldiers in that regiment. Unfortunately, it is just as difficult to prove that all of these women were married as it would be to prove that a
significant number were not. There is, however, considerable evidence to support the view that any woman who was considered a part of a regiment
was in fact married to a man in that regiment.
Records of general courts martial conducted by the British
Army contain many citations of women being defendants or witnesses, as well as numerous other references to women who were
involved with the army in one way or another. Among these women are many who belonged to regiments.
In all such cases examined to date, women who belonged to a regiment are clearly
stated as being wives of soldiers of the regiment. More extensive research into this collection of court records may reveal otherwise,
but all of the to date evidence from this source supports the conclusion that regimental women were army wives.
Widows and Orphans
woman's connection to a regiment was through marriage.
When a married soldier died, his widow and their children, as well as orphans,
were provided with passage back to the British Isles. It is also clear that, until they were able to make their way home, women who lost their husbands
were cared for by the respective regiments.
"When any casualties happen in a company, the Paymaster-sergeant
must take care to preserve the regimentals, that the succeeding recruit may be clothed in like manner with his brother soldier,
provided the soldier had not worn them 1 year; if he had, his wife or child should have them."
That this kind of consideration was given is illustrated
by a general order issued on June 5, 1776, which ordered regimental quartermasters to draw shoes and stockings from army stores
for widowed women and their children. In some cases, widows fared better than the basic provision of subsistence and
passage home. Regimental
commanders could provide additional accommodation if they wished.
Restrictions on Marriage
Since a soldier's marital status could have an effect on his ability to serve, and since his wife could become
a part of the regiment, it follows that the soldier's commanders would have some say over whether or not he should be allowed
to marry. While we do not find any evidence that a soldier could be forbidden to marry, we do find statements such as the following:
The Commanding Officers of companies should be desired to
prevent, as much as possible, the inconveniencies and ill consequences produced, by having too many soldiers married; for
their wives are in general so abandoned, as frequently occasion quarrels, drunkenness, diseases, and desertions; they involve
their husbands in debt; and too oft are the ruin and destruction of a soldier: it is therefore recommended, that the Non-commissioned
Officers avoid entering into such engagements, without consulting their Commanding Officer; and that they use their utmost
endeavours with the private men to prevent all such marriages as they think are detrimental to Her Majesty's service.
This passage sheds light on some of the problems that
could be introduced by imprudent marriages. Since these types of problems would ultimately affect the regiment, the
officers had a responsibility to attempt to influence their soldiers' marital choices. Bennett Cuthbertson, author of a popular military textbook,
devoted several paragraphs to the subject, which are here reproduced in their entirety.
Of the Marriage of Non-commission-officers, and Soldiers,
and the Methods for preventing improper ones as much as possible.
Officers being a sort of guardians to
the Men in their respective Companies, should use every means that prudence can suggest, to prevent the distress and ruin
which so often attends their contracting marriages with women, in every respect unfit for them.
The principal method by which they can hope to guard against so great an evil, is to fix a standing order, for no Non-commission-officer,
Drummer, or private man to marry without the consent of the Officer commanding the Company he belongs to, which he should
not grant on any account, until he has first had a strict enquiry made into the morals of the Woman, for whom the Soldier
proposes, and whether she is sufficiently known to be industrious, and able to earn her bread: if these circumstances appear
favourable, it will be right to give him leave, as honest, laborious Women are rather useful in a Company.
On the contrary, if he finds the woman's character infamous, and that she is notorious, for never having been accustomed to
honest industry (which too often is the case of those on whom the Soldiers fix their affections) he should by no means give
the least encouragement to a connection, which must, in a short time, inevitably destroy the ease and happiness of the Soldier,
to whom he should represent these matters in the plainest terms, and recommend it strongly to him, not to think of persevering
in a measure, which undoubtedly must hurt him in the esteem of his Officers, besides many other unsurmountable inconveniences:
if after such an admonition he is imprudent enough to marry, in justice he deserves a punishment for his folly and disobedience.
It will also be another expedient towards preventing improper marriages, if, upon the arrival of a Company
in a Town, application was made to the Minister of the Parish, to request he would not publish any Soldier's intended marriage
in his Church, without first receiving a certificate from the Officer commanding the Company of its being agreeable to him:
this is a piece of civility, few clergymen it is presumed, could reasonably object to, as an Officer can surely have no other
motive for anxiety in such a case, but merely the welfare of the Soldier, of which he must incontestably be allowed a cooler
judge than either of the parties desiring to be married, being uninfluenced by passions of any sort.
A Soldier marrying with proper consent should be indulged, as far as can be in the power of Officers to extend their favour,
whilst his behaviour and that of his Wife deserves it; but he who, contrary to all advice and order, will engage in a dishonourable
connection, exclusive of any punishment he may receive for such contempt and insolence, should as much as possible be discouraged,
by obliging him not only to mess, but lie in the quarters of the Company he belongs to, at the same time that his wife, is
prevented from partaking of any advantage either from his Pay or Quarters: this severity of course must soon expell her from
the Regiment, and be the certain means, of making other Soldiers cautious how they attempt such acts of disobedience.
For a soldier to be allowed to marry, it was expected that his future wife would be someone who could
"earn her bread." This was sensible for the woman, who could not be expected to subsist on her husband's meager pay
and the half-ration allotted by the crown, especially if children were expected. It was also sensible for the army,
to avoid the possibility of the soldier being distracted from his duty either by indebtedness or by his spouse's deviant behavior,
both of which often resulted from idleness.
Many employment options were open to a soldier's wife. Some
of the more frequently documented occupations are presented below and discussed in terms of the information that we find in
period military manuals, orderly books and other documents.
Women as Sutlers
SUTLER, in war, one who follows the army, and furnishes provisions for the troops. They pitch their
tents, or build their huts, in the rear of each regiment, and about head quarters.
The popular military
writers of the day documented that women were allowed to employ themselves in this role.
Unfortunately, we are not given the details of how this occupation was sustained,
that is, how the sutlers were to procure their wares, or the booths or tents from which to sell them. What is clear is that they were an integral part of the encampment
and of the military organization, and as such were subject to regulation:
No non-commissioned officer's or soldier's
wife is to suttle or sell liquors without permission; and leave will be granted to such as are particularly recommended
by commanding officers of companies, and who will pay due attention to all orders concerning them.
That no sutler offer to harbour any body in the line of the regiment without the Major's leave.
No more than one grand sutler and five petty ones will be allowed; and any sutler who refuses to change the men's money, or
ask reward, shall be drummed out of the camp.
We see from this that it was considered wise
to limit the number of sutlers (remember that the military texts usually contain recommendations, not regulations; regulations
of this nature were usually established locally and could vary), and control their activities through the necessity of permission. Permits would only be granted to women who had shown
that they would follow orders. Further,
the sutler was required to operate a sound business, and not to "harbour" soldiers.
All persons belonging to, or followers of the Army,
are forbid to sell spiritous liquors, excepting at the Regimental Canteens, one and only one of them is to be allowed for
each Regiment subject to the regulation of the Officer Commanding it; and as the appointment of the Sutler depends upon the
Commanding Officer of the Corps, it is expected that hence-forward they will be answerable for the sobriety of the Soldiers
under their Command, all other sources for Spiritous liquors but that of the Canteen, being effectually stopped up ...
The Commanding Officers of Corps not to allow their Sutlers to sell liquors to Soldiers, or any other persons who do not belong
to their respective Corps; Upon a conviction of a disobedience of this order, the liquors will be destroyed, and the delinquent
not to have leave to sell any in future.
Women belonging to the Army convicted of selling Spiritous liquors,
will be confined in the Provosts till there is an opportunity of sending them from hence.
In order to promote sobriety and safety, the
army established regimental canteens so that the dispensation of spirits could be controlled. To sell liquor more freely, soldiers' wives rented rooms and opened
shops. When the shops were ordered closed,
it appears that some women attempted to expand the canteens. In response, it was then ordered that only one canteen was allowed for each regiment, and only one sutler
allowed to operate it, although it was not specified whether the sutler could or could not employ others. Presumably, the regimental canteens were further regulated
to guard against drinking to excess because the soldiers found that they could drink more by visiting the canteens of other
regiments. To prevent this, it was required
that each canteen serve only its own regiment, with dire consequences for the sutler who failed to obey. Finally, all dram shops were required
to be licensed, regardless of who ran them. Also from the preceding orders, it would appear that a significant proportion
of the women who sold liquor illegally procured the cheapest product available, or perhaps made it themselves, thus explaining
the concern about the potentially dire effect on the health of soldiers.
In some cases, a female sutler enjoyed
a privilege that was typically not allowed to the army's women, and often not even allowed to junior officers:
No follower of the Army can be allowed
a Horse Except the Sutler of Each Regiment
None of the orders above pertains
to armies on campaign. We cannot say whether these women sutlers did, or were allowed to, ply their trade outside of garrisons and regular
Women as Nurses
Nurses were an integral part of the army medical system. As such, their duties were described
in detail by military writers of the period:
An experienced, careful woman
must be constantly employed to attend in the Regimental hospital, as a Nurse, whose wages should be paid, either by the Surgeon
when he has an * allowance for it, or from the savings of the sick Men's Pay; when neither of these will answer, it must be
a charge in the Non-effective account: an orderly Man, or more if necessary, should be appointed daily from the Companies,
in turn, to assist in the attendance of the sick.
* An allowance is made to the Surgeon of each Regiment, on
the Irish establishment of thirteen shillings and three-pence three farthings per month for a Nurse.
The Serjeant attending the
infirmary must keep an exact account of the pay of each ward; see it properly expended by the nurse, according to the Doctor's
directions; give receipts for coals, candles, and sheeting, and close the account every half week ...
No sick soldier can have his wife employed as one of the nurses; and if any of the nurses husbands are taken ill, such nurse
must be dismissed, or her pay discontinued till the recovery of her husband; but married men of good character, who live near
the infirmary, and who have careful wives, if they are taken ill, may be allowed to remain in their lodgings, at the discretion
of the Surgeon.
You [the regimental surgeon] are to appoint a head nurse (and the others
to be under her) and the greatest attention must be paid that she is of exceeding good character, sober, healthy, and experienced
in her duty, and in every other respect qualified for the employment.
regimental surgeon's mate] are to visit the sick twice a day, and, if necessity demands it, oftener, to see that the head
nurse and nurses of the infirmary keep their wards clean; that they behave themselves soberly and orderly, and give all necessary
attention to their patients; that their food is good and properly dressed, their pots, kettles, &c. free from copper as,
lest they endanger the health of the sick; you are to see that the food and medicines ordered consist of such only as were
directed by the surgeon, or in his absence by you.
If any nurse should be found out
of not having paid all due attendance to their patients and wards, and of keeping them as neat and clean as the nature of
the distempers admit of; to give them their diet regularly; to be particularly careful to see them take their medicines as
ordered them; to have their chamber-pots and close-stools early out of their wards, emptied and well washed before brought
back again; or who shall connive at, or be present at any faults or irregularities, which any of their patients may have committed;
or if they do not maintain good order and regularity throughout the infirmary; it is your duty to report the same to
the surgeon, that they may be dealt with accordingly.
Notice the emphasis on character and sobriety,
always requirements of a woman who was to hold a job with the army. The above extracts pertain to regimental hospitals,
for which we would expect only one or a few nurses. Service abroad, however, offered additional nursing opportunities in the
general hospitals of the various garrisons. Orderly books are replete with entries such as the following:
Whereas the soldiers' pay of eight pence
sterling per day included the cost of his food, the nurses earned six pence sterling in addition to a full ration (as opposed
to the half-ration normally allowed to army wives.) At this pay rate, a soldier's wife working as a nurse could earn
a respectable laborer's wage.
It is again recommended to send a good nurse from each
Regiment with the men, such as are encumbered with children, are by no means proper for that duty.
Overall, the available information demonstrates
that British soldiers' wives who were employed as nurses could earn a "respectable" wage. And, although such employment
was not assuredly steady, there were many opportunities for it during the course of the war, with some women maintaining continuing
employment in this capacity for extended periods.
The image of the washerwoman camp follower is
somewhat of a cliché, but evidence suggests that this may have been the most common occupation of regimental women who left
the garrison or cantonment to accompany the army during an active campaign. Order given shortly before the war began
suggests that, in some cases, washing may have been the only reason that women were allowed to be with the army in the field.
Most orders pertaining to laundresses address restrictions on where they could work in order to insure cleanliness and sanitation.
The Commanding Officer having
observed some women washing in the Barracks, which must be prejudicial both to the Rooms & the mens health therefore it
is his positive order that the women find some other place to do that Dirty work in, the Commanding Officer being Determined
to Drum out of the Corps such as are Guilty of so shameful a practice.
of Corps are not to suffer their Women, on any account, to Wash in the Streams near the Watering Places.
The Commanding Officers to be answerable that proper People are sent on Shore at Dartmouth to Superintend the Women and others
that may be left there to Wash, or for any other Purpose, who are to be accountable for all Depredations that may be Committed
on the houses or Estates of the Inhabitants.
One military text sheds some further light
on the logistics of the job, clarifies that this was a paid occupation, and mentions one of the improprieties that could
occur if finances were poorly managed:
As it often happens, that the
women who wash for the Soldiers are not punctually paid, by which means, they are unable to provide that quantity of soap
the linen must require, and thereby sooner rub it out, the Pay-Serjeants should be directed to stop for washing from those,
who are so idle to neglect a punctual Payment, and every week clear off the Women, who, by this method, can have no excuse
for not doing justice to the linen.
Another text mentions allowances made for
laundresses in camps, further clarifying that the function was an established part of army logistics:
Straw is to be allowed at the
rate of one truss to each paliass for two men, and to be changed every thirty-two days. Two trusses per company are
to be allowed for Batmen, or servants not soldiers; and three trusses per company or troop, for the three washerwomen, to
be changed every fifteen days, they not having paliasses.
An account book for one company of a British
battalion shows twelve soldiers having debits for washing by four women. All four washerwomen appear to have been married
to men in the company since their surnames match. There were over eighty men in this particular company, but only twelve
with laundry debts recorded. Perhaps, as described above, these men were the ones who could not be trusted to make a
There are a number of mentions of laundry and laundresses in court martial records.
In one trial, Sarah Serjeant of the 1st Regiment of Guards testified "She got up at Gun firing, & felt a pair of Breeches
by her Washing Tub." Other wording of the trial testimony suggests that the washtub was in the camp, but this is not
certain, nor is it apparent that the tub was in use at the time. In many trials, soldiers testified that they were doing
their own washing, but others refer to washerwomen. Perhaps soldiers did their own laundry some of the time or washed
only certain garments. One defendant's testimony does nothing to clarify the issue, and raises other questions.
A soldier charged with desertion testified that .
he went to the Waterside to
wash his Trouzers ... and on Serjeant Fouler finding fault with the Dirtiness of his Shirt, at Evening Roll calling, he got
a clean one from his Washing Woman...
A second soldier at the same trial gave
similar testimony, saying .
. his Shirt being dirty, he
went to his Washing Woman's and got a Clean one; which he put on and put the dirty one into his Pocket with an intention to
carry it to the Washing Woman ...
This makes it sound as though a "washing
woman" kept a stock of shirts, such that a soldier would bring in a dirty shirt and exchange it for a clean one, although
there is not enough evidence to be sure of this.
In April 1773, a fire destroyed the barracks of
the British fort at Crown Point, New York. A court of inquiry was held to determine the cause, and part of the testimony
focused on the activities of Jane Ross, wife of a soldier in the 26th Regiment of Foot. An officer of the 26th testified
that "it was the common talk" that the fire was caused by a soldier's wife boiling soap, a chimney fire having started in
the fireplace that Mrs. Ross had used to make soap the day before. Mrs. Ross testified that it was common practice to
make soap in the barracks rooms, that she was not aware of any orders prohibiting this practice, and that the chimney had
last been swept some five weeks prior to the fire.
lead us to expect women to have been employed in the making and altering of clothing for the men of their regiments.
Most new clothing had to be fitted after it was received by a unit. In addition, British regiments in America often
received cloth with which to make up campaign clothing such as leggings, overalls or trowsers, and linen breeches. When
the amount of alterations and repairs required for a regiment on service is considered, it is clear that there was much sewing
work to be done. But tailoring was typically a male profession, and Britain's extensive textile industry provided many
skilled tailors who had joined the army as soldiers. So predictable was the presence in the ranks of skilled tailors
that extensive information about their duties and the payments that they were to receive for their work can be found in orderly
books and published military writings. As a result, there are only a few known cases of women finding employment in
producing or altering clothing for their regiments. One such example is described by military writer Thomas Simes:
No Serjeant employed to buy
necessaries for the men shall receive any advantage thereby, except that of employing his wife to make up the linen; and even
that shall be absolutely at the choice of the men for whom it is bought, who shall be present at the buying, and see the money
The "necessaries" consisted of shirts,
stockings and shoes, all items that wore out frequently and were procured locally by companies when they were required.
The company captain was responsible for the procurement of these articles, but might delegate a sergeant to actually locate
and purchase them. Apparently, a privilege associated with this responsibility was an opportunity for the sergeant's
wife to realize some extra income.
Women could be pressed into service to assist the regimental
tailors on occasions when clothing had to be produced quickly.
In general, that it was not typical
for soldiers' wives to be employed making, altering or repairing clothing, but there were occasional opportunities for this
type of work.
There were other opportunities offered by the army for wives
of soldiers to earn an income, albeit on a temporary basis. Two examples are given in the following orders:
If the soldiers wives chuse
to go a Hay making Mr Fairbank will employ them.
As there are many women in the different
Corps, who understand making of hand turf, a list of their names to be given to the Barrack Mr General immediately, who will
employ them, and pay them for their work. Any woman who is capable of doing this work, and shall refuse, will be struck
off the provision list.
Here we have another case of required work
being mandatory for those qualified, such women being threatened with loss of ration privileges for noncompliance. "Hand
turf" was used for fuel.
Concurrently, though, there is record of a work assignment from which women
were specifically excluded. The following prohibition is found within orders regarding fighting fires in Boston early
in the war:
Women belonging to the Army
will not be allowed to be present at any fire that may happen.
It is not stated whether this ban
was due to the hazardous nature of fire fighting or as a precaution against plundering.
Occupations and Numbers
We have seen that there were many opportunities for "sober, industrious women" to earn a living with the army. This
information improves our overall image of the situation of the soldier's wife since we know that her husband's base pay was
not enough to subsist her, much less any children, even if a reasonable amount of food was provided by the army. What
we do not have are precise data on exactly how many women of a regiment were employed at any given time. The information
presented above, however, offers enough benchmarks to make some general assumptions.
We have seen
that it was typical for a regiment to have about eighty women, or eight per company, when on service in America, although
actual numbers varied widely. When on campaign, a number of women were allowed to follow each company; we will use four
as a typical figure, remembering that this number also varied widely. Our scant evidence suggests that the primary employment
of these women on campaign was as laundresses. If we assume that these women also worked as laundresses while in garrison,
then we have about one-half of a regiment's women in such employment.
We know that some women worked
as sutlers, and although it appears that only one was allowed to be so employed per regiment, others were sometimes permitted
to keep shops in the vicinity of an encampment. We have also seen opportunities for women to be nurses, and to occasionally
engage in required sewing work for the troops. All of these occupations might account for another five or ten women
in a typical regiment.
This leaves more than a third of the women of a regiment with no steady employment
from the army. Temporary opportunities occurred now and then, and certainly some wives were not "discreet active
women," but we still must suppose that some wives sought employment outside of the army. Continuing research may provide
evidence of this or at least uncover details about the proportion of regimental women who were actively employed.
Habitation in the Garrison
Most of the British army's time was spent in garrison. Usually, the regiments spent
winters in barracks or quarters, and summers in long-term encampments within or adjacent to towns. During these times
it was not necessary for the wives to "follow" their regiments, since the regiments were not going anywhere. This is
significant because it made it possible for women to find long-term housing in the towns. When a regiment was in garrison,
there was no need for the wives to stay in the encampments, even if it was allowed. For this reason, we must consider
habitation not in terms of barracks and encampments, but in terms of garrisons and campaigns.
writings of Bennett Cuthbertson provide some general insight on the consideration given to married soldiers and their wives
when a regiment was in garrison:
Those Soldiers who are married
to industrious sober women, that can earn near as much as their husband's pay, and can be depended on for eating well, may
be excused from messing with their Companies; but if on the contrary, the wives are idle, and trust to them for support, it
must be insisted on, that such men be appointed to a mess, to prevent their being starved, and to oblige the women to some
scheme of industry, by which alone it can be possible for their husbands to be allowed to co-habit with them: Officers should
frequently enquire into the married Soldiers' manner of living, that they may be enabled to prevent, in time, any ill consequences
which may arise, from the indulgence of permitting them to be with their wives.
Men and Drummers, who are married to sober, industrious women, may be indulged with liberty to lodge with them, provided the
lodgings are not too distant from the Quarters of the Company: the Non-commission-officers should inform themselves of such
Men's habitations, that they may inspect their manner of living, and know where to find them readily, when necessary; and
as it often happens, that several people on whom Soldiers are quartered, do not wish to have the trouble of them in their
houses, and therefore desire leave to lodge them out, it will be right, in that case, to exchange to those Billets, any of
the married Men who are deserving of indulgence, that they may receive the advantage of a lodging for their wives, without
expence; when an Officer has none of these to serve, he should insist on having an apartment hired, fit for the reception
of the Soldiers, and that will answer conveniently for messing, otherwise, he will do extremely wrong, in consenting to their
being removed from the original Billet.
When a regiment left its huts or barracks and moved
to an encampment, and especially if it went on campaign, accommodations had to be found for the women who were not able to
accompany it. One option was to allow them some of their own camp equipment:
Four Women Pr Compy of Companys of 50 &
8 Women Pr Compy of Companeys of 100 are Allowed to Embark with their Respective Regiments and to be Victualed According to
the Former Regulations the Remainder of the Women and Children of their Corps will be sent to York where Aproportion of provisions
& Qrs or Old Camp Equipage will be provided them.
Habitation on Campaign
When they were on campaign, we naturally assume that the women
of the regiment simply shared tenting with their husbands and whomever else was assigned to that tent. An August 1776
return of tent assignments for Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Wrottesley's Company of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards includes
assignments for five wives among the ninety-nine sergeants, corporals, drummers and private soldiers in the company.
There are eighteen tents specified, most having six people assigned to each, while a few sheltered only five. Five of
the tents included one woman among the six people assigned (excepting one which had only five people in total.) Clearly,
the women were considered among the total tentage requirements of the company. Orders were very specific about the woman's
place in a tent, directing that " If a woman in the tent she sleeps behind the pole in the apex." This would put
here at the extreme back of the tent, in the area also used to store equipment and food
Life on Campaign
Armies on campaign could, of course, find themselves in combat. The order of march was established to anticipate this,
arranging the soldiers so that they could be readily deployed to the best advantage in battle. Precautions were taken
to protect all of the assets of the army by keeping them together on the march. The fact that these "assets" included
both the women and the baggage does not mean that the women were considered as being baggage. Rather, common sense dictated
that everything of value be kept together - baggage, stores, horses, wagons, and all noncombatants including wounded
and invalid soldiers, wives, and children.
The Regulated Number of women Only to be with the Army
and they are on no account to be with or near the ranks of the Regt on the march
The reason for keeping such a tight rein on the followers
of the army was, of course, to prevent plundering. No amount of orders successfully stopped this constant problem.
Much has been written on this topic. Since we are concerned with wives of soldiers, and not with followers of the army
in general, we would like to be able to ascertain how much of the plundering was committed by army wives. Unfortunately,
there is no reliably accurate way to determine this. A few bits of information persuade us that soldiers' wives were
as opportunistic as anyone in taking advantage of chances to plunder.
It is Br Genl O'Hara's orders that the Officers Commanding
Companies cause an immediate Inspection of the Articles of Cloathing at present in the possession of the women in their Companies
& an exact Account taken thereof by the Pay Serjts after which their Necessaries are to be regularly examin'd at proper
opportunities; and every Article found in Addition thereto, Burnt at the Head of the Company; Except such as have been fairly
purchas'd on Application to the Commanding Officers & regularly added to their former List by the Serjts as above.
The Offrs are likewise order'd to make these Examinations at such times & in such a manner as to prevent these Women (Suppos'd
to be the Source of the most infamous Plunderg) from evading the purport of this order
Women to attend all Roll
Calls in the Rear of the Companies (Except such as are in the Service of Officers) any, and every one found absent, to be
immedy Whipp'd & Drumm'd out of the Brigade...
NB: The Women to attend all Punishments.
We also have the following mid-war quotation:
As to the plundering, there is nothing
so common as to see the soldiers wives, and other women, who follow the army, carrying each three or four silk gowns, fine
linen, etc. etc. which have been stolen by the soldiers from different houses in their march
If a woman was arrested for plundering, she was
subject to the same system of justice as a man, namely, trial by court martial. From May 1774 through May 1780, seven
women associated with the army were tried by general court martial for plundering, theft or receiving goods known to have
been stolen. Of these, two are known to have been wives of soldiers. It is not known how the remainder were affiliated
with the army, the court records referring to them as "followers of the army" or, in one case, "retainer to the camp."
Women in Battle
Following the army in any capacity always entailed the possibility of being exposed to battle. Although the women were
protected along with the other "assets" of the army, they were nevertheless at some degree of risk whenever there was combat.
This is illustrated by an event in Rhode Island during the siege in 1778. On August 19, a soldier of the 54th Regiment's
light infantry company was struck by a cannon ball, by which he .
. lost his leg ... as he was making shoes
in his tent with his wife & children about him.
When Burgoyne's beleaguered army was encamped
near Saratoga, the Baroness von Riedesel was with a group of officers' wives in a basement caring for wounded men. She
recounted the efforts of a soldier's wife who was undaunted by constant sniping fire:
Because we were badly
in need of water, we finally found the wife of one of the soldiers who was brave enough to go to the river to fetch some.
This was a thing nobody wanted to risk doing, because the enemy shot every man in the head who went near the river.
However, they did not hurt the woman out of respect for her sex, as they told us themselves
We have seen that women who accompanied the army
into the field might find themselves exposed to the dangers of battle. Life with the army, of course, entailed many
other hazards. A soldier of the 33rd Regiment of Foot recounted a unique event demonstrating that, while women might
eagerly accompany the troops to join in "foraging" from the inhabitants, they were not immune from being targeted by pranksters:
In this excursion,
among other plunder, we took a store of molasses, the hogsheads being rolled out and their heads knocked in, a soldier's wife
went to dip her camp-kettle in a hogshead of molasses and while she was stooping in order to fill her kettle, a soldier slipped
behind her and threw her into the hogshead: when she was hauled out, a bystander threw a parcel of feathers on her, which
adhering to the molasses, made her appear frightful enough. This little circumstance afforded us a good deal of amusement.
Perhaps more disturbing
than even the hazards of physical harm was that risk uniquely faced by those soldiers' wives who chose to follow the army,
the possibility of dismissal from the regiment. Few orders could more starkly illustrate the potentially subjective
basis upon which an army marriage could be disrupted than the following:
Soldiers Wife who is a disgrace to the Regiment she belongs to, for bad behaviour, and having incurred the displeasure of
the Commanding Officer of the Regiment; her name to be given in that she may be sent to England in the Fleet.
With the exception of being sent back to England, the types of hazards described above were generally typical of everyday
life during the period, and not particular to the army. The same is true of the domestic strife that an army wife might
encounter. Although we cannot accurately judge whether they were more or less frequent at the time, many of the social
problems with which we are familiar today were common problems of 19th Century society as well.
Two tragic incidents are recorded in the journals of British officers:
Carrigan of Ct Duffs compy [of the 40th Regiment of Foot] was stabb'd by Northington- being got upon his Wife - died in 1/2
NB Northington after stabbing Carrigan stabb'd
his wife & then stabb'd himself & attempted to throw himself again on his bayonet. (he wounded himself &
his wife slightly)130
A Soldier of the 43rd Regt
shot himself last night in the rear of the Camp. The discovery of a Connection he had with a married woman of the same Regiment,
appears to have been the cause of this rash action.
Notes on Clothing and Behavior
To develop a more accurate image of British army wives, some information
on their clothing and their behavior is of benefit. Descriptive information of this sort is rare, but a few passages
exist that provide some glimpses of these individuals.
An inventory of the belongings of Mrs. McQueen, wife
of a soldier in the 84th Royal Highland Emigrants, was made when she died:
3 short gown
1 pair stockings
1 pair shoes
As we might expect, army women often
possessed some items of soldiers' clothing. In fact, because a soldier owned his clothing, paid for by stoppages from
his wages, his widow was entitled to his regimental clothing or the value thereof:
When any casualties happen in a company,
the Paymaster-serjeant must take care to preserve the regimentals, that the succeeding recruit may be clothed in like manner
with his brother soldier, provided the soldier had not worn them 1 year; if he had, his wife or child should have them.
That an army widow might "inherit" regimental clothing
does not mean, of course, that a woman would necessarily wear such garments, selling them always being a potential source
of ready cash. There are, however, a few descriptions of women wearing cast-off uniform coats or other army clothing.
A contemporary writer used this analogy:
It looks like one of those drunken red-faced
old women, who follow a camp, and half of whose clothes are scoured regimentals.
The most obvious departure from the norm of the typical
army wife, of course, is Edes' focus upon what was likely a typical 18th Century military prison:
From this day to the 17th, a complicated
scene of oaths, curses, debauchery, and the most horrid blasphemy, were committed by the provost martial, his deputy and soldiers
who were our guard, soldier prisoners, and sundry soldier women confined for theft, &c. We had some of the vilest
women for our neighbors ever known, some placed over our heads, and some in rooms each side of us. They acted such scenes
as was shocking to nature, and they used language horrible to hear, as if it came from the very suburbs of hell.
Beyond the expected household duties
and child-rearing responsibilities, as well as the wage-earning occupations noted previously, a military text's mention of
another minor role at times fulfilled by the wives quite well illustrates that theme of ongoing service to their husbands
and to the communal well-being of the army itself:
When Soldiers are on Guard, their attendance must never
be dispensed with, even for the smallest time, except on some very extraordinary occasion, as they are always to be in readiness
to turn out with alertness on the shortest warning; the Rolls should therefore be frequently called, to ensure this point;
and that they may never have the least pretence for straggling from their Guards, the dinners of the batchelors should be
carried to them by their comrades, and that of the married men, by their wives.
Notes on Children
As noted earlier, the number of children recorded within the strength returns of a regiment was usually
at least equal to the number of women. Although we know far less about the children, their presence was clearly an accepted
part of military life. Several of the noted military writers of the day devoted text to them. Thomas Simes noted:
No soldiers must carry coals, or any other
thing, on their heads, when they have their regimental cloths or hat on; nor must they carry any children about the barrack-yard
Army children were exposed to many of the same hazards
as were faced by the women when in encampments, garrisons, and on board ship. Some were exposed to domestic distress
as well. Concurrently, however, they were also able to enjoy the pleasures of childhood. Archaeological excavations
of British hut sites in the New York City area recovered a number of playthings: "buzzers" made from lead discs with serrated
edges and holes for string through their centers; miniature pewter plates, cups, and platters; a doll; a tiny thimble; and
a miniature pewter broom.
And, the army made an effort to educate the children:
A Serjeant, or Corporal, whose sobriety,
honesty, and good conduct, can be depended upon, and who is capable to teach writing, reading, and arithmetic, should be employed
to act in the capacity of school-master, by whom soldiers and their children may be carefully instructed: a room or tent should
be appointed for that use; and it would be highly commendable if the Chaplain, or his deputy, would pay some attention to
the conduct of the school.
We cannot say whether such army schools were maintained
consistently during the war in America. An account kept by Rhode Island schoolmaster Joseph Rhodes includes an
entry for "Schooling Soldiers Children" in 1777, during the British occupation. This bit of information shows us not
only that army children were sent to school, but also that the schools were not always maintained by the army itself.
In another case, a well-educated British soldier "was employed by a serjeant and his wife to teach their son writing and arithmetic."
This article is an overview intended to stimulate further research into the lives of the wives of the common British soldiers.
As such, it is in no way comprehensive. It represents the assimilation of disparate notes accumulated during research
on other aspects of the British Army. Every topic covered in this article invites further, dedicated research.
We can, nonetheless, draw some general conclusions.
Women were not considered a burden; instead they were an
integral part of the workings of a regiment. Although some commanders-in-chief complained about the numbers of women
with the army, none ever prohibited their presence.
General orders usually specified that three to six women
per company were allowed to join a regiment on campaign, but victualing returns show that higher numbers were commonly maintained.
Eight women per company of fifty men was a typical ratio, although numbers varied widely. In addition, a similar
number of children were victualed.
Widows were not abandoned or forced to remarry; instead, they were provided
with some financial or material compensation, and given passage home.
Many, if not most, women were gainfully
employed. In fact, employment was necessary for subsistence, and often was a condition of being allowed to accompany
Army wives sometimes had their own lodgings when regiments remained in one location for long periods.
Some remained in garrison towns when their regiments went on campaign. Those who did follow the army on campaign were
faced with the similar dangers and hardships as were experienced by the soldiers.