Sunday, May 13, 2018

Women and the Continental Army at Valley Forge, 1777-78


Susan reporting,

I'm fortunate to live near Valley Forge National Historical Park, which is not only the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, but also a beautiful 3,500 acre park that includes a rivers, streams, forests, and tall-grass meadows.

On Saturday, I visited the park for the history, and a special program devoted to telling the stories of the approximately 400 women (along with about 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 support staff) who were part of the encampment.

Too often the role of women in connection to the 18thc army is overlooked, ignored, or reduced to mean-spirited camp-follower jokes. In reality, women were an important part of the army's day-to-day life, especially during the months-long winter encampments. Women (and children) who followed the army were paid to wash the army's laundry, sew and mend garments, cook food and bake bread, and tend the sick and wounded. The majority of these women were wives and other family members of the soldiers, who ate and slept as families with their husbands' messes. They also remained connected to the army during the summer campaign season, following at a distance from the army on foot behind the baggage wagons. These were strong women, in every sense of the word.

At the other end of the social scale, the wives of officers - including Martha Washington, the wife of the army's Commander-in-Chief George Washington - often left their homes during the war's "off season" and traveled to join their husbands at the winter encampment. Their primary role was undeniably less arduous, but also important. In addition to providing an air of genteel civility for their husbands and the other officers, these ladies helped entertain influential foreign dignitaries visiting the camp as well as members of Congress who came from Philadelphia to review the troops and conditions. In this capacity, they were often unofficial lobbyists who helped promote the army's needs and concerns. They also sewed, knitted, and mended for the soldiers - although, as officers' wives, they weren't paid for their labors.

Local women also participated in the market area near the encampment. Opened by Gen. Washington's proclamation in February 1778, the market helped supply fresh provisions to his army by permitting the inhabitants of local farms to sell their goods directly to soldiers. Strictly regulated, the market was a beneficial arrangement for both parties. Not only were the soldiers able to obtain fresh food at a fixed, fair price, but the farmers in turn were able to preserve their crops from foraging soldiers. Although small in scale - the wares of the market vendors would vary from week to week depending on what was available from farms - these local women provided fresh food to augment the soldiers' diets. The market was successful for another reason as well: any food sold to the Continental encampment was food that would not end up in the hands (and mouths) of the British army occupying nearby Philadelphia.

The program at the park showcased many of these women. There were farm women selling the first onions and cabbages of the season, laundresses washing linens, seamstresses stitching shirts, a weaver weaving on a portable tape loom, spies ready to explain secrets and codes, bakers baking bread in a hillside bake oven, and cooks cooking a sausage, onion, and apple stew over an over fire which smelled mighty tasty indeed. There was even an experienced medical woman with a fine display of lancets and scarifiers (I must have missed the leeches) who would have been happy to bleed you to relieve your foul humors.

And in one of the cabins, General Nathanael Greene's wife Catharine Littlefield Greene was charming James Lovell, the visiting Congressman from Massachusetts, with tea, tarts, and 18thc jests from a popular magazine of the time.

Hosted by the Park and their "Mom's Army" programming, Saturday's immersive event was largely the creation of two related reenactment groups: Colonel Ogden's First New Jersey Regiment, and the Continental Line (CL) Laundry and Women's Activities Club, led by organizer Samantha Vogeley.

The members of these groups were engaging and incredibly knowledgeable, and generous with that knowledge, and I can't thank them enough for putting up with all my questions. It was also an opportunity to meet in person fellow history-fans that I've known only through social media.

I can't say exactly where or when all this new 18thc knowledge will be put to use, but I can pretty much guarantee it will turn up someday in a book. How can it not, when the research was this much fun?

One final note in light of some of our recent discussions here at TNHG: Every woman participating in the event was wearing period-correct clothing, including boned stays (18thc corsets.) I'm happy to report that despite the many heavy iron kettles hoisted over fires and water-filled oak buckets lifted, no one fainted.

All photos ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott.
There are many more photographs from the event on Facebook, taken by Molly Pictures Studio. The link is here.

4 comments:

  1. Susan -

    I love to recount the story of the women who served with the Continental Army when I speak on Women in the Military. In fact, some of them were the first women to actually serve IN the army, as each company had a laundress on the official rolls. These women were paid by the company and authorized to draw supplies and stores from the commissary.

    I did a lot of research on the laundresses when I was writing my book set at Ft Laramie, THE HORSE SOLDIER.

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  2. This is a great article, Susan! I met you briefly at the New England RWA conference about 2 years ago and enjoyed your workshop then, too. I'm intrigued by the presence, other than "camp followers," as you mentioned, and living in CT, we have the Rochambeau/Washington Trail going right through me area. I'm thinking there's a possible historical romance in that!

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  3. Hi, Merline ~ I remember THE HORSE SOLDIER! :) You're right about the laundresses in the army. I'm so glad that historic sites, reenactments, and museums are finally including the stories of women like these in their presentations. About time!

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  4. Hi, Claire - It would indeed make a wonderful historical romance! I wrote a lot of historical romances set during the American Revolution in my "Miranda Jarrett" days. It continues to be my favorite historical time period/setting, too, and I'm so happy to be back writing there. Good luck with your story!

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