An ode to Revolutionary War camp followers
The more we study the American Revolutionary period and the stories that are told about it, the more we realize that many of those stories are really about 1876, rather than 1776. In other words, a lot of our perceptions about the American Revolution come from stories crafted to celebrate and boost the centennial observations in 1876. One of those stories is about Molly Pitcher, the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth in 1778.
“Molly” was the legendary wife of a continental soldier, and a water carrier who kept the Continental soldiers hydrated during the battle, as well as pouring cool water on cannon barrels so they wouldn’t over-heat. When her husband was wounded, she took his place at the cannon side and fought until the battle was won. One of the most dramatic stories about her was that a musket ball (sometimes it’s a cannon ball) went through her legs and didn’t hit anything except her petticoats. As cool as can be, she supposedly said something like, “well, that could have been worse,” without missing a beat in loading her cannon. She then fought valiantly throughout the rest of the battle, which, although technically a draw, was a moral victory for the Continentals.
The problem, Buzzkillers, is that there is no good evidence for the Molly Pitcher story, and there are no mentions of “Molly Pitcher” until 1851. Her identity wasn’t linked to a real person until 1876, the centennial of the young nation, and exactly the time that the United States needed an American version of Britain’s Queen Boudica or France’s Joan of Arc.
So let’s look at Mary Ludwig Hays from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the most common person associated with Molly Pitcher. Born in either Trenton or Philadelphia, she moved to Carlisle to work as a servant and married William Hays in 1769. William joined the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment and they participated in the Battle of Monmouth, where the famous episode supposedly took place. By then, Mary had become a camp follower. Almost certainly, she fulfilled the roles of most camp followers — bringing water to soldiers, feeding them, and helping take care of them between battles.
There are all sorts of unverified stories about Mary as Molly. One is that George Washington saw her fighting, and made her an honorary non-commissioned officer. After the war, Mary and William returned to Carlisle. He died in 1786, and she re-married in 1787. She continued working as a servant, was apparently granted a small, annual pension from the Pennsylvania legislature for her war service in 1822. She died in 1832 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
As the centennial of 1776 approached, towns and cities across the original 13 colonies went on a binge to find local worthies from the Revolutionary period to celebrate. Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s “Molly Pitcher” was revived as a hero. This kind of thing happened all over the north-east in the 1870s.
A statue to “Molly Pitcher” was erected in Carlisle in 1916; the US Postal Service put Molly Pitcher on a stamp in 1928 (the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth); and a Liberty ship named the Molly Pitcher was launched in 1943 and torpedoed the same year.
What so interesting, Buzzkillers, is that the story of Molly Pitcher gives us a great opportunity to talk about an over-looked aspect of history — camp followers during the Revolutionary war.
Camp followers have been around as long as war has been around. Often these were women, usually the wives of soldiers. But there were other types of camp followers including doctors, cooks, people doing uniform and boot repair, and even children used a messengers and for other menial tasks. As you can imagine, there were far more things to do in a modern army (since the invention of gunpowder) than could be done just by the soldiers themselves. And the tradition of having camp followers grew dramatically.
There were thousands of camp followers on both sides during the American Revolutionary. Roughly 4,000 British wives sailed across the ocean with their husbands to join the effort. One thousand German wives accompanied the Hessian soldiers who boosted British ranks, and as many as 5,000 women were camp followers in the Continental Army. Of course, the numbers varied considerably depending on how close the armies were to towns and cities.
What did they do? Almost everything, including, in rare circumstances, fighting in battles. Armies during this period had no real infrastructure, no medical corps, and no systematic way to feed their soldiers. Camp followers did the following (and a lot more): odd jobs, transporting baggage and equipment, tending livestock, sewing and uniform repair, laundry, nursing, and cooking. The standard story of camp followers as prostitutes is usually exaggerated. There were a few, of course, but the vast majority of camp followers were not prostitutes.
Camp followers became increasing important as the Revolutionary War continued because the supply and support networks that the Continental army had built up had gotten over-stretched and worn out. The army, in effect, needed a large, permanent group of camp followers to serve, in effect, as their Quartermaster Corps.
We can’t take our hats off to an actual, historical figure named Molly Pitcher, Buzzkillers. But we can certainly salute all the camp followers who worked tirelessly, in very dangerous conditions, and who have been unjustly overlooked by history.
Ray Raphael, Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004)
Walter Blumenthal, Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution (1952)