Regiment, which typically has 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
More importantly, it is not necessarily true that the orders were
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.
When 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.
The 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 Soldier
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
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
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
A 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."
--June 5, 1776
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.
could provide additional accommodation if they wished.
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.
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
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.
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
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
would only be granted to women who had shown that they would follow
the sutler was required to operate a sound business, and not to "harbour"
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
No follower of the Army can be allowed a Horse Except the Sutler of
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 encampments.
Women as Nurses
Nurses were an integral part of the army medical
such, their duties were described in detail by military writers of the
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.
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.
You [the 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
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
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
| 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.
Commanding Officers 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
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 "punctual Payment."
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:
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
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.
Women as Seamstresses
Intuition would 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 paid ...
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
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
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
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.
The 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
Private 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
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
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
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
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:
Any 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.
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.
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 hour
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.
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.
inventory of the belongings of Mrs. McQueen, wife of a soldier in the
84th Royal Highland Emigrants, was made when she died:
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.
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
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.
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
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 or street.
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.
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
Widows were not abandoned or forced to remarry; instead, they
were provided with some financial or material compensation, and given
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 the army.
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.
information comes from: