10th Massachusetts, 2nd Rhode Island, common people, common soldier, living history, Reenacting, Research, Revolutionary War, women, women's history
I prefer woman belonging to the army, or “regimental woman,” which sounds like Mick Jagger or Roy Orbison could sing it, but one could have a pretty lively discussion of which term to use. Camp followers has a connotation–prostitute–that doesn’t reflect the full reality of army life for women in either the British or the Continental armies.
Were there prostitutes who took advantage of the proximity of a large customer base? Yes, undoubtedly. In the John Robinson Waterman Papers there is an unusual letter from Col. William Battey dated October 28, 1812 with a sketch of the army camp near Albany and a description of camp life. This description includes the treatment of a woman accused of prostitution and summarily banished from camp. I think she was beaten and half-drowned, so the army took the no-prostitutes-whatsoever dictum very seriously.
As far as cooking goes, a commenter elsewhere explained that women would have been cooking, at least for themselves. Typically, they did not cook for the soldiers’ mess, unless they were being paid to. This must have been a difficult situation for the Continental Army: when women were present, it made excellent sense to assign them all possible non-combatant tasks to ensure the maximum fighting force. But could discipline be maintained? Not always, given Bridget’s temper.
Rolling back a bit and trying to consider the army’s structure and camp layout, what are the mechanics of handling rations for women with the army? How are they fed? And did it vary, unit by unit? There is probably far more variation than we credit, that will only be illuminated by careful attention to the documentary record. That means finding as many victualing rolls and returns as possible, looking for women. It means reading all the orderly books that can be found, looking for women.
The best secondary source I know for the Continental Army’s women is with Holly Mayer’s book, Belonging to the Army. (And I’ll admit I haven’t read it in two years, so it’s time to re-read it.) If you’re British, I’m not in a position to help you as much, but there is Don Hagist’s work on Women of the British Army. For a more granular understanding of women in all armies, you have to turn to primary sources, and what’s available varies from unit to unit, state to state. There is a handy index of orderly books, and while these vary in their utility, they are a good place to start. In fact, the whole RevWar 75 site is useful (though it is not loading at the time of this writing).
Soldiers’ diaries and accounts are also useful. Jeremiah Greenman of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment recorded his experiences throughout the entire war, starting in 1775, when he joined Arnold’s expedition to Quebec. There were two women on that expedition, attached to two different companies. While there is not a plethora of detail about the women, it is clear that they were strong and able, and in one case, more able than her husband.