" 'Some in rags and some in jags,' but none 'in velvet gowns.' "
Insights on Clothing Worn by Female Followers of the Armies
During the American War for Independence

John U. Rees

Though women were commonly seen with armies in the 18th century, there are few descriptions of how they looked. No matter what country they came from, the wives, children, and consorts of common soldiers can be grouped together as being of the poorer classes of society. The following documents illustrate some of the clothing worn by females who followed the British and American armies, and the contingent of German troops serving under the Crown.

First we will look at the wife of a British soldier who, through misfortune, comes to our attention two hundred and twenty six years later. As a follower attached to a British regiment, Ann Miller was present only at the pleasure of the unit commanders and would have been required to live under military law, making herself useful to the regiment. Although her regiment was in a stationary situation she had to be prepared to follow the regiment on its travels at a moments notice. Assuming that Ann Miller was telling the truth about her losses, the inventory below is interesting as it shows what was probably a large portion of the personal goods belonging to a largely unpropertied and itinerant woman.

A "List of Cloaths taken from Ann Miller of the Roy. Fuzileers at La Parara in Canada," made at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 13 February 1776:

2 Gounds Value200
1 Black Cloke100
1 Silk Hatt080
1 Peticote076
1 Pair of Stays0120
3 Shifts0120
Childrens Cloaths200
1 Bead Tick & 2 Pillows0110

(The Papers of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, National Archives Microfilm Publications M247, (Washington, DC, 1958), reel 71, p. 421 (henceforth cited as PCC). These belongings were probably lost at La Prairie de la Magdeleine on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, roughly between Chambly and Montreal. Lester J. Cappon, ed., Atlas of Early American History, The Revolutionary War 1760-1790 (Princeton, N.J., 1976), p. 2.)

To provide some context, a detachment of the 7th Regiment, Royal Fusiliers (eighty-eight officers and men, thirty women, and fifty-one children), had been captured at Chambly on 17 October 1775, and eventually sent south to the barracks at Trenton, New Jersey. (The colors of the Royal Fusiliers were captured and are in the collections at West Point Military Academy. Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, N.Y., 1966), p. 193.)

Also submitted about the same time as Mrs. Miller's list was a "Return of Cloathing Necessarys &ca that was lost belonging to the Prisoners of His Majestys 7th Regt or Royal Fuzileers at Trenton." This document contains the names of nineteen soldiers who lost among them numbers of gaiters, hats, "Fir Gloves," coats, breeches, shirts, neck "Stocks or Rollers," shoes, hose and "Winter Capps," these last probably Canadian caps. Private Jonathan Miller, probably husband of Ann, lost his coat, neck stock, and a pair of breeches and hose. The listing includes the cost of the missing apparel which "were Valued by the Serjeants there is likewise a Whole Years Cloathing lost." ("Accounts of Sundries belonging [to] the [soldiers] Taken at Chamblee lost or stolen on the Road as is Said," [undated], PCC, reel 71, p. 429.)

The next two narratives concern camp followers with German troops under General John Burgoyne in 1777 as they appeared after their surrender at Saratoga, New York. Militia private Daniel Granger described the Convention troops immediately after the surrender, including one distinctive (to him) part of the women's apparel: "... soon the Van of the Prisoners made their appearance, The Hesson Troops came first with their baggage on Horses... These Troops had some Women, who wore short Petty coats, bare footed, & bare Leged, with huge Packs on their backs, some carrying a child & leading an other or two, They were silent, civil, and looked quite subdued." (M.M. Quaife, ed., "Documents - A Boy Soldier Under Washington: The Memoir of Daniel Granger", Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XVI, 4 (March 1930), p. 547.)

A woman in Boston gave this description, which is interesting as much for the information corroborating Granger's account, as for some additional details. "As the German prisoners marched through Cambridge, Massachusetts they were accompanied by 'great numbers of women, who seemed to be the beasts of burthen, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double, the contents seemed to be Pots and Kettles, various sorts of Furniture, children peeping thro' gridirons and other utensils, some very young Infants who were born on the road, the women bare feet, cloathed in dirty rags ...' " (Walter Hart Blumenthal, Women Campfollowers of the American Revolution (New York, N.Y., 1974), pp. 27-28.)

(Two hundred years later, artist Peter Copeland described his own sight of women following an army on the march. He wrote recently, "The narrative of the militia private describing the women who followed the German prisoners from Burgoyne's army was strangely reminiscent of a spectacle I witnessed, as a messboy on a Liberty ship in the port of Iloilo in the Phillipines when the Jap troops marched in to surrender at the end of the war. [He includes here a quote from a piece he wrote about his experiences on the island of Panay at the end of World War II.] '... behind the [Japanese] soldiers came the women' (Philipino women who had taken up with the Japs during their occupation and later retreated with them into the hills of Panay) 'they were barefoot, their heads covered with rags, shawls, and bandanas, some wore tattered wide brimmed straw hats. The women stared down at the road before them. Quite a few carried babies or led small naked children. They carried their belongings wadded up in blankets or bits of mosquito netting slung over their shoulders. There were more than a hundred of them ...'" Mr. Copeland continued, "I suppose the female dependents of prisoners of war probably all looked much the same.")

Finally, let's look at some followers of the Continental Army. The following is excerpted from an unpublished manuscript by the author entitled, "'... the number of rations issued to the women in camp.' : New Material Concerning Female Followers With Continental Regiments."

"What kind of women were these who would choose, or be forced by circumstances, to follow the army under very trying conditions? There are few first-hand descriptions of American camp followers available, but with what little we do have it seems that they were a mixed lot indeed. Maria Cronkite was the wife of a musician in the 1st New York Regiment and seems to have been quite well respected. She was thirty-two years old when she followed her husband into the army in 1777. Mrs. Cronkite served 'in the capacity of washerwoman for the officers untill the close of the war where her husband was duly discharged ... [and] had while in said service several children...' As might be expected in an army where black soldiers were a substantial minority, camp followers included at least a few women of color. In an October 1778 runaway advertisement, the colonel of the 3rd Maryland Regiment described a 'MULATTO slave, named Sarah, but since calls herself Rachael; she took her son with her, a Mulatto boy named Bob, about six years old, has a remarkable fair complexion, with flaxen hair: She is a lusty wench, about 34 years old, big with child; had on a striped linsey petticoat, linen jacket, flat shoes, a large white cloth cloak, and a blanket, but may change her dress, as she has other cloaths with her. She was lately apprehended in the first Maryland regiment, where she pretends to have a husband, with whom she has been the principal part of this campaign, and passed herself off as a free woman.'" (Pension papers of Patrick Cronkite, fifer, 1st New York Regiment, 1777-1783, supplementary depositions of Maria Cronkite (nee Humphrey) and Hendrick Plimley, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty — Land — Warrant Application Files, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, reel 695, W16932. Mordecai Gist, runaway advertisement, 18 October 1778, The Brigade Dispatch, vol. X, no. 4 (Sept./Oct. 1974), p. 15. )

"For an unflattering view of the army's followers, this time on the move in 1780, we turn to Joseph Plumb Martin. Although women are not specifically mentioned in his account their presence is inferred. After being separated from his unit Martin 'had an opportunity to see the baggage of the army pass. When that of the middle states passed us, it was truly amusing to see the number and habiliments of those attending it; of all specimens of human beings, this group capped the whole. A caravan of wild beasts could bear no comparison with it. There was "Tag, Rag and Bobtail"; "some in rags and some in jags," but none "in velvet gowns." [author's emphasis] Some with two eyes, some with one, and some, I believe, with none at all ... their dialect, too, was as confused as their bodily appearance was odd and disgusting. There was the Irish and Scotch brogue, murdered English, flat insipid Dutch and some lingoes which would puzzle a philosopher ... I was glad to see the tail end of the train ...'" (Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (New York, N.Y., 1962), pp. 197-198. For Martin's references to "southerners" and "southern troops" see, pp. 112-113, 135-136, 145-146.)

Some insight into how camp followers replaced worn-out clothing may be useful. Several attempts were made by the government or army to procure clothing for the women. In the autumn of 1778 the Board of War had recommended that when a shipment of new clothes was issued, the soldiers' old clothing be collected and a part given to "the followers of the Army." This plan was never realized as George Washington decided to "let the matter drop," when he learned the troops "looked upon it as an unjustifiable attempt to deprive them of what they had earned by their years service ..." Two years later, attempting to mollify Pennsylvania soldiers after their January 1781 mutiny, Joseph Reed recommended that the Council of Pennsylvania, "take some notice of their women and children by providing some decent clothing, which they have not at present. There are about 100 of them, and, like ourselves, they have their attachments and affections. A new gown, silk handkerchief, and a pair of shoes, &c., would be but little expense, and I think as a present from the State would have more effect than ten times the same laid out in articles for the men." The clothing was to be "given only to those soldiers' wives who continue in the service." (George Washington to the Board of War, 11 November 1778, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 13 (Washington, DC, 1936), pp. 245-246. Joseph Reed to the Council of Pennsylvania, 11 January 1781. John B. Linn and William H. Egle, eds. Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, vol. XI (Harrisburg, Pa., 1880), pp. 669-670.)

Female followers likely made their own clothing when materials were available. This can be inferred from knowledge that common soldiers occasionally found time, and had the expertise, to sew clothing for themselves. Sergeant Jeremiah Greenman writing between 6-11 March 1778, noted, "Implying my Self in making a westcoat." In 1781, while a prisoner of the British, Greenman, now a lieutenant, made a quantity of clothing. 22 May, "... got a pair of overhalls cut out, then returned to my Quaters & implyed myself Remainder of the day." 23 May, "Implying myself in making my overalls." 24-25 May, "... made a pair of Socks." 31 May, "... made a Linning Vest with the assi[s]tance of my Land la[d]y." 8 June, "... implying myself in making two linning night Caps." Some soldiers also were skilled at a craft, which they found leisure time to ply. Massachusetts soldier Nahum Parker made a number of pairs of shoes in 1780. The day before he joined the army he wrote, "Wednesday 5 [July] I made a pair of shoes." Later in the year, while with Washington's army, at or near Tappan, New York, he made a number of such entries. A few examples: "Sunday 24 [September] ... I made A pare of Mogosons and Mended my shoes / God forgive me." "27 [October] I made A pare of womens shoes." "2 [November] I finished A pare of Boots ..." "November Tuesday 7th 1780 ... I begun A Pare of Shoes for A Woman." "Wednesday 8 I finished the shoes ..." It is probable the women's shoes were for followers of the army. (Robert C. Bray and Paul E. Bushnell, eds., Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution: An Annotated Edition of the Military Journal of Jeremiah Greenman, (DeKalb, Il., 1978), pp. 112, 209-210. Journal of Nahum Parker for six months service in the 15th Massachusetts Regiment, 1780, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty — Land — Warrant Application Files, National Archives Microfilm Publication M804, reel 1874.)

In summation, besides their common connection with the lower levels of the social strata, these women had diverse experiences. Their background may have dictated the kind of clothing they preferred or were familiar with, but the vagaries of war affected what was available to them, often resulting in shortages and hardship. Ann Miller seems to have owned a lot of clothing for one in her situation, but she may be compared to Sarah, the American follower, who besides "a striped linsey petticoat, linen jacket, flat shoes, a large white cloth cloak, and a blanket," had "other cloaths with her." Ann Miller was coming from what had been a peacetime military establishment shortly before her capture; Sarah had probably acquired her clothing while living with her former master, though she may have added to her belongings while with the army. The German women show another side of army life. After leaving Canada with Burgoyne's army, they had marched long distances through rough country, in difficult conditions. They may have started off well-shod and well-clad, but an arduous campaign had left them with "bare feet, [and] cloathed in dirty rags ..."

For further reading on female followers of the Crown forces (British and German) and the Continental Army during the War for Independence see:

Bruce Burgoyne, "Women with the Hessian Auxiliaries during the American Revolutionary War," The Brigade Dispatch (Journal of the Brigade of the American Revolution), two parts: vol. XXVI, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 2-8; vol. XXVI, no. 2 (Summer 1996), pp. 6-16; vol. XXVI, no. 3 (Autumn 1996), pp. 19-23.

Don N. Hagist, "The Women of the British Army, A General Overview. Part 1 — Who & How Many," The Brigade Dispatch, vol. XXIV, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 2-10; "Part 2 — Sober, Industrious Women," vol. XXIV, no. 4 (Autumn 1993), pp. 9-17; "Part 3 — Living Conditions," vol. XXV, no. 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 11-16; "Part 4 — Lives of Women and Children," vol. XXV, no. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 8-14.

Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army (Columbia, S.C., 1996)

John U. Rees, "'... the multitude of women': An Examination of the Numbers of Female Camp Followers with the Continental Army," The Brigade Dispatch, three parts: vol. XXIII, no. 4 (Autumn 1992), pp. 5-17; vol. XXIV, no. 1 (Winter 1993), pp. 6-16; vol. XXIV, no. 2 (Spring 1993), pp. 2-6. (Reprinted in Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, vol. XIV, no. 2 (Summer 1996))

(John Rees has been writing for the past nine years about the social and material aspects of common soldiers' lives during the American War for Independence. Among his current projects are a study of nine months levies drafted into the Continental Army in 1778 and an ongoing column in Food History News concerning American soldiers' provisions during the war. A one-year subscription to the newsletter may be obtained by sending $15 to, Food History News, HCR 60, Box 354A, Islesboro, ME 04848)

Copyright © 1997 John U. Rees. All rights reserved.