Wives ‘on the strength’…

The eighteenth-century military was comprised of more than simply its soldiers. Accompanying the army would quite often be: soldiers’ wives and families; servants; sutlers; and other camp followers offering some kind of logistical support. This article will be focussing on the female aspect of the camp follower and how women played an essential role in the military during this period, and more specifically, during the American War of Independence.  This article aims to highlight the importance of ensuring that the history of women camp followers continues to live on and also wishes to record that women almost certainly faced many hardships that some would not consider.

Wives ‘on the strength’ a term used by the British military used to differentiate the women who were legitimate camp followers. Often the pay given to soldiers meant that they wouldn’t have earned enough coin to support another person accompanying them on campaign and so many women joined in a working role, fulfilling camp duties while being able to draw on rations and a small wage. The British followed strict ratios of how many women ‘on the strength’ they would have within the regiment. This would often determine how many men had permission to marry while on campaign. Additionally, many men also married without permission, and because of this their wives would not be granted a place within the barracks. However, these wives ‘off the strength’ would often just accompany the men anyway while finding their own means of living on campaign, this would comprise of them undertaking a craft skill or trade in order to gain a wage outside of the military on campaign. The British Army legitimized their position within the military by giving the wives ‘on the strength’ particular roles washers and cleaners. Furthermore, these wives also became nurses for the British military as by 1750 almost the entirety of the British army’s nurses were indeed female with a large majority of them being the wives of soldiers on campaign. Of particular note was a lady by the name of Charlotte Browne, who was a Matron in the British army and was in charge of a number of other nurses. Browne is just a single example of a lady making a career as a nurse in the British army as her own career had spanned the entirety of the French and Indian war in the Americas.

However, according to some sources, the role of the military nurse was actually less desirable than it may seem. As nurses were drafted from the wives on the strength in the British military during the American War of Independence they would be distanced from their husbands and the rest of the regiment as they went to serve at one of the hospitals in their locality. Additionally, there was not much training in the role and the periods they would serve would often only be a matter of a few months meaning that there would not have been much opportunity to learn while in the role. A military nurse was largely underpaid, difficult and not very rewarding, the role was even hazardous to the nurses should an epidemic sweep through the hospital she was serving in. It should be noted here that women following their regiment would not have had much choice in the matter as there is documented cases of women being threatened should they refuse the detail.

Moreover, the opinion held by provincials during the French and Indian war and the American War of Independence was rather lacklustre. For example, many of the highly religious New Englanders actually frowned upon the practice of having women on the strength as camp followers despite it being documented that these women camp followers were more often than not the wives of soldiers and were highly loyal to their husbands. Despite this, some women were considered heroines, for example the case of Mrs Stone who died aged 43 in Ireland. A writer at the time gave detail of Mrs Stone’s exploits:

“This woman… being married when very young to a Mr. Stone, a serjeant in a marching regiment… accompanied him, though she was rather of a small and handsome make, through most of the hardships our armies underwent in America during the last war; no consideration of fear could make her leave her husband’s side, thro’ nine engagementsin which he was concerned; in the course of which she twice helped carry him off wounded from the field of battle; and it is a fact which can be testified by living witnesses, now in Dublin, that at the siege of Louisburg, at a time when many of our troops were killed, she supplied the living with powder cartridges of the dead, and animated the men in the ranks next to her by her words and actions. Though a woman of the most surprising intrepidity, she was never known to be guilty of anything that could impeach her delicacy, or violate the modest demeanour of her sex.”

However, Mrs Stone was considered an exception as the opinions of the provincials was often shared by British Military officials and were known to try and force women out of his regiment through threats of withdrawing rations, pay or even submitting them to a lashing or even capital punishment. Moreover, many officers within the British Army held low opinions of women camp followers as they saw them as the carriers of disease and therefore held the potential to take men out of service, this can be partly attributed to the presence of prostitutes finding their way into camp which was a rather common phenomena to take place in British camps.

Engraving: Source:

The low opinions held by provincials and British of women was nothing in comparison to the opinion of the colonials treatment of some groups of women. The families of loyalists serving the British were seen with high levels of suspicion by the colonial rebels who considered them to be spies and women were treated with increased levels of persecution as a result. There are documents cases of women fleeing colonial held areas with their remaining family to British held territories. During these refugee movements it is known that up to 400 women arrived in New York as refugees , and while many of these became camp followers, not all camp followers were refugees and not all refugees became camp followers.

It is clear that women camp-followers did indeed face many hardships during their service to the British military and were not afforded many comforts. They were seen with low opinion and faced many threats of discipline should they step a toe out of line. Particularly the role of being a nurse during the American War of Independence was most certainly not a glamorous and did not carry many incentives. However, it should also be noted that without these wives ‘on the strength’ the British military would have struggled to function without women filling many essential roles. While only a couple of examples of heroines undergoing noteworthy acts are recorded here, there are many more documented.

Here in the Society of King George III we always strive to make sure that these stories are told and are portrayed when possible. It should go without saying, however these aspects of history must be told and must live on as without women, the British military would have merely been a shadow of what it was.

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