Our Dear Newbie is considering yet more myths today. She has been told she has no place in a military camp and that women were absent from Civil War era military camps. She knows this isn't the whole story because she's seen the joking references and the heroines touted in the books. What IS the "real story" behind the women in Civil War era military camps? How did they come to be there? How were they treated? What did they DO while they were there? Let's follow the term "camp follower" and find out.
"Camp Followers" began even before America did. They were family members of men in the army who, for various reasons, traveled along with the army on campaign. They were not
providing "horizontal service" to the men. (There were a few who did, but only a few of the many women following the 18th century armies did and they were generally marginalized in a similar fashion as their town counterparts were) It was understood by the men that such wives of
enlisted men would assist with all things domestic for the unit. It was also understood that she was of good character and under the protection of both her husband and the unit officers. Her duties might
include laundry, repairs/mending of uniforms and cloth-based equipment,
caring for livestock that would be processed into rations, assisting
with the cooking, assisting the surgeon with care giving (NOT diagnosis,
surgeries, or otherwise taking the role of a surgeon or his male
assistants.. . sitting with a patient for long, boring, tedious hours
making sure he doesn't undo the surgeon's work, clearing up the surgical
theatre, fixing special diet items, scutt work requiring no skills or
knowledge and garnering only a minimum of respect in other words) If a wife had particular aptitude for such, she might fix a "fancy"
meal for an officer who is entertaining, assist the company tailor with
more elaborate sewing, assist the surgeon with compounding medicines, or
drive a wagon. Wives of the officers were also seen when the unit was in
Winter Quarters or otherwise "safe and unlikely to leave in a hurry."
They were "Ladies" and treated as such. They were not expected to do
anything more taxing than entertain to the advancement of their hubby's
military career and bring a breath of humanity and gentility to the
chaos. The ones, like Mrs. Washington, who attempted more were seen as
useful heroines and decidedly against the usual model.
This role for women was seen on some navy ships as well. These wives
would often assist in the galley, care for live livestock, assist with
cleaning, and other domestic work. Here it was very rare to see an
officer's wife travel with the group, and most likely would be treated
as a genteel passenger mostly confined to cabin rather than working
member of the crew.
These roles are still seen to some extent in the War of 1812. Due to the
distance of Mexico and Texas and the changing attitudes toward
appropriate work for women, far fewer wives followed their husbands into
the War for Texas Independence and the War With Mexico. "Regular" military who
were stationed for long periods in the frontier outposts often had an
enlisted man's wife (or several) to do for the group and often officers
brought their wives and families along as it was understood this was a long-term assignment.
When the Civil War started, many women attempted to follow husbands to
the Camps of Instruction and further onto campaign. Upper officers saw
this early on and had their lower officers encourage the women and families to leave and eventually
issue orders requiring them to go home. Only a few women didn't
comply. Those were the ones we see coming onto the rolls as laundresses,
"daughters of the regiment", "company matrons" and like titles of
respect. The actual tasks they performed would vary by the needs of the unit and the skills of the woman. The French army, which America took much of her cue from in this era, also had roles for respectable women to travel with the army. They were termed "vivandiere" and "cantiniere", and in the French army had specific roles to fill. In America, the terms and duties overlapped somewhat. American armies would never have as many vivandieres and cantinieres as the French one per regiment, but the exact number who served in such capacities remains a mystery.
Within the Federal army of the Civil War era, the only officially sanctioned roles for women to travel with the army were laundresses and sutlers, and both were required to hold a certificate of good character. The sutlers, in addition, had to have and display a license. Prices for their services were overseen by the captain of the company. Provisions were made to see them paid for their work, whether the soldier was available to pay or not. They were entitled to draw shelter and rations with the rest of the company.
So, as we see, women were a respected presence in a Civil War era military camp with a long history of established service. With research and a commitment to accurate portrayals, perhaps the army is indeed a place for some women.
The Role of Camp Followers in the American Revolution by Laura Webb Thomas
"The proportion of women which ought be allowed..." An Overview of Continental Army Female Camp Followers by John U. Rees
The Daughter of the Regiment: A Brief History of Vivandieres and Caninieres in the American Civil War by Susan Lyons Hughes
The Army Laundresses, 1802-1882
Ten Years in the Ranks of the US Army by Augustus Meyer
Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers by August Valentine Kautz
Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States see sections 128, 129, 130, 783, 1212