Camp Followers Digital Experience
This digital experience is designed for students in grades 5-8, but it’s informative for learners of all ages! By the end of the experience, you’ll understand the important role played by camp followers: the women and children who traveled to encampments and worked for the Continental and British armies in numerous roles.
Thanks to our 2020 intern, Allison Zhu, for her contributions to this experience.
How to Use This Digital Experience
To get started, watch the videos below and dive into the stories of Revolutionary War camp followers. For an even more interactive experience, you can download and print an activity packet that will guide you through crafts, recipes, and other hands-on ways to experience camp life.
When you’re all finished, be sure to play the Choose Your Own Adventure game to see how you would have fared as a camp follower.
If you’re an educator, we’ve created additional materials that can help you use this page in your classroom:
Part One: Overview
Let’s start with an overview of what a camp follower was. Allison Zhu explains the role of a camp follower in the video below.
As you’ve learned, camp followers followed the armies during the Revolutionary War. They helped with many useful tasks. But there were other things required of them. In the video below, Allison explains the rules that camp followers had to follow and what would happen if they broke the rules.
Part Two: Camp Followers’ Jobs
Today, dirty clothes aren’t a serious problem in a house. But for a Continental Army camp, dirty clothing could mean disease. Sick soldiers aren’t effective fighters. To prevent this, many camp followers served as laundresses. These people were paid for their work as long as soldiers had money to pay them.
In the 18th century, laundry was a multi-step chore. First, laundresses would soak the garment using hot or cold lye. Then they would use their hands to rub soap onto dirty spots. After that, they would beat, separate, and boil the clothing. Finally, the water would be squeezed out and the laundry would be hung on a line or laid flat to dry.
Nurses were important to Revolutionary armies as front-line fighters against disease. But nursing was a very different profession in the 18th century.
On both sides, nurses learned a variety of duties on the job:
- Caring for sick and wounded soldiers while they recovered at places like the Thompson-Neely House
- Emptying and cleaning out patients’ chamber pots
- Bathing newly-admitted patients with warm water
Nurses were expected to be clean, have a good temperament, and not leave camp without permission.
Sutlers were licensed to sell provisions to the troops. They functioned like mobile grocery stores. If a sutler did not have a license, they would face military discipline.
Without sutlers following the Continental Army, soldiers would have to make do almost solely on their Army rations. Their other options were to visit a city with a market or to trade with a soldier who had plundered (stole) goods from local citizens. Although sutlers were often men, women were sometimes employed as sutlers. In many cases, soldiers’ wives and soldiers themselves were not allowed to be sutlers.
Part Three: Life in Camp
Food and Rations
Cooking was one of the most important parts of camp life for camp followers – and for soldiers. You can learn more about this in the activity packet.
Female camp followers typically dressed in their own clothing. Some wore cast-off military clothing, though the Continental Army would not provide it to followers. If a follower was caught selling military-issued clothes, she could face military discipline. (You can learn more about this in the activity packet.)
Packing for Campaign and Carrying Children
Soldiers and camp followers often used something called a “market wallet,” which is a long tube with a slit in the center. A market wallet functioned similarly to a modern-day duffle bag, suitcase, purse, backpack, or grocery bag. Sometimes, soldiers’ wives also had to carry infants with them on campaign. You can learn more about this in the activity packet.
Children on the Campaign
The British usually had at least as many children with the army as there were women. Children came with their parents or were born on the road. In camp, the children would be put to work. In the British Army, they might even go to school. Children also had time to enjoy toys and games, which could be used to entertain a child while the army marched for miles.
For a hands-on experience of toys and games, check out the activity packet.
Part Four: Why People Followed the Army
Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson: Money
Money might have been a strong reason for many to choose to follow the Continental Army. For Continental Army wives, there was no guarantee that Congress could pay their husband. For Hessian and British soldiers’ wives, if they received the pay, the money would have to cross the ocean. Women could face homelessness or starvation if left behind with no family. Money may have motivated people to follow the Continental Army – even without a family tie to the Army.
Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson was Washington’s housekeeper at his various Revolutionary War headquarters. As a housekeeper, she was responsible for tasks such as supervising the female servants and overseeing meal preparation. Hired on July 9, 1776, she was let go after nine months but was reinstated later on, as she was present at Valley Forge. She retired in December 1781 after serving for five years.
Thompson would have been with Washington during the New York and New Jersey campaigns as well as during the Ten Crucial Days. That means Mrs. Thompson was probably here when Washington crossed the Delaware. Given her position as housekeeper, she was likely left behind at camp.
Lucy Flucker Knox: The Desire to Be Near Loved Ones
Being separated from a spouse is an extremely hard experience, both in 1776 and for modern-day military spouses. Despite being an officer’s wife, Lucy Flucker’s only option may have been to stay with the Army, and she may have wanted to be near her husband.
Lucy came from a wealthy and prominent Massachusetts Loyalist family. She fell in love with bookseller and patriot Henry Knox and married him in June 1774. Her parents disowned her and eventually fled to England.
During the Revolutionary War, Henry Knox became a colonel and eventually a general in Washington’s army. He served as the head of the artillery during the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776. He crossed the river with Washington and served during the Ten Crucial Days.
While he fought in New York and New Jersey, Lucy was left alone. War surrounded her, and she was unable to turn to her Loyalist family for help. While fighting in 1776, Henry was often unable to write Lucy, adding to her worries. Lucy wrote the following in an undated letter to Henry during the 1776 New York and New Jersey campaigns: “Had I no friends I suppose I should not take it so hard, but when I reflect that I have Had A father and a mother often and yet a brother and yet one this poor new tested thing I cannot bear it. So for you I love you; I underwent almost every distress for the sake of Being yours, and you forsake me.”
She also wrote: “My poor dear Father I must never see again when I reflect upon…the thousand times he has helped me and prayed god to make me the comfort of his age” and “I…would do it again to live to be with you”
After the Valley Forge encampment in 1777-1778, Lucy chose to follow the Continental Army.
Mrs. Reed of Trenton: Safety
Reed was the wife of a Continental Army lieutenant when the Hessians took Trenton. In December 1776, she was home with her ten-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son when the Hessians entered her home, claiming it as the headquarters for the British commander. Mrs. Reed tried to make them leave, but they refused.
One of the Hessian followers noticed the large silver buckles on Mrs. Reed’s shoes and insisted she hand them over. When Mrs. Reed hesitated, the woman snatched a buckle, took off the entire shoe, and smacked Mrs. Reed in the face with the heel.
This is an example of how soldiers’ families could be in danger when an area was occupied by the opposing army. Reed made it through without losing her life and livelihood, despite her fear when a Hessian follower discovered the small Continental Army coat she’d made for her son. Many other families weren’t as lucky. This was true for both sides.
Sarah Osborn Benjamin: Lack of Agency
Sarah Osborn (later Sarah Osborn Benjamin) was going about her day in 1780 when her husband Aaron announced he had enlisted in the Continental Army and insisted she come with him. Sarah would follow Aaron throughout the war, including at Yorktown in October 1781, and the West Point encampment in 1782.
Married women had little agency to make their own decisions. Many camp followers might have faced a similar situation to Sarah’s. She didn’t choose to follow of her own free will, but Sarah had the opportunity to be paid for her work. She applied for a pension for her service as a follower on November 12, 1837.
William Lee: Enslavement
Enslaved domestic servants, like George Washington’s valet William Lee, did not have a choice. Washington decided that William Lee would follow him. It is possible that, given the choice, Lee would have chosen to follow Washington. But because of the nature of slavery, Lee could not refuse.
As Washington’s valet, Lee was responsible for assisting the general with a variety of tasks, including organizing Washington’s personal affairs and helping Washington with personal grooming and dressing. It’s debatable whether William Lee is truly a “camp follower” because he did a different job from most and wasn’t paid for his work.
William Lee was certainly here during the three-week encampment in December 1776. He might have crossed with Washington or might have been left back at camp. Washington and William Lee developed a close relationship throughout the war. When Washington died, William Lee was the only enslaved person freed in his will.
Part Five: Conclusion
Before you go, be sure to play the Choose Your Own Adventure game to see how you would have fared as a camp follower.