Camp Followers in the American Revolution
1) Mrs. General
In the scheme and counter-scheme of European politics in the eighteenth century the preeminence of British arms was a fact of life. English armies proved themselves the match of their adversaries in the War of the Spanish Succession early in the century, in the Seven Years’ War about mid-century, and in defense of the Royalist cause at century’s end. With the exception of that unfortunate and half-hearted campaign against the ungovernable American colonies, British armed might was top dog in the European pack.
But the fearsome reputation of the British was not entirely the work of the soldiers in the front lines. Behind the battle front lay an army of camp followers whose function and comportment lay in stark contrast to the well-disciplined ranks of fighting men. William Hogarth, who considered himself a “comic history-painter,” gives us a good likeness of the realities of army life at mid-century. In The March to Finchley, he pictures all the violent disorder of a military dislodgement: soldiers in every stage of confusion and intoxication prepare to march against the rebellious supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie; a pious bawd (the notorious and enormously fat Mother Douglas) leans from a window of her thriving brothel and prays for the safe return of her best customers; her girls wave gaily to the departing heroes; an officer in the foreground steals a kiss from a pretty milkmaid; a soldier beside them takes advantage of her preoccupation to fill his hat with milk from her pail; another hero, scarcely able to stand, is offered water but scorns it for gin; soldiers and their wives and sweethearts, whores, gin and rum peddlers, pickpockets, children, dogs, cats, and pigs mill about in a great circus of confusion. The scene strikes us far more as the climax of a revel than the eve of battle.
Of course, when the army got fairly well under way, officers would impose a strict marching order and severe discipline on this chaos: the lash would see to that. But in their rear with munitions and supplies traveled another army, a vast rag-tag army of camp followers, largely women and children. The practice of women and children following the progress of an army was an ancient one: they followed the Roman legions in their campaigns as surely as they followed the Crusaders of the Middle Ages in theirs. In 1775 the relationship between the British Army and its followers was formally recognized. Dependent women were “on the strength,” not paid, but granted quarters and rations (half that of a soldier), accommodated on marches, and transported in British ships. In return these women–for the most part wives or mistresses of enlisted men–cooked, sewed and washed for their men, and, after a fashion, nursed them when ill or wounded. When Lord Germain, British Secretary of State for America, sent eight regiments to suppress the provincials in January 1776, each regiment was to consist of 677 men, 60 women, and a dozen servants. The following month he dispatched the 42nd Highlanders which numbered 22 officers, 352 men, 60 women, and 12 servants. These figures–if surprising from our point of view–were typical of British regiments going to fight in the wilds of North America. And, insofar as the women did cook, wash, sew and nurse, they supported the British effort.
But as high as the number of British women on the strength was, the number not accounted for on the ration roles was astonishing. Burgoyne’s army at the time of his Saratoga disaster numbered just under 6,000 British and 2,000 German troops; however, in their rear followed some 2,000 women and children, of whom only 300 were on the strength of the regiments. Women not fed by the army had to make their own way in the world, and in doing so created a perpetual headache for the British command. They sold themselves to officers and men, in camp and out. As Belcher notes, “swarms of prostitutes followed the British forces, as they have all other armies in all their campaigns.” They drove a brisk illicit trade in rum, selling not only to the troops but to the “Savages” allied with them. They scoured the countryside along the route of march, plundering from Whig and Tory alike. They pilfered from the British stores or fenced goods the men had pilfered. Though they might be (and frequently were) flogged as severely as a common soldier, they were indifferent to discipline and “lagged behind or thrust themselves ahead in a march.” No doubt the Hessian General Friedrick von Wurmb wrote with a good deal of restraint when he remarked that the women and children traveling with his corps caused “considerable vexation.”
The American armies had fewer difficulties with their camp followers. For one thing, their women and children did not follow in the numbers that encumbered the British. Benjamin Thompson, an irascible scientific genius and alleged Tory spy, describes one effect of this relative paucity of women: “They have no women in the camp to do washing for the men, and they in general not being used to doing things of this sort, and thinking it rather a disparagement to them, choose rather to let their linen, etc., rot upon their backs than to be at the trouble of cleaning ’em themselves.” But if the scapegrace Americans were not so resplendent as the British, they had not the wenching and drinking that unsettled British military discipline (especially at the highest levels). Walter Hart Blumenthal ascribes lofty motives to American temperance. There was “no trace of dissolute abandon among patriot camp followers” to compare with the debauchery of the British, he writes; nor was there “widespread drunkenness, for (with some falling from grace) the Americans were only intoxicated with the prospect of freedom from a rankling thrall.” Patriotism aside, one might add that vice, whatever else it may be, is expensive, and the American coffers were generally empty. Colonel Ebenezer Huntingdon wrote that the inflated continental currency is “good for nothing… my Washing bill is beyond the limits of my wages.” An army that cannot afford shoes is a bad market for sex and liquor. The women who followed the Americans, it seems, were for the most part refugees displaced by British occupation.
Whatever their numbers or condition, however, the women who followed the common soldier on both sides of the Revolution remain for the most part anonymous. We can reconstruct their sins and sufferings, great and small, from ration rolls and orderly books, occasionally a letter or a journal, but with rare exception we never fully realize them as living personalities. The wives of officers–”ladies of quality” in the language of the class-conscious eighteenth century–come into sharper focus as personalities largely because their record is more complete. In fact the most detailed and vivid account of the American Revolution by a woman is the letters and journals of an officer’s wife. Ironically, she was neither English nor American, but Prussian, the Baroness Frederika Charlotte Louise von Riedesel.
She was the wife of General Friedrich Adolf von Riedesel, Baron of Eisenbach. He was the son of a government assessor, born at his father’s ancestral castle at Lauterbach in Rhine-Hesse in 1738. His mother was the daughter of a Prussian general, but his father, having one son in military service already, sent him against his inclinations to Marburg to study law. Friedrich resisted his father’s will, however, and was commissioned a vice ensign in a Hessian regiment. A conscientious and able soldier, he rose rapidly in the ranks and was later reconciled to his father.
In 1761 he fought under the Duke of Brunswick on the English side of the Seven Years’ War, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Minden, rising to the rank of captain. (Typical of the mercenary system of eighteenth-century warfare, Riedesel’s older brother fought at Minden also–with the French.) The Baron was a thirty-seven-year-old Colonel of carabineers commanding the garrison at Wolfenbuttel when the Duke of Brunswick contracted with George III to furnish 3,936 infantrymen and 336 unmounted dragoons for the handsome price of 11,517 pounds each year the troops were in service and twice that amount for two years after their return. Riedesel was promoted to the rank of general and commanded the first contingent of Germans–Brunswickers, not Hessians–sent to America in April 1776.
In 1776 the General was already an established family man with two daughters and a third child expected. In 1761 as a young captain of cavalry he had courted and won sixteen-year-old Frederika von Massow, daughter of Commissary General von Massow, whose home was not far from the seat of war at Minden. Their courtship was a model of propriety and their marriage arranged according to the custom of the eighteenth century: Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick (the “Hero of Minden”) with the approval of his brother, Charles I, and the consent of the bridegroom’s father approached the Commisary General on behalf of Baron von Riedesel, who wished to marry his second daughter, Frederika. There is no record of the bride being consulted.
Even so, it was clearly a love-match. Johann Heinrich Tischbein painted the bride and groom in 1762 and they made as romantic a couple as one could wish. The bride was a gay and really quite beautiful young woman portrayed as “Spring,” bedecked with flowers and wearing a gown with a daring neckline. The groom’s portrait outshone the bride’s for finery: powdered wig, gold braid from shoulder to waist, a scarlet sash about his middle, red riding pantaloons, and a sky-blue cape trimmed with white fur. They were more than passionate sweethearts, however, and became something rare in any age but especially so in an age of relaxed sexual ethics–husband and wife genuinely devoted and faithful to each other.
The depth of Frederika’s love for her husband is seen in her earnest desire to follow the General to America and accompany him in his campaigns. It was, as we have seen, common practice for women to follow the troops, and ladies of quality were no exception: Frederika’s father had taken his family with him on his campaigns, and among the English, Lady Maria Carleton and Lady Harriet Acland were to follow their husbands; among the Americans the wives of Washington, Greene, and Gates followed the camps from time to time. It was no light undertaking, however, for a woman with three children under six years of age. If nothing else, the realities of a two-month Atlantic crossing was often a sufficient deterrent. Moreover, the Baroness was in some ways naive and believed tall tales about the wilds of North America. (Recall that in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it is “a very knowing American” who testifies to the delicacy of infant’s flesh.) Nevertheless she remained determined to follow.
The Baroness’ letters reveal something of her simple piety and the real anguish she felt in being separated from her husband. “Oh my dear, one more time, do not deceive me,” she wrote from Wolfenbuttel, “let me follow, and make it at the beginning of the month of June or the end of May…. Believe me, to delay my happiness is to tax my life, because I love you so much, and it is certain I have never loved you so much as at present.” The Baron felt the pangs of separation as deeply as his wife. “Dearest wife,” he wrote from Liefert, never “have I known greater sufferings than upon my departure this morning. My heart was broken, and had I the opportunity of going back, who knows what I would have done!”
But as much as he missed “Mrs. General” and his three daughters, the Baron had second thoughts about the wisdom of bringing his family to America. “Dearest and best of wives,” he wrote from the Pallas in mid-ocean, “in spite of my love for you and my burning desire to see you again… had I known of all the hardships of such a long voyage, I would never have suggested that you make such a trip.” According to the Baron, only he and the English captain, Nathaniel Foy, had escaped seasickness in the rough weather. So sick in fact was the crew that the General and Captain Foy were reduced to cooking for themselves–unthinkable for officers under normal circumstances. Riedesel had misgivings but did not deny his wife. “But for Heaven’s sake, do not travel alone,” he insisted, “wait for Mrs. Foy or some other lady of quality” who may travel with you.
The Baron was blissfully unaware of the difficulties his wife would have with Mrs. Foy. The daughter of a New York Tory merchant, Hannah Foy was even then in Bristol with her sisters, where they enjoyed the gallantry of a wide circle of admirers. In short, Mrs. Foy was not so anxious to be reunited with her husband as the Baroness. And though Lord Germain had been good enough to secure Mrs. Riedesel a place on a packet ship set to leave from Portsmouth, Mrs. Foy and her sister chose to remain in Bristol for the winter. Frederika remained as well and was genuinely desolated: “If you but knew how I suffer!” she wrote, “I wish I were dead… oh, do not forget me, pity me, love me always, as I love you.”
In addition to the problem of Hannah Foy’s unseemly behavior and refusal to sail for America, the Baroness had other difficulties adjusting to English life. A thoroughly aristocratic lady in the German mold, Mrs. Riedesel did as all German ladies did in the middle of the eighteenth century–she dressed herself and her daughters in the French fashion. Feeling in England, however, ran high against France and everything French, and while strolling one day with Mrs. Foy, in “a chintz gown trimmed with green taffeta,” the Baroness was surrounded by a crowd of English sailors, who jeered and cried out “French whore!” Mrs. Riedesel escaped to a nearby shop, but when she returned home she gave the dress to her cook, “although it was still quite new.”
The Baroness had her successes in Bristol, however. She had a court-dress made in the English fashion, and was presented by Lady George Germain to King George III and Queen Charlotte (who had been Princess of Mecklenburg-Sterlitz). The Queen admired the Baroness’ courage and the King spoke highly of the General’s service to the English cause. George also–quite unexpectedly–kissed Mrs. Riedesel, who “turned fiery red as a result.” She considered herself “naturalized” by the King’s kiss, and it was a small victory in a disappointing winter.
Her connections at court proved valuable, for through them she met Sir Brook Watson, a rich London banker. Watson, orphaned at the age of six, had made his way in the world largely through his own exertions. He had had his foot bitten off by a shark in Havana in 1749, but survived to become commissary to Wolfe in the Seven Years’ War and later a successful London merchant and member of Parliament for London from 1784 to 1793. He was not, as Mrs. Riedesel claims, thrice Lord Mayor of London, but served one troubled year in 1796. In 1777, however, he was in a position to do the Baroness a favor, and secured her a place on his merchantman bound for Quebec. “Mr. Watson showed me the ship,” she relates, “and introduced me to the captain and the entire crew, declaring to them that whoever might give me offense might expect the same punishment as though he had done the same to himself, and that should I complain of any one of them that man would be discharged immediately.”
The Baroness set sail from Spithead on the 16th of April 1777 in Mr. Watson’s merchantman with a good wind in a large convoy of British ships protected by the man-of-war, Blonde. With her were her three daughters, Augusta, Frederika, and Caroline, the irrepressible Mrs. Foy, her sister, and her maid, the Riedesel’s man-servant Rochel and a brace of maids to care for the children. The Baroness was in good health and well prepared for the voyage: she brought limes for the children and a pipe (126 gallons) of the best Madeira for the General. A pious woman in her aristocratic way, Mrs. Riedesel had “absolute faith that God would guide [her] safely to [her] husband.”
As it turned out it was a relatively smooth voyage, but as the General was to be disappointed in his expectation of Mrs. Foy, so Watson for all his threats was to be disappointed in his captain. Captain Arbuthnot, the Baroness learned to her dismay, was one of Hannah Foy’s Bristol gallants, and her “old friendship with the captain prevented her from refusing him those liberties which he had enjoyed in the past.” To compound matters, Hannah’s maid, Madmoiselle Nancy, had made the trip only to escape a country where she was “too well known” in order to find “the dissolute sort of friends she liked among the sailors.” Nancy was successful in her quest: she spent her Saturday nights in Mrs. Riedesel’s antechamber “carrying on,” as the Baroness puts it, with an “old sot.” But if Mrs. Riedesel was offended by the peccadillos of Mrs. Foy and Captain Arbuthnot, she remained a gracious and charitable woman. When they arrived at Quebec on the 11th of June, British press gangs boarded the ship to look for “extra” sailors. The Baroness petitioned the British and none of Arbuthnot’s crew were impressed. The Captain was properly humbled.
From Quebec Mrs. Riedesel traveled inland to Montreal and from Montreal to Chambly by carriage and canoe. It was her first experience with a canoe and not surprisingly it unsettled the otherwise intrepid Baroness and terrified the children. But at Chambly they were finally reunited with the General and there was great rejoicing and thanksgiving, despite the fact that winter quarters in Trois Rivieres had left the Baron–not a vigorous man to begin with–looking thin and wasted. The reunion was a brief one, however. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne had assumed command from Sir Guy Carleton, and the British forces with their German allies were gearing up for an offensive into New York. Riedesel returned to this troops stationed upriver.
Riedesel and his Brunswickers moved south with the main body of British troops, taking Fort Ticonderoga and finally engaging the Americans at Hubbardton, Vermont, in July 1777. Here Riedesel distinguished himself by coming to the aid of Frazer’s corps on the weakened British left. By no means a flamboyant man, the chubby German led a flamboyant attack, sending his men into battle singing to the music of their band, and routing American resistance. Riedesel also wisely counseled against the raid on Bennington, counsel which Burgoyne ignored. Though Riedesel’s Germans fought bravely, Burgoyne’s blunders made it possible for the Americans to drive the British from the field.
During this offensive the Baroness and the girls followed for the most part a step behind the army, and it was not until September 1777, at Saratoga that she saw the fighting at first hand. “Knowing that my husband was taking part in it,” she wrote, “I was filled with fear and anguish.” She had good reason to fear for herself as well. In October 1777, she and the girls were staying in a house near the vortex of the Battle of Bemis Heights. They huddled in the cellar during the bombardment with wounded and dying soldiers. Upstairs a surgeon was amputating the leg of a wounded soldier when a cannonball came through the wall amputating the soldier’s other leg. “It was a terrible bombardment,” she wrote with simple pathos, “and I was more dead than alive.” She was composed enough, however, to see to the wounded, and her journals suggest that she enjoyed the role of noble Angel of Mercy.
Burgoyne retreated only a short distance–again ignoring Riedesel’s advice–where he spent the night “singing and drinking and amusing himself in the company of the wife of a commissary, who was his mistress, and like him, loved champagne.” Though Captain Foy was at the time one of Burgoyne’s commissaries, it is unlikely that the woman was Hannah Foy; in view of what the Baroness said of Hannah’s conduct in Bristol and during the crossing, surely she would have named her in this connection. But whoever the woman was, Burgoyne’s delay–as General Riedesel predicted–proved the undoing of the British and they surrendered shortly thereafter.
The General and Mrs. Riedesel, who as aristocrats distrusted leveling American republicanism, were to spend most of their tour in America as prisoners of war. The Baroness was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that the Americans were not the barbarians the tall tales made them out to be. As she rode through the American camp, the troops bowed to her and “some of them even looked with pity to see a woman with small children there.” She was the guest of the American General Philip Schuyler at Albany while her husband marched to winter quarters in Boston with his troops.
The Riedesels also enjoyed the kindness of General William Heath, who found them a comfortable country house near Cambridge. But since there was a critical shortage of food and fuel in Massachusetts, the “troops of the Convention,” as they were called, were marched to Charlottesville, Virginia, in November 1778. In Virginia, despite similar shortages of food and fuel, the Riedesels enjoyed the patronage of Thomas Jefferson, who treated the troops of the Convention with extraordinary compassion. There also the Baroness saw slaves for the first time, and her language indicated she had no greater objection to the institution than a Virginia planter of the day: the “Negroes are very good servants, very faithful to their master,” she wrote, though overworked and allowed to “walk about stark naked until they are between fifteen and sixteen years old.”
In Virginia the Baron suffered a “sunstroke” (perhaps a heart-attack) and Jefferson permitted him to travel to the “medicinal” Berkley Springs to recuperate. There they learned that he was to be exchanged for an American officer and the Riedesels, after expressing their “heartiest thanks for every mark of friendship” to Jefferson, prepared to journey to New York. They lived well in New York in the luxuriously furnished home of a rebel who had fled the city, and their fourth daughter, America, was born there in March of 1780. In October of that year the General was finally exchanged for General Benjamin Lincoln, and given a command on Long Island. The General saw no more action against the rebels, however, and about the time the last British hopes for victory in America were crushed at Yorktown, Riedesel was transferred to a command in Canada to await a formal treaty of peace.
The Baroness had a comfortable home and a plentiful table at Sorel, Quebec, and the General’s command was uneventful. But the Riedesels had grown weary of North America: vertigo and violent headaches had troubled the General since his “sunstroke” in Virginia, and their fifth daughter, Louisa Augusta Elizabeth Canada, born on November 1, 1783, died only five months later. In August of 1783 the German aristocrats sailed at last for Europe, reaching Portsmouth in mid-September. Queen Charlotte immediately invited the Baroness to court, where she was received warmly–even though she had no court-dress. In a rather remarkable gesture of esteem in a fanatically clothes-conscious age, the Queen assured her that the royal family “did not look at clothes when we are happy to see the people.” Though one might expect the English to avoid the Riedesels as living symbols of defeat, they received visits from the Kingdom’s most powerful–Lord North, General Tryon, and Charles James Fox.
They returned in October to Germany, where Riedesel and his troops were welcomed as heroes by the Duke of Brunswick. With the General’s active campaigns and Mrs. General’s camp following at an end, they retired to the Baron’s castle at Lauterbach, where their long-awaited male heir was born in 1785. The General in his declining years occupied himself with administrative tasks for the Duke of Brunswick and Mrs. Riedesel wrote her famous journal and arranged her letters with the editorial aid of her son-in-law, Count Reuss. The General died in his sleep on January 6, 1800, and the Baroness after a brief illness eight years later.
Mrs. Riedesel’s journals and letters reveal an aristocrat suggestive of Yeats’s Augusta Gregory–”all that pride and that humility.” While conscious of her noble blood, she remained under the stress of her travels sensitive, generous, humane. She is largely remembered as a type of conjugal fidelity, and William Leete Stone’s encomium on her virtues, despite the effusive language, does not misrepresent her: she was a symbol, he wrote, of “devoted conjugal love, chastened and sanctified… by an unaffected religious experience and the consciousness of a higher ideal of faith and duty.”