Search

Camp Followers, an Overlooked part of the Military Portrayal.

The history of camp followers parallels the history of warfare. A mix of wives, children, displaced and opportunistic civilians both reduced logistical strains in some ways and increased them in others, sometimes to worrying levels. Camp followers contributed to the army in ways the military was unable to but also required food, security, and policing.

Camp followers provided goods and services that the military did not supply, including cooking, laundering, liquor, nursing, sutlery, and sexual services. [1] Before the 20th century, camp followers accompanied the baggage train. By the mid-19th century, military logistics organizations had evolved to include more efficient internal medical, ordnance and supply services. This, however, did not mark the end of camp followers. Instead, it started an evolution in how families interacted with organized military units.

The mid-nineteenth century and the American civil war saw a distinct change in the number and composition of camp followers. However, it is important to note that women and children still followed Union and Confederate armies throughout the Civil War. Although I am still searching the Library of Congress collection of Grants papers for the specific General Order, several secondary sources attribute an order to “remove all women from military camps under my command” to General Grant in September of 1864. This lends credence to the proposition that the presence of women in significant numbers was enough of a problem to prompt response at the highest service levels.


Perhaps the strongest argument for the continued presence of female camp followers, and their children, throughout much of the Civil war comes from the official sanction of the “laundress” in Army regulations and manuals. Guidance can be found in the Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States 1861 and the Army of the Confederate States [sic] United States Regulations of 1861 Nos. 121-123,783. The Army employed laundresses, and they were also included as hospital personnel, with the duty being performed by both men and women, white and black. Some women were widows, enlisted men’s or non-commissioned officers’ wives, or mothers of soldiers; others were women employed as nurses whose duties included laundry. Some were enslaved people or female contrabands.[2] Army regulations in 1861 allowed for four women to serve as washerwomen for every one-hundred men. Compensation included “one ration per day” with Children receiving “half rations.” Since sexual favors were another way camp followers made money and gained favor, Laundresses permitted to follow the Army had to have certificates attesting to their good character. Union General Kautz[3], author of “Customs of Service,” also referenced “Four laundresses for each company,” further stating that “soldiers’ wives may be, and generally are, mustered in that capacity.


The role of Laundress was not the only role women filled in or near the camps. Women also served as nurses in field hospitals close to significant engagements and in more permanent facilities where long-term and convalescent care were required. Similar to nurses was the role of the Vivandieres, a term borrowed from the Napoleonic wars. Found on both sides of the conflict, a Vivandieres was usually the wife or daughter of an officer. They often wore a “semi-official” version of a military uniform with a skirt and occasionally drew an Army Salary. In addition to doing laundry, sewing & cooking, they sold the troops harder to get tobacco, coffee, and food to supplement rations. This role faded throughout the war due partly to the aforementioned general order issued by Grant in 1864. Far rarer were the women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the ranks and women who served as spies and couriers hiding messages in their skirts and cosets. Women served essential roles in both the Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission, and in those capacities could also be found in military camps.


Just as it is essential for the reenacting community to accurately depict the soldier in camp and on the battlefield, it is important to depict these lesser-known and often ignored roles. History is a complex and detailed picture, and the clearer we can make that picture, the more likely we are to learn and remember its lessons. Additionally, depicting historically accurate roles involving women and children also affords us an excellent opportunity to welcome family groups into our ranks, ensuring our hobby's continued contribution to the remembrance and honor of those who sacrificed so that our Country might continue to be free and united.


[1] The Oxford Companion to Military History, 2001 Oxford University Press. Richard Holmes, Edited by Charles Singleton, and Dr. Spencer Jones 2011. [2] Civil War Laundresses in the Field, Camp and Hospital. Mescher, 2013 http://www.raggedsoldier.com/final_laundry_vv.pdf [3] August Valentine Kautz was a German American soldier and Union Army cavalry officer during the American Civil War. He was the author of several army manuals on duties and customs eventually adopted by the U.S. military

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All