Women Nurses in the Revolutionary War
Women performed crucial tasks in the American Revolution, organizing fundraising drives, supplying the troops, working in the military camps, and tending to the wounded soldiers. One of the most common ways that women supported the war effort was by making homespun, home-made cloth that took on revolutionary symbolism after the colonies imposed boycotts on British goods, including textiles. Some women even acted as spies, and there is at least one documented case of a woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the war.
It was not typical for women to play a role on the battlefield during times of war, but the soldiers of the Continental Army needed their help. Their services allowed more men to be soldiers, and looking at how the men and women served alongside each other paints a bigger picture of the war environment. Let’s explore some of the women’s responsibilities during the Revolutionary War, including nursing and how it became an option for both women and men. Many women earned a small living by doing laundry and sewing for soldiers. They earned supplies and wages on a per-item basis, and the Army kept careful tabs on how much women could charge for these services. West Point officers demanded that “the following Prices be paid for Washing; to the Women, who draw provisions, with their respective Companies, For a Shirt two Shillings; Woolen Breeches, Vest and Overalls, two Shillings, each; Linen Vest, and Breeches, one Shilling, each; Linen Overalls, one Shilling and Six Pence each; Stock, Stockings and Handkerchief, Six pence each; the Women who wash for the Companies, will observes these regulations.” The Army also paid careful attention to make sure women didn’t wash clothes in the same rivers men drank out of, or wash them within the camp’s living quarters. Another responsibility women took on during the Revolutionary War was cooking. “When soldiers entered the Army, they formed ‘messes,’” History.org explains. “These messes were generally composed of six men who shared housekeeping chores, including getting water, chopping wood, and cooking meals. However, on occasion, women of the regiment earned extra money by cooking for men who could afford to pay them.” Because men were so needed on the battlefield, it was a welcome solution to have women serve as nurses, but quite out of the ordinary. Despite the opportunity to earn money, nursing was a dangerous and low-reputation job. “Officers therefore alternately bribed and threatened women to take up nursing” by enticing them with payment or taking away food from women who refused to nurse.
Women also contributed material and financial help to the army during the war to help win the war. Arendt (2014) discusses how a French correspondent Francois Jean de Beauvoir who also worked with the American army documented women in Philadelphia seeking funds and materials to help their men in the war. According to Arendt (2014), in 1780, the government had spent a lot on the military and therefore needed help from citizens to sustain the war for independence. Prominent problems at the time that the military faced include the lack of military supplies, urban rioting, and mutinies in the military, and political groupings after the defeat of Charleston. The defeats of American soldiers threatened the citizens, and people became very willing to support their soldiers (Kneib, 2004). Women too were not left behind. Francois Jean de Beauvoir reported how women in Philadelphia from wealthy families created an association to help their soldiers in the war with supplies. The women also mobilized other women and offered civil education on issues that affected the country at the time. According to Francois Jean de Beauvoir, he entered the storage at the home of a woman called Sarah Bache. Bache was the daughter of Benjamin Franklin. The lady had about 2000 shirts meant for soldiers that fought at the Pennsylvania line (Kneib, 2004). According to the Frenchman, the ladies had contributed money from their purses and bought linen which they cut and made into shirts for the soldiers. The French said that the production was of a large scale and it was a significant contribution to the war. In the case recorded by Francois Jean de Beauvoir and examined by Arendt (2014) women took an economic role at a time when their men were busy fighting for their independence.
To conclude, women were not altogether powerless or defenseless at home. In fact, many of them had a direct impact on the revolutionary cause by joining the informal yet effective group called the Daughters of Liberty. The Daughters of Liberty existed from 1765 through the Revolutionary War, and they helped stimulate patriotism as well as decrease the colonists' dependence on British-made goods. They organized boycotts of British goods and encouraged women to make homemade supplies for their families and the soldiers. This goes to show that even from home, women had a big impact on the course of the revolution.
Agent 355. (2017, April 02). Retrieved from http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2011/12/agent-355.html
Arendt, E. J. (2014). ‘Ladies Going about for Money’: Female Voluntary Associations and Civic Consciousness in the American Revolution. (2), 157. doi:10.1353/jer.2014.0024
Charles E. Hatch, J. (1953). Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution Walter Hart Blumenthal. The William And Mary Quarterly, (2), 333. doi:10.2307/2936971
Cohn, J. (2003). Serving Her Country. Read, 53(6), 28. DeAngelis, G., & Matthews, A. (2016). Camp Followers. Cobblestone, 37(3), 26.