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Was your Grandmother a camp follower?
Published: 27 July 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Shirley G. Hodges
Was your Grandmother a camp follower?

Many of us may descend from women who might have been called "camp followers". We some times think of these women as free-spirited women. There were thousands of women who followed their men from one combat area to another during our nation's conflicts.

In most cases they were very helpful in keeping the camps healthy and running smoothly. These women provided a variety of services for the men; cooking, cleaning and caring for the soldiers. In some cases they assisted the nurses by providing care for the wounded soldiers.

The children of the camp followers also had to pitch in and help with the camp operation. The boys would help haul water and firewood. The girls would help the women with the cooking and mending and repairing clothing.

In wartime usually the women stayed behind to take care of the family home or business. Some had to leave their homes in order to survive. If their homes were in occupied territory it would have been impossible for them to stay there. This was often the only way people could keep their families together.

In the Revolutionary War we often think of Molly Pitcher as a great example. She was a very remarkable woman who was a camp follower. Her name was Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. We know her as Molly Pitcher.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley
AKA "Molly Pitcher"
Painting by C.Y. Turner

"Molly Pitcher" at the Battle of Monmouth
American Revolutionary War
Lithograph by Currier & Ives

She played a very important part in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. During the battle Mary carried water in a pitcher to her husband and his fellow artillery gunners. Because of this she was given the nickname Molly Pitcher. Even more remarkably she took her husband's place in the battle when he was wounded. She manned his cannon for the rest of the battle. According to historical reports a cannon shot from the enemy lines passed directly between her legs with her petticoat being the only thing that was damaged. They said that she very calmly stated that she was glad it didn't pass a little higher and immediately went back to work.

The nickname Molly Pitcher was also given to another woman who took up a cannon when her husband was killed at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, New York in 1776. She was seriously wounded but lived until about 1800. She received charity payments and a small pension.

Lucy Webb Hayes
(August 28, 1831 June 25, 1889)

Ironically, the woman I have chosen to use as an example of a Civil War camp follower was also named Hayes. She was the wife of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes who went on to become President of the United States. She would visit him in camp whenever she was able. After Hayes was elected President, the men of his old regiment presented her with a gift. They wanted to show her how much they appreciated her warmth and kindness. When she died in 1889 flags across the United States were lowered to half-staff in honor of the "most idolized woman in America".

In addition to women like those mentioned here there were some women who were spies, thieves, liquor smugglers or prostitutes. We know, of course, that these would not have been any of our ancestors.

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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