Following the Drum --
Women at the Valley Forge Encampment
by Nancy K. Loane (Potomac Books, Washington DC, 2009)
a book review by Ralph D. Nelson, Jr., Historian for the FLSSAR
Man or woman -- if you wish to understand the roles of women in the military during the War of Independence this is a book you should read.
We all know that Martha Washington spent the winter of 1777-78 with her husband at Valley Forge, but how and with whom did she spend her days? We all know that many women helped the Continental Army with the crucial, more domestic, chores of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and tending to the sick and wounded, but where did they come from, what was their pay, and how did they manage with babies and children?
Nancy Loane -- a long-time historical interpreter at Valley Forge -- has done extensive research using contemporary documentation and later family histories and historical texts. There are 27 pages of end-notes and eight pages of bibliography to support the 165 pages of text. The scope of the book is much broader than the title implies. There are sketches of the whole lives of several officers' wives -- social background, wartime deprivation, deaths of children, and the good or bad fortunes following the war. There are details of camp life not only at Valley Forge, but at each of the winter encampments. The author explores the history of several popular stories about women as these stories diverge more and more widely from facts supported by contemporary documentation to become elegant myths that we enjoy tellng to idolize our heroes.
The author starts with the better-documented lives of officer's wives (Washington, Greene, Knox, Biddle, Stirling, Shippen), who left diaries and were mentioned in the letters and reminiscences of the officers. The officers and wives ached to see each other, but someone had to care for the farms during the winter, travel was dangerous for women, and encampment life was not easy for children. In spite of all this, some ladies spent several winters with their husbands at the encampments.
Next the author tackles the task of determining the names and roles of female slaves, servants, local hired help, and camp-followers. The attitude of the general staff toward camp-followers varied from year to year, begrudgingly recognizing that the camp-followers were necessary to free men for military duties but keenly aware that they were a burden on the food, housing, and mobility of the army. The author reports on the numbers, marital status, military regulations, and pay of the camp-followers. From our perspective in 2013 we can only imagine with horror what it was like to be a woman living in a winter encampment or moving to a new summer camp by walking the dusty or muddy roads behind the baggage train -- women were forbidden to walk with the men or ride the wagons.
This book invites us in imagination to smell the campfires; to hear the clatter of cooking utensils, the morning cannon, and the drillmaster's calls; to feel the dank cold of a log hut on a snowy morning in upstate New York -- far from hearth and home; and to enjoy a welcome taste of meat after two weeks with only flour to cook. Buy it on the Web.