During the American Revolution, armies on both sides of the conflict had camp followers. Mostly women, they were often reviled even though their services were needed by the armies. The women cooked, did laundry, nursed the wounded, and transported gear from one battlefield to another. There were mistresses and prostitutes among them, but many were the wives and families of soldiers.
These women came from all walks of life. Among the Americans, we have all heard of Martha Washington’s visits to her husband’s winter camps. There were other officer’s wives who joined her and they made life in camp, if not luxurious, at least bearable. Other women were not so lucky, they often followed the army because their homes had been destroyed or were unsafe because of the location. Frequently their only source of income was the small salary received (intermittently) by their husbands. This was true for both revolutionary and loyalist families. In fact, many American women followed the British army, either because they were loyal to the cause, or simply because the British troops were better provisioned.
Senior British officers didn’t usually bring their wives over from England. However, they often had “camp wives” who took care of their needs, including sex. Sometimes these were the actual wives of non-commissioned officers. One of the more famous examples is Elizabeth Loring, wife of Joshua Loring, who kept General William Howe company for three years.
“Sir William he, snug as a flea
Lay all the time a snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm
in bed with Mrs. Loring” ~ Francis Hopkinson
This was not the habit of the Hession officers, however, and Friedrich Adolf Riedesel, Major General of the Brunswick troops, wanted his wife with him. Frederika had married Friedrich in 1762, when she was 16 years old and he 24, after she nursed him back to health following a wound he received during the Seven Years War. By the time the Duke of Brunswick signed a treaty to provide soldiers to the British for the American Revolution in 1776, they had two little girls, Augusta and Frederica, and she was pregnant with their third.
Friedrich left in February of 1776, expecting Frederika to follow after the baby’s birth, however, it was April of 1777 before she was able to set sail for America. Two months after the birth of a third daughter, Carolina, she began her journey, traveling to England to meet the wife of another officer, Captain Foy. When she arrived in Bristol, she didn’t speak the language and was laughed at because of her clothes. Mrs. Foy also refused to leave until she had written permission from her husband, even though they needed to leave before the winter set in. This didn’t happen, so Frederika used the time to learn English and adjust her clothing choices.
“I discovered soon after my arrival in Bristol, how unpleasant it is to be in a city when one does not understand the language…I wept for hours in my chamber, until, finally, I gathered courage and resolved to surmount all difficulties. I took great pains to learn the English language, and in six weeks made such progress as to be able to call for what I wanted, and to understand the newspapers…”
Frederika’s father was a lieutenent general in the Prussian army. As he moved with the army he kept his family close, so Frederika knew what to expect as a camp follower. Still, it was a sacrifice to leave her comfortable home with small children in tow and evidence of her affection for her husband. The journey went well with the exception of seasickness among all her servants and at times the children. Friedrich was well-regarded, and she was treated well because of this and her good nature. In June, two months after leaving England, they arrived in Quebec.
“When it was known in Quebec that I was nearing the city, I was saluted with cannon by all the ships in the harbor; and at twelve o’clock, noon, we saw a boat approaching us, containing twelve sailors dressed in white, and wearing silver helmets and green sashes. These seamen had been sent to fetch me from the ship, and they brought me a letter from my husband, in which he wrote that he had been obliged to set out for the army.”
Frederika and the children had to travel for four days via carriage and canoe to reach Friedrich, but they finally had their joyous reunion. They were separated two days later when the troops left, and Frederika settled in at the convent of the Ursulines at Quebec to wait. Finally, at the end of the summer, Friedrich received permission from General Burgoyne to have Frederika and the children join him in route to capture Albany. They had a pleasant two weeks before hostilities broke out again.
Now at the scene of the fighting on the Hudson river, Frederika spent time comforting and helping the sick, wounded and dying. With her children and servants tucked “safely” in her carriage, she followed the army doing what she could to help. She was an eyewitness to the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September, and present at the Battle of Bemis Heights where she had to clear the dinner table to make a bed for the wounded and dying General Simon Fraser. He had requested burial at 6:00 pm at a particular spot, this was carried out the next day, even though “cannon balls flew continually around and over the party.”
After serious fighting on October 7th, they marched through cold and wet weather to Saratoga. She had no place to change her wet clothes, but dressed her children and put them to sleep on the ground before the fire. The next day fighting resumed, but Frederika was able to find a house for shelter, where she organized the other wives and began to take in wounded and sick soldiers. They remained there for six day under siege and artillery bombardment.
“We were at last obliged to resort to the cellar for refuge, and in one corner of this I remained the whole day, my children sleeping on the earth with their heads in my lap; and in the same situation I passed a sleepless night. Eleven [cannon balls] passed through the house, and we could distinctly hear them roll away. One poor soldier who was lying on a table for the purpose of having his leg amputated, was struck buy a shot, which carried away his other; his comrades had left him, and when we went to his assistance we found him in a corner of the room, into which he had crept, more dead than alive, scarcely breathing”.
On October 17, 1777, the British troops surrendered at Saratoga and Frederika joined her husband in being taken as a prisoner of war. She was frightened as they entered the American camp, but noticed looks of compassion on the faces of the men when they saw her with small children. When they stopped, a man helped the children down from the carriage and told her not to be afraid. Later, the same man offered to let Frederika and her children eat in his tent rather than with all the men. She accepted and had the best meal she had had in a long time. She then found out that he was the American General Schuyler, who also extended to her an invitation to stay at his home.
The Riedesel family stayed with the Schuylers for three days, unfortunately during that time all of Friedrich’s camp equipment was stolen. All they had left was the baggage Frederika had carried in her carriage for the children. It was three years before they were able to replace most of it. Three days later, the defeated army was moved to Boston and later to Virginia. The generals agreed to a “convention” rather than a “surrender”, so technically they were not prisoners of war, but neither were they free to return to Germany.
In November of 1779, Friedrich expected to be exchanged for an American prisoner and the family was allowed to go to New York City. The exchange fell through, but they were treated well by the American officers, and the governor of New York, William Tryon. In spite of this, life wasn’t easy. Although the army officers treated them well, they met with hostility from ordinary citizens and Friedrich’s health wasn’t good. While in Virginia, he suffered from an apparent heart attack and later in New York Friedrich, Augusta, and most of the servants came down with smallpox during an epidemic.
In July of 1781, the family left New York for Canada, finally headed for home, although it would be 1783 before they boarded a ship to sail back to Europe. A fourth child had been born in New York, a daughter they named America, and after their arrival in Canada a fifth daughter arrived who didn’t survive. (After the birth of America, Thomas Jefferson sent his condolences on the birth of another female.)
Life had been difficult for Frederika Riedesel and her family, but it was far more difficult for the lower class women and families who followed the army. Not only was their very survival at stake, but they were treated with disdain by many of the soldiers and citizens. Berkin suggests that the lower class women who did the laundry of the troops and scavenged clothing from the dead “were part of the military life that these men hoped would soon come to an end.” However, the general’s wives “served to distinguish masculine roles from feminine” and reminded them of “a world far removed from the brutality and violence of warfare.”
Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin
The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet, Volume I
Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga by Fredrika Riedesel, translated by William L. Stone, 1867.
“Frederika Baroness Riedesel” by Lina Sinnickson, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1906.
Marshall House (Schuylerville, New York). (2014, October 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:15, April 8, 2015.