Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution.
To comprehend the Continental army in more holistic terms, Holly A. Mayer would have us envision a functioning community consisting not only of rank-and-file soldiers and line officers but a whole variety of noncombatants as well. These "camp followers" were not just female prostitutes, as popular myth and some historians have so narrowly portrayed them. Among those followers longing to the army" were wives and children of enlistees, sutlers, servants, slaves, volunteers, and employees and managers of various staff departments, representing at any given time up to 50 percent of the army's numerical strength. Many were retainers who as "attendants" performed support functions ranging from cooking and scavenging to waiting upon officers as personal servants. Some were "adherents," such as volunteers who served without pay while seeking to prove their worth and obtain officers' commissions. Regardless of specific attributes and motivations, these camp followers, male and female alike, regularly interacted with rank-and-file combatants in forming a heterogeneous national community with a common mission, the winning of American independence. Their reward for so much useful service, however, has been historical visibility.
Mayer's purpose is to reconstruct the identity of these historically neglected persons. She does so with chapters on sutlers and other contractors, wives and children of combatants (the conjugal family), servants, slaves, and volunteers (the extended family), and civilian and military personnel who performed staff functions ranging from the supply of food, clothing, and transportation to the provision of medical and hospital care. Mayer launches her investigation with a chapter on the Continental army as a functioning - but not always functional - community and offers a later chapter on the nature and application of rules of military order and discipline with particular reference to camp followers.
The author's approach is primarily anecdotal. For example, she states that "a few female followers ... may have turned to prostitution when desperate" (p. 112) but offers no firm evidence to prove this assertion. Dealing with prostitution was an ongoing problem for the army, and Mayer does present a smattering of reports regarding the incidence of venereal disease among male soldiers, a serious matter for a military force too often far below quota in numbers of fighting troops. She also states that "commanders tried to prevent the spread of social diseases and ... social and military disorder by banning prostitutes from their camps." (p. 111) No doubt those women who sought "follower" status in the army avoided acts of prostitution to preserve their place in the Continental community, since they full well knew they would be drummed out of the service if caught. Other women, however, were also present, perhaps more furtively and temporarily so, and they primarily offered themselves as prostitutes. The author could have done more to delineate this distinction, and she is also unclear as to whether women who functioned primarily as prostitutes should be included among those belonging to the army.
Part of the problem is that Mayer's definition of what qualified persons to be classified in her study as camp followers is not particularly clear. Staff officers and civilians and enlistees working in staff departments do not really seem to fit with the other groupings. It is hard to think of General Nathanael Greene, one of Washington's most brilliant fighters who also served as quartermaster general from 1778 to 1780, as a camp follower. By the logic of Mayer's presentation, however, Greene belongs in that category. The author should have provided a list of essential characteristics to help guide readers in the important matter of why this or that group warranted inclusion or exclusion.
Nor does Mayer succeed in illuminating questions that she promises to address. She asks at the outset: "As this community [the army] worked to effect independence - thus guaranteeing a successful political revolution - were there any indications of it engendering a social revolution?" (p. x) Readers will be pressed to find an answer to this question anywhere in the text, unless one counts pre-emptive comments by the author. With regard to women, for example, Mayer soon articulates her own position. Their identity, even among women attached to the Continental community, "remained fixed in the domestic sphere," and "that identification was promoted by the Continental Army's officers and soldiers who were fighting for the rights and property of men." (p. 19) Such observations serve to preclude more extended analysis of possible movement toward significant social change during the Revolutionary era. So as not to confuse readers, it would have made better sense not to raise such questions in the first place.
This book is thus more descriptive and assertive in content than fully analytical. Still, the author has brought to life a broadened base of persons who were a part of the Continental army community, and, despite fuzzy definitions, has shown the absurdity of the camp follower-prostitute stereotype. Scholars interested in the subject of military institutions in relation to the societies of which they were a part will find much useful information in this volume. From that perspective, Mayer should be commended for her efforts.
James Kirby Martin University of Houston
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|Author:||Martin, James Kirby|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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