As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John to "remember the ladies" during the Continental Congress, we must not also forget the many women who played a vital role during the winter encampment at Valley Forge from 1777 to 1778.
Martha Washington (1732-1802) - During the Revolutionary War, Martha joined her husband for part of each winter encampment he attended, including the 1777-1778 encampment at Valley Forge. Martha arrived in the beginning of February and left in early June. Much of Martha's time at the encampment was spent running the household at Washington's Headquarters. This would include organizing daily meals for the staff and entertaining guests and officers' wives. She played a vital role in keeping spirits high with the officers of the army. According to Pierre Etienne Duponceau, secretary to Baron von Steuben, "In the midst of all our distress there were some bright sides of the picture which Valley Forge exhibited...Mrs. Washington had the courage to follow her husband to that dismal abode…"
Catherine "Caty" Littlefield Greene (1753-1814) - The wife of General Nathanael Greene, the newly appointed quartermaster general of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, "Caty" Greene was twenty-four years old when she arrived at Valley Forge in January of 1778. "Caty" Greene entertained other officer's wives and took part in the celebration of the French-American Alliance on May 6th, 1778. At the end of May, Catherine Littlefield Greene made the return trip home back to Rhode Island to be reunited with her two young children.
Lucy Flucker Knox (1756-1824) - The wife of General Henry Knox, the commander of the Continental Army's Artillery, Lucy Knox was one of the youngest of the officers' wives at Valley Forge, at the age of twenty-two. She arrived at the encampment in late May of 1778 with her two-year-old daughter. She joined her husband in the center of the encampment until the army marched out on June 19th, 1778.
Sarah Livingston Alexander (Lady Stirling) (1722(?)-1791) - At fifty-six years old, she arrived at the Valley Forge Encampment to join her husband Major General William Alexander (Lord Stirling). Lady Stirling joined other officer's wives for the camp production of the play Cato.
Hannah Till - Mrs. Till was an African American slave who worked as a cook and servant at Washington's Headquarters during the encampment. Her wages for her work were paid to her master until she was able to purchase her freedom in June of 1780, from the sales of her homemade products.
Elizabeth Thompson - Ms. Thompson was an Irish woman well into her seventies who worked as a housekeeper for General Washington from 1776 until 1781. She managed all the cooks and servants and ensured all linens and rooms were cleaned to the highest standards. She was directly involved in the packing and unpacking of the household goods for Washington's many headquarters throughout the war.
Many women took to the road and joined their husbands with the army. The women walked carrying whatever possessions they had on their backs and frequently carrying or leading their children. They came from a variety of backgrounds, so their appearances and possessions varied. General George Washington believed that women should not be allowed to follow the army for a variety of reasons, however Washington realized that the many camp followers often filled roles that were essential to the survival of the army.
Some women earned rations through nursing, or by laundering and mending clothes. Other women sold provisions to the army as sutlers. If a woman violated military regulations, she could expect to be arrested, tried, and if found guilty, punished in the same manner as a man. An example of this punishment comes from the General Order of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment in 1778: "Should any women refuse to wash for a soldier at the army rate...the officer commanding the company...is immediately to dismiss her from the regiment…"
Nurses tended to the sick and wounded in military hospitals around the encampment. In 1777 Congress authorized eight dollars per month as payment for their services. The following year General George Washington ordered the regimental commanders to assist their surgeons in acquiring as many women of the army as possible to serve as nurses. One such woman, Jane Norton, when trying to obtain her pension mentioned her service caring for the sick and wounded during the encampment of 1777-1778.
Polly Cooper - A young Oneida woman who came to Valley Forge, assisted the soldiers caring for the sick and dying. As a thank you for her service Martha and George Washington presented her with a black shawl.
Mary Hayes "Molly Pitcher" (1754-1832) - Mrs. Hayes was daughter of a New Jersey Dairyman and married at the age of 13 to a barber named William Hayes. Her husband enlisted in the PA artillery and Mary joined him during the Philadelphia Campaign. During the battle of Monmouth her husband was wounded and Mary took over firing the artillery. She and her husband wintered here at the Valley Forge Encampment.
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Gibson, James E. Dr. Bodo Otto and the Medical Background of the American Revolution. Sarasota Fl. Coastal Printing, 1937. Print
Loane, Nancy K. Following the Drum: Women at the Valley Forge Encampment. Potomac Books, 2009. Print.
Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina, 1996. Print.
Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Stephenson, Michael. Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.
Weisfeld, Ellen K. Women In The American Revolution: Background Information on Women Present at Valley Forge. 1977. Print.
"Molly Pitcher" Valley Forge Historical Society. www.ushistory.org
Last updated: October 4, 2020