Revolution as a family affair

How the founding fathers brought their wives to war

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Maggie Botelho was quick to defend her colonial forebears when I joked about her playing a “camp follower” in the upcoming “Revolutionary War Encampment” weekend at the Smith-Appleby House on Sept. 24.

“Now, that’s a misconception that a lot of people have,” she said. “Being a camp follower during the Revolution was not like being a camp follower in the Civil War. During the Revolutionary War, the soldiers’ wives and often their children went with them. They were there to offer support and help for their husbands.”

Of course, Maggie was right. It was only after the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the Civil War in America that “camp follower” gained its less that respectable reputation. In an article published in a re-enactors’ history newsletter in 2001, writer Donald N. Moran in "The Liberty Tree Newsletter of the Sons of the Revolution" explained the difference:

“The camp followers that trailed behind the Union Army during the Civil War were not the same as those authorized during the Revolution. The number of women that offered their services to Gen. Joseph Hooker's Union Division were so numerous that they earned the nickname of ‘hookers,’” wrote Moran. “But in the eighteenth century, armies permitted a certain number of women to become part of the Army. But there were several restrictions…the first was that the camp follower had to be married to one of the soldiers. They would be entitled to one half of the rations provided to the men. If they had children with them, those children were entitled to one-fourth ration.”

While Colonial Minutemen, militia, and British Red Coats do battle and host games at a free “Revolutionary War Encampment Living History Weekend” at the Smith-Appleby House on Saturday, Sept. 24, and Sunday, Sept. 25, Maggie, among other volunteers will be showing guests what everyday life was like for the men, women and families who fought in the Revolution. It was not, as they say, a real picnic. Walter Hart Blumenthal’s book, "Women Campfollowers of the American Revolution" addresses the facts in more detail.

“They were not paid by the Army, or as General Washington explained, from public funds. The officers and soldiers usually paid them for sewing, cooking,” writes Blumenthal. “The subject of camp followers was understood, hence little was recorded regarding their governing rules and regulations.”

Blumenthal also quotes a Boston woman’s description of Hessian women captured alongside their men but it could easily be describing camp followers on both sides of the argument: “As the German prisoners marched through Cambridge, Massachusetts they were accompanied by ‘great numbers of women, who seemed to be the beasts of burden, having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double, the contents seemed to be Pots and Kettles, various sorts of Furniture, children peeping thro’ gridirons and other utensils, some very young Infants who were born on the road, the women bare feet, cloathed in dirty rags ...’”

This is the kind of scene that Botelho and her fellow re-enactors are attempting to recreate at the Smith-Appleby House.

“When kids read about the Revolution in books or even see photos of what it was like, they don’t get the smell of the hay the soldiers slept on,” said Botelho, “they don’t get the smell of the gun-powder. Here they get a real sense of bringing alive, of the day to day life of a soldier.”

People who come to the camp weekend will also get a chance to visit the house itself. For over 300 years, the people who lived in the house had family ties that went back to the original white settlers of Rhode Island.

The Smith-Appleby House Museum began as a one-room stone-ender with a loft above. It was built around 1696 by Elisha Smith, the grandson of John Smith, the miller and cartographer and a member of Roger William’s original party of six men who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle in Providence. The size of the house was doubled when a two-room building was brought to the site around 1730 and attached to the original house. Other additions and modifications were made over the years to accommodate the family. The last addition was made around 1813, when a new modern kitchen, with a “beehive oven” was added, bringing the house to its present twelve rooms.

“George Washington never slept here,” said Maggie Botelho last spring, another volunteer and mainstay of the museum. “There were no governors that grew up here, no senators. But the fact that it is still here, reflecting where a bride was brought, where they raised their children…That’s what makes the place so special, the lives of they people who lived here.”

Now people who attend the camp weekend can see at least a portion of those ancestors’ lives and appreciate the sacrifices American families made during the Revolution. But before you set your three-cornered hat for some solemn reflection on history, consider the fun they are offering as well:

The First Annual Apple Pie Baking Contest is free to enter and open to individuals or groups working as a team. Local apples are preferred, prepared in a nine-inch aluminum pie plate. The recipe must accompany each entry. Pies should be submitted at the event on Saturday, Sept. 24 between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. Ribbons and bragging rights will be awarded to the top three pies.

Tours of the House Museum are offered every half hour. Adults are asked for a $4 donation, children under 12 are free.

There will be organized games for children, including tug of war, military drills and graces and hoops. Also planned are demonstrations of spinning, fire starting, musket ball making & campfire cooking.

Food and beverages will be available from vendors and 18th Century wares will be on sale Sunday.

The Smith-Appleby House Museum is located at 220 Stillwater Rd. in Smithfield, RI, just off I-295. For more information, visit the Website at http://www.smithapplebyhouse.org.

Revolutionary War Encampment Living History Weekend


Saturday – Sept. 24
10:00 – Camp opens
10:00 – Apple pie baking contest entries
10:30 – Assembly of troops & Weapons inspection
11:00 – Military drill
11:30 – Bucksaw and hay bale toss competition
1:00 – Stories of the Revolution with Kathy Potter
1:30 – Skillet Toss competition
2:00 – Skirmish between opposing forces
3:00 – Children’s military drill
3:30 – Apple pie baking contest winners announced
4:00 – Camp closes

Sunday – Sept. 25
10:00 – Camp opens
10:30 – Church service
11:00 – Assembly of troops & Weapons inspection
11:30 – Fashion show: Fashions of the American Revolution
1:00 – Stories of the Revolution with Kathy Potter
2:00 – Skirmish between opposing forces
3:30 – Children’s military drill
4:00 – Camp closes

Free and open to the public.

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