On War, Part One: George Washington, Principled Leadership, and “Women on the Ration”

A couple of weeks ago I spent the day attending the fifth annual “On War” military history symposium at the Pritzker Military Library.  This was the third time I’ve attended and the third time I’ve come away with a notebook full of ideas, factoids, and hot leads that I want to track down—complete with stars, arrows tying ideas together, and an occasional streak of highlighter. It was the first time I came away feeling like I was there as part of the community rather than an interested outsider. By day’s end I was both exhausted and energized. Most importantly, I was ready to write.

In previous years I’ve written reports on the conference as a whole. You can find them here and here. This year I tried to do the same. It just didn’t come together, leaving me with no blog post last Tuesday. Instead I’d like to explore a couple of the ideas that caught my attention over the course of the next few blogposts. *

The day began with David Hackett Fischer, author of Washington’s Crossing, speaking about how George Washington created “a new way of leading free people in a difficult time” that linked the values of the American Revolution with the conduct of the war itself. In some ways, Washington reinvented himself in the process. At the beginning of the war, he wrote about New England as if it were an unpleasant foreign country. (They didn’t think too highly of him either.) He ran his first councils of war with the top-down style of a member of the Virginian elite who learned what he knew about the military from the British in the French and Indian Wars. Over the course of the war, his councils developed into a process of consensus building and negotiation that drew on the expertise of everyone in the room, including civilians. He later used the same leadership technique as president, bringing different viewpoints to his cabinet while trying to govern from the center. As Fischer put it “He got Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams in the same room and kept them there for four years. Not an easy job.” Fascinating stuff, particularly when Fischer expanded it into a brief discussion of American political leadership at its best–with the acknowledgement that we have often suffered from leadership that did not measure up to the standards set by Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.**

I expect I’ll be thinking about Fischer’s ideas about presidential leadership at its best for some time. But the idea that caught my immediate attention and led me to pull his book off the shelf was a brief side excursion he took into the question of how women were integrated into eighteenth century armies.** It’s a topic I’ve spent some time thinking about in recent weeks. Fischer claimed that “women on the ration” made up about ten percent of the British army at the time of the American Revolution. (A study of French armies about twenty years earlier estimated the number at roughly four percent.) “Camp followers” are often dismissed as prostitutes or women with personal relationships with enlisted men and non-commissioned officers.*** The women who accompanied the army served as laundresses, cooks, sutlers, vivandieres, and pack mules for the men in their lives. They sold alcohol and food to supplement a soldier’s ration**** and, yes, sometimes sex, In the days when armies lived on forage and plunder, they were often the ones doing the foraging and disposing of the plunder. When battles raged, at least some women carried water to the artillerymen, who needed it to swab down the cannons between each round so they didn’t overheat. It’s hard to believe that when push came to crisis that some of them didn’t pick up a weapon and fight. (Molly Pitcher, anyone?)

As armies became more professional over the course of the eighteenth century, the number of women who accompanied armies decreased. When military history took form as a discipline in the early nineteenth century–initially as a way to train professional army officers by using examples from the past–“women on the ration” weren’t part of the story. One more of the many ways in which women have disappeared from history as written. And one more place where a handful of historians are trying to fill in the gaps. If you’re interested in learning more about , I suggest John Lynn’s Women, Armies and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge. 2008.)



*I’ll be talking about the value of the seminar as a busman’s holiday in the newsletter tomorrow. (Or at least that’s the plan. That could go belly-up, too.) If you aren’t yet subscribed to the newsletter, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/cobpk9
**Franklin, not Teddy. According to Fischer, thee are the three who make the list in virtually any poll of the top presidents–though the order may vary,.
***Washington was reluctant to do so, in case anyone is interested.
****Interestingly, no one applies the term to the wives and daughters of senior officers when they accompanied their husbands/fathers on campaign, even though they played a less useful role in military terms.
**** As I mentioned several blog posts ago, Harriet Tubman supported herself at the front by making pies and root beer to sell to soldiers.  She wasn’t the only one.

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