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Landscape painting of women at an encampment feeding soldiers
Themes of the Period

Roles in the army

Types of service during the American Revolution

While war is generally associated with mighty armies fighting on battlefields, thousands of others had just as important roles, supporting and aiding the war effort. Many armies traveled with women and children, usually wives or children of the soldiers who fought, who assisted in feeding the troops, washing their laundry, and caring for the sick and wounded. Militia members, who were not part of the standing army, supported the military forces when needed or protected the countryside and the home front from British invasion. Wives of officers would support their husbands with entertainment and dinners while also helping them gain allies or intelligence that could help their cause. While the war effort needed soldiers and generals, they were not the only ones with essential roles in the army.

Stories of Roles in the army

Illustrated portrait drawing of Sarah Osborn Benjamin

Sarah Osborn Benjamin

Supporting the patriot frontlines during the American Revolution

Sarah did not just provide support for soldiers in peaceful camps like West Point or Newburgh. Oftentimes they were in the heat of the battle, such as when Sarah carried provisions to soldiers under British cannon fire at the Siege of Yorktown. At least once Sarah donned her husband’s cloak and took his gun on sentry duty, similar to stories of Margaret Corbin and Mary Hayes who took up their husband’s place on a cannon crew. We may never know how many women disguised their sex to serve as soldiers in the Continental Army, like the famous Deborah Sampson. 

Illustrated portrait drawing of Peggy Shippen Arnold

Peggy Shippen Arnold

An attractive socialite who secretly helped facilitate treason

As a wife of an officer in the Continental Army, Shippen hosted gatherings and entertained the American officers who visited her husband, Benedict Arnold. Her real service to the war effort, however, was as a go-between, facilitating communication between Arnold and British Major John André to help pass information to the British Army. From May 1779 until September 1780, she sent coded messages between the two hidden in business transactions and personal letters. After André was captured and revealed their secret plot, she distracted General George Washington and other American officers from meeting with Arnold on September 25, 1780. This distraction helped Arnold escape to British-occupied New York City, avoiding capture and being tried for treason. 

Illustrated portrait drawing of Stephen Tainter

Stephen Tainter

A young patriot who carried a drum instead of a gun

George Washington’s Continental Army was made up of many different kinds of soldiers throughout the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress and the state governments worried about the political risks and financial burden of a permanent standing army, and rarely gave Washington the funds or authority he needed to build a large army of regular soldiers. Instead, he was forced to call upon militiamen like Stephen Tainter to increase his numbers. As Tainter’s service record shows, the militia was called out frequently but usually not for very long. Militia were an important part of the American war effort but Washington constantly wished for a more permanent fighting force.

Illustrated portrait drawing of Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy

Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy

A Frenchman who mapped the Revolution

Mapmakers were a valuable resource for an army, especially an army of amateurs like the Continental Army. Detailed maps of terrain could help generals plan battles and routes of march. From his arrival in 1777 until the arrival of the French expeditionary force under the comte de Rochambeau in 1780, du Chesnoy was probably the most skilled cartographer in the Continental Army. Maps could also serve political purposes, as Lafayette explained in a letter to Henry Laurens in 1778: “I will employ him to make plans of our positions and battle for Washington, for me, and also for the king who will be glad to have an exact draft of Washington’s battles.” Du Chesnoy’s maps were displayed in France and helped boost support for the Americans