American History

Camp Follower

Catching sight of Quebec, Baroness Frederika Charlotte Riedesel felt her heart pound. Early on that Wednesday morning—June 11, 1777—the baroness spied from aboard ship a cluster of stone buildings perching on a hilltop between rivers named for Saints Lawrence and Charles, and beyond the little city ranks of forested mountains. It had been nearly a year since Baroness Riedesel, 30, and her small daughters left Brunswick, a German-speaking duchy located in central Europe. They and their servants were to join her husband, an officer whose unit of Brunswickers had been hired to fight with the British Army. As far as Frederika knew, her Friedrich was stationed at Quebec.

In a memoir, the baroness described how, as their vessel entered the harbor, the crews of ships already at anchor fired salutes. A dozen sailors in white wearing green sashes rowed a boat to the ship to escort her to shore—and to deliver bad news. Days before, General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel had left Quebec leading his 3,000 troops as part of a 7,000-man British force marching south to quell a rebellion in the Empire’s other North American colonies. He had left a letter saying where he had gone and explaining that he would send for her and the girls in due time. With her neat coif, pale skin, and elegant dresses, the blue-eyed baroness resembled a porcelain figurine, but she was also strong-willed and determined. Rather than wait for her husband’s summons, she decided to set off into the North American wilds to find her man. Doing so put her in the ranks of camp followers—civilian women with ties personal and practical making them part of 18th century soldiering, even on battlefields.

In the 1700s there was no such thing as Blitzkrieg—the Hundred Years’ War was more the model. Accompanying a soldier on campaign was the only way many military families could have lives together.

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