By Kevin Coughlin
“Camp follower” has an unsavory ring to it. But camp followers were vital to America’s War of Independence, according to Abigail Shelly, who is impersonating one at this weekend’s annual encampment at Jockey Hollow.
She is among nearly 200 re-enactors from four states who converged on the Morristown National Historical Park on Saturday, and are staying through Sunday, April 17, 2016.
Some 1,100 visitors attended the first day of the free event, said Vanessa Smiley, the park’s chief of interpretation. They saw demonstrations of musketry, cannon firing, horsemanship…and laundering, by the camp followers.
“General Washington didn’t like them, but officers felt the soldiers would be less distracted if they didn’t have to worry about their wives back home,” said Shelly.
And so, many wives followed the Continental Army, staying about 15 miles behind their fighting men.
Contrary to what one might think, the ladies did not cook for the soldiers. They would have been too tempted to save a little extra grub for themselves, since the Army only gave half-rations to the women, said Shelley, 31, who got hooked on re-enacting as a county park ranger in Pennsylvania.
Besides, there was scant time for cooking after the camp followers finished scrubbing the soldiers’ laundry. The job sounds like no fun at all. Detergent consisted of lye and urine, said Shelly, a Quakertown, PA, resident who works in construction sales.
Laundry aside, she said, the encampment is fun, despite 35-degree temperatures overnight in the place where Washington’s troops endured the harshest winter of the Revolution.
“We talk, we laugh, we sing, we cuddle. We each have one wool blanket on the ground, and one wool blanket for a cover. I think I got two hours sleep last night,” said Shelly, a member of the 3rd New Jersey Greys.
She wore an authentic-looking 18th-century costume that she sewed herself.
“It’s about the relationships you build. You’re living a ‘day-in-the-life-of…,'” Shelly said of her re-enactor hobby. “Being with like-minded people is fun. And you get to teach the public.”
“This is just a great way to kick off National Park Week, during our centennial year,” said Tom Ross, superintendent of the park for the National Park Service, established in 1916.
For a living history lesson from Shelly and her fellow enthusiasts, march over to Jockey Hollow in Harding between 10 am and 5 pm on Sunday. Here is the schedule:
Sunday, April 17, 2016:
10 am – Camp Opens
10:30 am – Hike to the Huts: Join the soldiers as they march from the Wick House to the Soldier Huts
11:30 am – Cavalry Demonstration with Sheldon’s Light Horse
12:15 pm – Children’s Drill
1 pm – Individual Firing Demonstration
2 pm – By Unit Firing Demonstration
3:30-4 pm – Final Formation and Grand Review
5 pm – Camp Closes
Ongoing activities throughout the day (10 am to 5 pm):
Soldiers at the Huts
18th Century Hearth Cooking in the Wick House
18th Century Laundry Demonstration outside the Wick House
Surgeons’ Hospital Tent
Children’s Games Tent