Origins of Service
Women served with the Continental Army from its inception in 1775 – primarily in roles such as laundresses and cooks – jobs that would eventually become part of the Quartermaster Corps. While not in uniform, these women shared in the hardships of Army life during the Revolution.
There were hundreds of thousands of women during the Civil War who got caught up in the nation’s struggle between North and South and assumed new responsibilities and roles during this conflict. Either by staying home to care for farms and families, nursing the wounded, cooking and cleaning for the Armies, spying for the North or South, or disguising themselves as men to fight, women in the Civil War were forced to adapt to the vast social changes affecting the nation. Their ability and willingness to assume new roles reflected the tough American pioneer spirit that would be called on again in future conflicts.
Later, during the Spanish American War, both and doctors and nurses were contracted by the Army. The epidemic of typhoid fever that was prevalent in the Army’s ranks in 1898 led to the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901.
Margaret Corbin - Camp Followers
One of the nation’s first female patriots was Margaret Corbin, a Revolutionary War camp follower.
During the American Revolution women often chose to follow their husbands, fathers or sons as they joined the ranks of the Army. In some cases, a few courageous women such as Margaret found themselves on the battlefield. When her husband, John, was mortally wounded at the Battle of Fort Washington in New Jersey, Margaret took up his post and continued to fire his cannon on the battlefield. Legend has it that she was so skilled at this job, the other soldiers on the battlefield stopped to see who was firing the cannon – knowing John was not that good a shot!
In 1779, Congress authorized a pension for Margaret, earning her the distinction of being the nation’s first servicewoman.
Dr. Mary Walker—Untraditional and Uncanny
Dr. Mary Walker was a contracted Union surgeon during the Civil War and the only woman in our nation’s history to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Andrew Johnson presented her medal in 1865 for outstanding work as an Army “contract surgeon in the service of the United States.” He acknowledged her “patriotic zeal” in caring for Soldiers both in the field and in hospitals.