The Cat's Out of the Bag: Keeping the Guards (and Their Wives) In Line

As part five in our series on the Brigade of Guards' 1781 "Road to Yorktown", this article continues the narrative of their Spring 1781 North Carolina campaign with the Guards' actions immediately following their loss in the "Race to the Dan". As in previous entries, it is adapted heavily from research by Linnea M. Bass and William M. Burke available on the 4th Company's website.

Having met little success in augmenting his forces with North Carolina loyalists at Hillsborough, Lord Cornwallis departed the town on February 25, 1781 and headed toward Alamance Creek, where British forces continued to suffer from supply shortages. As Serjeant Robert Lamb of the Royal Welch Fusiliers explained in his account of the war, they had all but emptied Hillsborough of provisions:
Such was the scarcity of previsions at Hillsborough, that it was found impossible to support the army in that place. They were even obliged to kill some of their best draft horses. (Lamb, p. 343)

In these desperate circumstances, wives accompanying the Guards found themselves needing to acquire items through "other means", and they were promptly punished for it. On March 1, Brigade Orders specified that all Guards women were to have their possessions inspected, and that at all future inspections they were not to have any items not legitimately acquired. All improperly obtained articles were to be burned at the head of the company.

The following day, all of the Guards' women (except those in service of the officers) were ordered to attend roll calls and, if absent, be whipped and drummed out of the Brigade. Bass and Burke note that this command came after Guards commanding officer Brigadier General Charles O'Hara explained his embarrassment at charges that members of the Brigade were leaving camp without permission and plundering. The order for the Guards' women to attend all punishments was clearly a move to get them "in line" as well, and it would stand until March 11.

A scene of 18th Century British Army camp life. The tents on the left, of course, would not have been present following Cornwallis' order to burn all baggage at the start of the "Race to the Dan" in January 1781.

In terms of women following the Guards, then, exactly how many are we talking about? Well, we know that the Guards did not have any "unaccompanied" females following them. Rather, some of their wives had been allowed (likely in ratio of one for every six soldiers) to travel with them from England and perform the camp duties of nursing, laundry, sewing, guarding the baggage, etc. And according to Brigade Orders,  only 4 women for every 50 soldiers were allowed to embark at New York in preparation for the journey to South Carolina in October 1780. That would mean the total number of "Guards women" in North Carolina may have reached 70. And while the rank and file would slowly erode through rising casualties in February and March 1781, the number of women probably stayed about the same.

We must then ask - was O'Hara (and by extension Cornwallis) uniquely singling these women out for punishment? Well, in actuality, the Guards had been held accountable for "plunder" throughout the war. For example, in New York City on September 12, 1778:
W[illiam] Gamble private Sold[ier] in the Cold[stream] Regt of foot G[uards] tried by the G: C: M: [General Court Martial]...for Breaking into the House of Mr Rich[ard] Sharps and Putting Mrs Sharp in fear of, her Life, is found Guilty of the Crimes Laid to his Charge and Sentenced to Receive 1000 lashes - the Com[mander] in Chief approves of the above Sentence, and orders the prisoner to Receive his Punishment at such times and in Such Proportions as the Commanding off[icer] of the Brigade of G[uards] think Proper...(
The cat o' nine tails, the instrument of punishment via "the lash".

Now of course, a sentence of 1000 lashes was never actually carried out to its full extent (otherwise, you might as well just hang someone). But it was clear that the British Army at the time would not suffer overt plunder. Rather, as the Guards' orderly book for September 24, 1778 notes:
L[ord] Cornwallis is Much Surpris[ed] to find that Notwithstanding his Positive orders to the Contrary Many horses have been taken from the inhabitants...he Expects that Comm[anding] off[icers] will See them Restored and Prevent the like practice in the future...if it necessary to press any horses for the Reg[imental] Waggons, the Comm[anding] off[icers] will give Receipts for them & Report to the Command[ing] off[icer] of the Brigade...
It's no surprise then that once the Guards fell in with Cornwallis' Southern Army in Fall 1780, they continued to be held to these higher did their women.

One final note - we mustn't forget that an officer would never be given the lash. Instead, as indicated by the General Court Martial held on October 24, 1778, they would simply be dismissed from service:
Cap[tain] Martin McIvoy of the Royal Catholick volunteers tried by the above [Court Martial] for Plundering in the Jerseys in taking a Horse & Cow & behaving indecently on the Parade, is found guilty & Sentenced to be Dismissed from his Majestys Service... 
Certainly this was a significant punishment in and of itself, but it's no 1000 lashes...


Burns, Alex (2017), "Was the Average Eighteenth-Century Soldier Married?", Kabinettskriege, available at:

Dunkerly, Robert M. (2014), "8 Fast Facts About Camp Followers", Journal of the American Revolution, available at:

Grace, Maria (2017), "Camp Followers in the Long Georgian Era", Random Bits of Fascination, available at:

Lamb, R. (1809), An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences During the Late American War from Its Commencement to the Year 1783 (Dublin: Wilkinson & Courtney)

Orderly Book: Second Brigade, British Foot Guards, New York" covering Aug. - Dec. 1778. REel 6, document 65, of Early American Orderly Books Series microfilmed by Research Publications, Inc.


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