Thursday, June 22, 2017

Was the Average Eighteenth-Century Soldier Married?

Reenactors portray British Army soldiers and a laundress  during the 1781 Carolina Campaign
Photo Credit: Joe Bemis 

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to look at a subject more difficult to pin down than soldiers' average age or height. Obviously, eighteenth-century soldiers were real individuals with deep emotional and thought lives. Many of these men carried on relations of various formal and informal types with women in the area they were stationed. However, the question before us today is, did the average eighteenth-century soldier have a wife?

That women accompanied eighteenth-armies is not in question, and has been well documented by historians. As with most of these posts, I am standing on the soldiers of intellectual giants as I write. Don Hagist, David Christiansen, Paul Kopperman, and Jennine Hurl-Eamon have all contributed greatly to this subject with regards to the British Army.[1] Holly Mayer has provided a mass of useful data on the Continental Army in the American Revolution.[2] Finally, in English, Christopher Duffy remains our guiding star for the armies of central and eastern Europe, even if better data exists in other languages.[3] Wherever possible, I have attempted to collate data from situations when soldiers were in garrison, as many few wives accompanied men on campaign, even if some did.

So, without further adieu, was the average eighteenth-century soldier married?

Reenactors portray British soldiers and a camp follower during a Valley Raid in Upstate NY
Photo Credit: Tommy Tringale

Using data from reliable sources only, not estimates, it seems that the average soldier was not married. Indeed, data from three armies suggests that perhaps as few as 20.9%, or just over 1/5th of all soldiers, were married during the eighteenth century.

Scanty data for the continental army leads us to believe that regardless of how many soldiers were actually married, only 2-4% of the total number of men were accompanied by women on campaign.[4] This figure is unhelpful as it is not clear how many of these were married to soldiers or performed work for the army. Even assuming this number was a smaller fraction of married soldiers as a whole, it would seem that majority of soldiers were not married. Hopefully, with the work of American genealogists, we can someday expand this data.

A British Grenadier from the 31st works his magic circa 1748, Morier
In during the later-eighteenth-century, roughly 12.5% of  British soldiers were accompanied by their wives on voyages outside Britain.[5] This matches up rather well with the data from troops stationed at New York during 1779-1780 when there were roughly 17 women per 100 men with the army.[6] British military administration treated marriage in the army with a sort of aloof indifference, which Jennine Hurl-Eamon has compared to the "Don't Ask; Don't Tell" policy of the U.S. Army at the turn of the twenty-first century.[7]

The Austrian Grenadier on the right has found something intensely funny.
Perhaps it is the fact that he isn't married. (Morier, circa 1748)

Oddly enough, the best-kept records for this type of question come from Austria (possibly because the lack of success of Austrian armies after the eighteenth century) so we will first turn to that data. Thanks to the enterprising work of Christopher Duffy, we have muster roll data from 122,435 Austrian privates, NCOs, and invalids.[8] Of those men, some 14.03% of soldiers were married. As might be expected, the number is higher, on average, for NCOs and invalids, and lower for enlisted men. Of all the armies for which data is readily available, the Austrian sample is the lowest and the largest: which is perhaps telling.

An artist's imagining of a Prussian soldier's widow after the Seven Years' War
Beate Engelen asserts that in the Prussian army after the Seven Years' War, some 29.65% of soldiers stationed in Berlin and Potsdam were married.[9] Christopher Duffy puts the Potsdam figure for 1776 a bit higher: at about 32.3 percent of NCOs and men.[10] Thus, the data from the post- Seven Years' War Prussian army might be skewed compared to the average, even if it does come from an army of the period. Why is this?

Thanks to the movement of Russian and Austrian armies, Prussia had lost some 500,000 of its civilian population in the Seven Years' War.[11] Frederick II possessed no illusions about the state of Prussia's economy. Taking drastic and severe measures, he forcibly abducted teenagers (boys and girls) from neighboring states under Prussian control (Saxony and portions of Poland). The boys were placed into the army, and the girls were married to Prussian soldiers. This act was understandably later viewed with some embarrassment in Prussia, even if contemporary foreign observers did not find it shocking. Frederick was willing to take whatever steps necessary to rebuild Prussia, regardless of lives affected.

Whatever their policy towards soldiers' wives, states felt a deep responsibility to soldiers' children. In Prussia, compulsory public education (much like we have in the United States today) was instituted in 1763, and former soldiers were often the teachers. In both Russia and Austria, schools for military children sprang up throughout the eighteenth century. In Russian, they appeared as early as the 1730s, in Austria, they appeared after the Seven Years' War.

Soldiers' wives could be a headache of the first order for military administrators
Many military observers held firm opinions on soldiers' marriage. Prussian cavalry general Warnery, who possessed no great love for women, had this to say regarding soldiers' wives:
"when a German army is on the march, there is no more hideous sight than a whole pack of those stinking Amazons, proceeding on foot or on horseback. They act like raiding parties, and you find them with the advance guard, the rearguard, and on the flanks of the army. No village, no hut is spared their attentions. They comb through the cellars, the rooms, hidden recesses and chests, and make off with whatever they pleace. They put to shame the Cossacks, who are amateurs in comparison."[12]
On the other hand, Frederick II firmly agreed with the practice of marriage for soldiers but preferred his officers remain perpetual bachelors.[13] British Army chaplain William Agar published a series of sermons in 1758, where he called for the total number of recognized wives per battalion to 200 (approx. 1/5 of the paper strength) and defended the virtues of married soldiers.[14]

On average, then, the vast majority eighteenth-century soldiers remained unmarried, even if women and marriage played a vital if limited role in the military system in which they worked.

Feel free to share this post if you know individuals who might be interested.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Hagist, "The Women of the British Army in North America," The Brigade Dispatch, (1994-1995); Kopperman, "The British High Command and Soldiers' Wives in America 1755-1783," JSAHR no. 60, (1982); Christiansen, From the Glorious Revolution to the French Revolutionary Wars: Civil-Military Relations in North-East England during the Eighteenth-Century, (Dissertation, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2005) and Hurl-Eamon, Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth-Century, (2014).
[2] Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution, (1990).
[3] Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, (1981), Army of Frederick the Great, (2nd Ed, 1996) Instrument of War: The Austrian Army in the Seven Years' War, (Vol 1, 2000); Beate Engelen, Soldatenfrauen in Preussen: Eine Strukturanalyse der Garnisonsgesellschaft im späten 17. und 18. Jahrhundert, (2005).
[4] Mayer, Belonging to the Army, 133.
[5] Hurl-Eamon, Marriage and the British Army, 23.
[6] Hagist, "The Women of the British Army in North America,"
[7] Hurl-Eamon, Marriage and the British Army, 24.
[8] Duffy, Instrument of War, 208.
[9] Engelen, Soldatenfrauen in Preussen, 88-89.
[10] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 81.
[11] Schumann, "The end of the Seven Years' War in Europe," in The Seven Years War: Global Views, 514.
[12]  Duffy's translation, Warnery, Saemtliche Schriften, Vol 2, 26-27.
[13]  Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 81.
[14]  Agar, Military Devotion: or the soldier's duty to God, xxix.


  1. In looking at my data for New Hampshire's Continental Soldiers, the majority were not married. In 1776 and 1777 it looks roughly to be 75% of enlisted men were not married. Officers on the other hand, were nearly the inverse. Nearly all captains and higher were married, and only a few notable exceptions such as Alexander Scammell were not. In 1775 most of the lieutenants were married, and the larger portion of ensigns were not. Going into 1776 and 1777, it I think it was becoming clear that the junior officer's pay was insufficient to support a family for one or more years, particularly given the devaluation of the Continental currency.

    By 1780 and 1781, a greater majority of enlisted men appear to be younger and unmarried. The same shift is seen in the ranks of officers, due to some married officers either resigning their commissions or taking the opportunity to not continue in the service when their state reorganized regiments (such as New Hampshire did at the outset of 1781, when they reduced their number of regiments from three to two). This allowed officers who had likely been single as ensigns and lieutenants at the start of the war to be promoted into captain's slots.

    1. Mr. Frye- this is fantastic! Thanks so much.