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A Woman in Napoleon's Army

Updated: May 10, 2022

With acknowledgement and gratitude to Paul L. Dawson for his research and discovery of the documents and images included in this blogpost.

In Napoleon's Grande Armee, women followed the regiments as patented vivandieres (sutlers) and blanchieseuses (washerwomen). These women were wives and mothers, merchants and bankers. Vivandières provided valuable services. They sold many different goods, ranging from food to fuel, letter paper, and their wagons were often at the centre of regimental social life. The blanchieseuses provided laundry services, especially for the soldier's dirty linens. Both groups of women followed their husbands, either officers or enlisted soldiers, and shared in their hardships.

The soldier-memoirist Elzear Blaze would say of them:

"The cantinieres rendered great services to the army, while making their fortune... These women, endowed with an unusual energy, were tireless; braving the cold, the heat, the rain and the snow like old grenadiers... People who have never lacked the essential things in life cannot imagine the importance of a bottle of wine or a glass of brandy at certain moments. A well-trained cantiniere always had a small reserve for the officers; she kept it for the big occasions, which doubled - tripled - the importance of the service. What happiness indeed, when you are on ploughed land, wet to the bone, and you thing you are going to bed without supper, to meet, near a wonderful fire, a slice of ham or a bowl of mulled wine - or both! It was expensive sometimes, but money is only good for getting what you need. The moment one cannot exchange its representative value for bread, gold is worth no more than iron."

^Above, Louis François Lejeune: detail of Battle-of-Chiclana (Barossa) - Vivandiere refreshing French Carabiners.

By the Decree of 26th July 1800, no women could be attached to a unit unless they were employed in laundering or in the sale of food and drink. Under no circumstances, it said, were there to be more than four women per battalion in the infantry and two per squadron in the cavalry. Each woman would receive a document, a patent, authorizing her presence. In 1809, the Provisional Regulation of 1792 was reviewed and reissued for the French Army of Germany. Each infantry regiment would have a vivandiere with a four-wheeled cart drawn by four horses for the regimental staff, and each battalion two vivandieres and two laundresses, each with a pack horse.

The traditional role of the vivandiere was to provide for the soldier's needs that were not met in his official rations. This included dairy products (such as butter or cheese) or charcuterie (sausages and ham). They also sold Eau-de-vie (brandy) to soldiers who wanted a stiff drink.

Some soldiers overstepped the boundaries with these women, though as Sergeant Bourgogne recalled in his memoirs from the occupation of Moscow, many vivandieres could handle themselves.

"In the men's various foraging expeditions, they found a quantity of men's and women's costumes of all nations, even French dresses of the time of Louis XVI, all of the most beautiful materials. So this evening, after dinner, we decided to have a ball and wear all these dresses...
Even our cantiniere, Mother Dubois, who wore a beautiful Russian national dress...we drank a great deal of punch dealt out to us by Melle, the old dragoon...we went on drinking and dancing until four o'clock in the morning.
Mother Dubois, true to her trade, and knowing the full value of the clothes she wore (silk brocade in gold and silver), went off without a word. As she left, however, the sergeant of the guard on police duty, seeing a strange lady in the street so early, and thinking he had found a prize, went to her, and tried to take her by the arm and lead her to his room. But Mother Dubois, who had a husband, and, moreover, had drunk a good deal of punch, dealt the sergeant such a vigorous blow on the face that she knocked him completely over. He shouted out, and, as we had not gone to bed yet, we ran down to help him. The sergeant was so furious that we had a great piece of work to din into his head that he must not arrest a woman like Mother Dubois."

^Above, contemporary image of a Vivandiere, you can see she has three geese/ducks hung off the saddle and is using an artillery linstock as a whip. Image Collection Paul L. Dawson

A vivandiere we're thrilled to share the story of is Catherine Megue (or Mayquet), vivandiere of the 21eme Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne. We don't know when Catherine joined the 21eme but we can guess from the service of her husband and the birth of their children, which are recorded in the matricules (service records). Catherine's husband was Joseph Hotte, a volunteer soldier who was incorporated into the 2e Battalion 1er Company of the 21eme on 20 May 1798 from the 2e Battalion of the 109eme. Born in 1760 in Lichtenberg, then in the La Moselle department on the North-East border of France. We know that Catherine and Joseph had 5 children, four boys and one girl. Louis Hotte (5 April 1795), Vendel Hotte (26 July 1796) Pierre Hotte (2 August 1796), and Francois Hotte, who's exact date and place of birth we currently have no record of, sadly we don't have record of the daughter's either. Vendel, Pierre and Louis were all born in the Moselle department, same as their father. All four boys would be enrolled as Enfants de Troupe in the regiment. Louis, Pierre and Vendel all being enrolled on 23 Sept 1800. Pierre and Vendel, who given their dates of birth must have been twins, were both enrolled into the regiment proper on 10th May 1810 as part of the regimental band before both being made drummers, Pierre on 21 May 1811 and Vendel on 21 Feb 1812. Both their records state that these then 16 year old boys were left behind during the retreat from Russia on the 2nd and 4th December 1812 respectively. Louis and Francois also both served in the regiment as soldiers when they turned 16, the latter was the only remaining brother mentioned in the May 1815 matricules.

^Above, Joseph Hotte's record from the regimental matricules

But how do we know that Catherine was a vivandiere? Thanks to a pair of incredible and unique documents discovered by historian Paul L. Dawson in the French archives, to whom we give full acknowledgment and credit for discovering these remarkable documents. We know all about her personal belongings, from which we can discern her status and wealth. These documents in the regiment's paper archive list the effects and belongings of Catherine after her death, they were listed on 20th May 1811, meaning Catherine died in early 1811. She is referred to not only as a vivandiere, but also "the Hotte widow", as Joseph Hotte had died on 9th March 1809 of fever. We must emphasise how rare and amazing it is what these documents tell us.

Firstly, at the time of her death, Catherine was a wealthy woman. Among her possessions were many types of currency, including a 40 franc gold Napoleon, Prussian, Dutch and Saxon coinage. Furthermore, she had a hunter-case watch with a wind up key attached to a necklace, all in gold, two gold watches and keys, a pair of earrings and a ring, all in gold, silver cutlery including coffee spoons and eating spoons. She also had 2 clarinets and 2 small flutes, perhaps her children practiced with these as Enfants de Troupe? From all this, clearly Catherine was a shrewd businesswoman that had made a lot of money and had the accessories to flaunt it. Like many Vivandieres, Catherine acted as both a bank and loan shark. In theory she ran the officers mess of the battalion. Her stock was sold for 600 francs. How did Catherine get around? She had two draft horses with harnesses and bridles and a covered wagon on four wheels. This wagon would have carried all her goods and belongings and would have been seen following behind the regiment on campaign.

^Above This is a vivandiere and officers bivouac in 1813/1814. note no furniture, no chairs, no tables. We see a vivandiere in the background to the left rummaging in her cart with another in the centre foreground with a tonnelot and resisting an over-amorous cavalryman. Image Collection Paul L. Dawson

The most exciting items recorded for us reenactors are the items of clothing which are also listed amongst her effects. This will allow us to guide our own vivandieres in what they can wear. Amongst Catherine's clothing, she owned a redingote in linen, 4 handkerchiefs, 5 pairs of stockings, a woman's greatcoat in blue wool, two quilted petticoats, a pair of jumps, a dishabille, 2 corsets, 2 linen pockets, a taffeta apron, some shawls, one white, another coloured, shifts and two dresses in Indian cotton. These, described as 'indienne', were not necessarily from India: such dresses were simply printed (or 'painted') with floral designs of Indian origin. Indiennes were produced in great quantities in France; among the most famous centres of production were Mulhouse, Jouy-en-Josas near Paris, and several cities in Provence. While obviously more expensive than plain or striped/checked fabrics, they were still much cheaper than authentic printed chintzes from India. These documents show that there is no reliable evidence at all of vivandieres in the First French Empire wearing cast off soldiers clothing or cavalry pelisses. It's also worth noting that a tonnelot, the famous brandy barrel, was not among Catherine's belongings.

In total, Catherine's effects were worth 4392 francs and 87 cents. From this amount, the document states that "4572 francs will be paid to, having obtained the authorization of the government according to the French laws, by the council of administration of the depot of the regiment, in such a way that the four children of the Hotte widow will share equally the sum of 4332 francs and 87 cents, and that the daughter shall have in addition 204 francs." These amazing documents shed light on the life and attire of one of the vivandiere's of the Grande Armee, and we're especially thrilled they exist within the 21eme's paper archive. We hope you've enjoyed reading this blogpost on Catherine , her belongings and her family. We're immensely grateful to Paul L. Dawson for having shared these documents and contemporary images with us and for his research and insight.

Below. A plate from Martinet. Image Collection Paul L. Dawson


With thanks to Paul L. Dawson and Martin Lancaster

Sources - Terry Crowdy's Napoleon's Women Camp Followers

The memoirs of Captain Elzear Blaze and Sergeant Bourgogne

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