In 1802 the United States Army instituted the position of "laundress" or washerwomen" that was to remain a part of the Army for over three quarters of a century.
During the American Revolution, campfollowers (so called because they followed the army) were permitted to remain with the army as long as they had some connection to a serving soldier (wife, children or parents). Since Washington did not like having them around (but knowing if he refused to allow them to accompany the army, he risked losing his volunteer soldiers)the campfollowers were forced to leave if their connection was severed; i.e. the soldier was killed. While the campfollowers performed much needed services such as washing, cooking and some nursing duties, this was not required and done mainly for their own kin.
By the turn of the 19th century and the establishment of a professional army, the need for laundresses became apparent. In 1802 the army laundress position was born.
In 1841 only 3 brief statements concerning laundresses appear in the Army Regulations;
200...Four women will be allowed to each company as washerwomen, and will receive one ration per day each.
A company consisted of approximately 65 men and the men commonly received 2 rations per day each.
201...The price of washing soldiers clothes, will be determined by the Council of Administration.
The Council of Administration consisted of the Company Officers. The laundresses did not recieve a set monthly pay. But rather did piece work.
202...Debts due the Laundresses by soldiers, for washing, will be paid or collected the same way as prescribed for those due the Sutler, the Laundresses having preference.
Like the enlisted men who formed groups of six, the laundresses, in groups of four were allotted the following camp equipage:
1 Common tent
1 Camp kettle
2 Mess pans
These orders were reiterated in the 1847 Army Regulations.
While not required to be married, considering the lack of women (especially in isolated forts or installations), most laundresses who were single upon joining the army, did not remain so for long. They were required to be of 'good moral character' however.
Housed in barracks where available and tents while on the move, the laundresses traveled with the army in all but combat situations. Left behind when the army went into battle, the laundresses were brought up as soon as the territory was secure.
In 1883, Congress felt that the funds to house, feed and move the women were unnecessary and they eliminated the laundress role.