June 7, 1765. A young Irishwoman made her way through the crowded streets of Cork to the harbor. Following the red coat of her husband to the dock, Jane Chambers approached a man in uniform and gave him her name. To her relief, he let her pass. The name of her husband, Matthew, had also been checked off the list, but the uniformed man did not bother to note the name of the couple’s child. At last, after weeks of waiting, Jane and Matthew Chambers, along with their child, boarded the HMS Thunderer, where they joined Matthew’s mates in the British army’s Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Foot. Three days later they set sail for America.
It may seem strange to begin an account of the Boston Massacre with a woman in Ireland, yet she and women like her are the threads that tie together the range of people and the complexity of the forces that led to that dramatic moment. The complete story of the death of Bostonians at the hands of British troops is more than the political upheaval that followed the shooting. It is also the story of personal connections between men and women, civilians and soldiers. Over time, the women and children associated with the eighteenth-century British army have been forgotten. In the American imagination, most of the men too have been reduced to anonymous “troops” rather than considered as individuals.
Jane Chambers was not and is not famous. Her early life is lost to historians. We know neither when she was born nor in what year she married. Could she read or write? Was Matthew Chambers her first love? Had she ever dreamed of a life beyond Ireland? The sources are silent on these questions. But other parts of her life, including the choices she made, the family she created, and the voyages she took, have left traces. The everyday life of an ordinary woman would become part of an extraordinary moment.
The faint path of Jane’s life events merged with the far better documented path of the army regiment with which she traveled, from Ireland to Canada to Boston, and beyond. This was the same regiment whose soldiers in 1770 would live with civilians in Boston, marry civilians in Boston, and finally shoot civilians in Boston. Jane’s attempt to keep her Irish family together collided with British imperial politics in ways that few understood at the time and that no one in 1770 acknowledged. When she traveled with her husband’s regiment, Jane would become an unwitting teacher to Bostonians, helping them understand exactly what it meant to be a member of the British imperial family.
As the wife of a soldier, Jane, like tens of thousands of other women, became a part of the British army. Where they went, she went too. In this way, the eighteenth-century British army was quite unlike a present-day fighting force. Early modern armies were family institutions, comprising women and children as well as men.
A watercolor dating from the end of Matthew Chambers’s time in the army shows how army and family life were then one and the same. As far as the eye can see, a long line of red-coated soldiers marches through an empty landscape. In the foreground, with a splash of blue to mark her off from the reds and browns elsewhere, trudges a woman. She carries a baby in one arm and grasps an older child by the hand. Her husband carries a third child piggyback while leading a horse, on which a second woman sits, talking earnestly with the soldier at her side. The march looks long and slow. The woman in front hikes up her skirt to free her legs for walking, while the young boy whose hand she holds is burdened, like his father, with a large backpack. The older members of the family—mother, father, and son—all wear red coats like the hundreds of men ahead of them. Even as they stumble along behind the train of soldiers, they are part of the regiment, in appearance and in fact.
I imagine Jane’s life resembled that of the blue-skirted woman. She too followed a regiment. Like her husband and other soldiers, she went where she was sent, not where she chose. Lugging a child in her arms, close by her husband, she was not a casual visitor to the world of the British military but a member of it.
Women like Jane who accompanied the army were—and still are—often dismissed as prostitutes or parasites. Their usual label is “camp followers,” an undeservedly derisive term. But Jane and thousands of women like her tell a different story. Jane did more than accompany the army as part of a family unit; she was a genuine part of the army itself.