Tag Archives: military history

Margaret Corbin: The First “Molly Pitcher”

This is a tale about “Molly Pitcher”–and I don’t mean the one that has a rest stop named after her on the New Jersey Turnpike.

In fact, during the Revolutionary War, there were numerous “Molly Pitchers.”

Although many believe “Molly” to be a composite character, there was much truth to the name.  “Molly” was a common nickname for the female wives and companions of soldiers on both sides, known as camp followers.  In order to receive half-rations, camp followers had to prove useful to the troops through cleaning, cooking, and caring for the wounded.

Some “Mollies”, like Mary Ludwig Hays (the most well-known “Molly”) even stepped into battle when their beau had fallen.  This was the case in June 1778, when Hays picked up his husband’s rammer and manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth, NJ.

Yet today’s story is not about her, nor her rest stop.  It is about the first woman to be wounded in the Revolution, the first true “Molly Pitcher.” That honor goes to another Pennsylvania housewife named Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 to Scots-Irish immigrants in the rugged frontier of Western Pennsylvania.  During the French and Indian War, a native attack killed her father and took her mother captive, leaving young Margaret into the care of her uncle.  She marries a young Virginia farmer, John Corbin, in 1772, and the story pretty much stays put.  If events didn’t turn, she would be just another housewife along the Pennsylvania wilderness.

Then came news of Lexington and Concord.

John enlisted in a Pennsylvania artillery company, loading and firing cannons.  Margaret came along, and quickly assumed a leadership role amongst the wives in camp, earning the nickname “Captain Molly.” Her booming voice and commanding presence encouraged the women as they cooked, cleaned, mended uniforms, shined boots, and cared for the sick and wounded.

Like most camp followers, Margaret did her work in full view of the marching, drilling and practice fire sessions of her husband’s unit.  Observing each day, the wives became astute at soldiering themselves–a useful tool in the thick of battle.  Margaret would become a “Molly Pitcher” like the other wives, not because they brought water to drink, but because their buckets of water cooled the over-heated cannon barrels during the fighting.

On November 16, 1776, as the British continued their relentless advance north through Manhattan, John was assigned to a cannon crew defending Fort Washington in upper Manhattan from an overlooking ridge, today known as Fort Tryon.  There were only two cannon on the ridge, and only 600 Continental and militia troops to defend the fort against 4000 Hessian mercenaries: brutal German troops hired by the British.

John was killed by a Hessian assault, leaving Margaret to man his cannon.  She quietly witnessed his death and took up her station at the gun.  Ever the astute observer, Margaret fired and fired her weapon exactly as John did on the parade grounds in camp.  She stayed at her post until wounds to her jaw, chest and arm forced her gun silent, wounds that left her disabled for the rest of her life.

The more popular “Molly” merely had her petticoats torn from cannon fire while her hubby was overheated from the sun.  There’s simply no comparison.

The American forces surrendered Fort Washington, and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British who released her on parole as a wounded combatent.  Crippled by injuries that would never fully heal–including the complete loss of use of one arm–Margaret struggled to make ends meet until 1779, when Pennsylvania awarded her $30 to cover her present needs.

Her case was then sent to the Board of War of the Continental Congress, who were impressed by her service, her bravery, and her perseverence due to her wounds.  She received half the monthly pay of a Continental soldier, including a new set of clothes (some say she received cash in lieu of the clothes).  The Congress concluded that:

” As she had the fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband after his fall in the service of his country, and in the execution of that task received the dangerous wound under which she now labors, the board  can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate.”

With this act, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension from the United States.

Margaret Corbin remained on the military rolls as a wounded soldier until she finally left the Continental Army in 1783.  Receiving help from both Pennsylvania and the United States for the rest of her life, Margaret died in Highland Falls, New York in 1800 at the age of 48.  According to many records, her neighbors described “Captain Molly” as a rough, disagreeable woman who kept to herself, was drunk and surly to others, and could not keep normal hygiene due to her disabilities, which repulsed the ladies of polite society.  She preferred the company of fellow veterans to the “ladies” of New York.

To be fair, after the life she led, Margaret earned the right to being a snarling, grumpy spinster.

Alone, impoverished, drunk and forgotten, Margaret Corbin was–willfully or not–forgotten for a century and a half.  Corbin’s legacy faded as the legend of her contemporary, Mary Hays (later Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley) grew in popular folklore.  Perhaps this was because Hays stayed married, and remarried after John Hays’ death, ever the dutiful wife.  Her story was more palatable, more “sellable” than that of a widowed invalid who repulsed more genteel elements of society.  In fact, the Hays story would often steal elements from the Corbin story, as historians for centuries would confuse the two “Mollies”, never realizing they were talking about two entirely different people.

In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked to restore Corbin’s legacy, and give her an honor that Mary Hays could only dream about in her tattered petticoats.

The DAR disinterred Corbin’s remains and reburied them with a special monument at the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  She is one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers buried there.  On her monument is a bronze relief of Margaret, holding her ramrod next to the cannon she tended on that terrible day in 1776.

The American Revolution is littered with stories of important and famous women.  There were many more “Molly Pitchers” whose names were forgotten to history.  Even the more popular Mary Hays deserved recognition for her bravery.

Yet the unvarnished, often distasteful details about a person should not negate their rightful place in history.

Margaret Corbin’s sin was her crippled status.  It made her a pariah, while Mary Hays could bask in relative glory in marriage (though her second marriage was quite violent).  So history decided to make the more marketable Hays the “Molly Pitcher” by which all “Molly Pitchers” are measured.

Yet Margaret Corbin was the genuine article.  She was the original “Molly Pitcher”…

…and she had the battle scars to show for it.

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This Day in History 10/13: The Birth of the United States Navy

I don’t know what it is, but I always had a soft spot for the Navy.  They had the spiffiest uniforms–at least the officers, anyway.  Their ships went to exotic ports of call.  A US aircraft carrier could stop international incidents just by sticking itself in a foreign port.

Few recognize the naval contributions to medicine, particularly pathology.  Sailors are medical wonders, world experts at such subjects as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis (at least their transmission, of course).  Yeah, that went a little too far, but at least I didn’t go the “don’t ask, don’t tell” route.

And if you’re asking, no.  I will not put the lyrics to a certain Village People tune.

Today, on October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy, the forerunner of today’s United States Navy.  The original resolution is below:

“Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.”  — Resolution of the Continental Congress, October 13, 1775

The original provision called for construction of one or two ships.  A subsequent resolution upped the number to 13. 

It was an incredible case of wishful thinking.  The fledgling United States did not have that kind of dough, and its infant navy relied heavily on privateers: essentially pirates for hire who would attack British ships for their cargo and prize money. 

By the 1790s, the Navy would begin a more structured development, in that 4 large frigates would be constructed: The USS United States, the USS Constitution, the USS Constellation and the USS President.  Through the War of 1812, the young Navy with its four flagships would create among America’s first naval heroes, and establish a fighting reputation well in excess of its small size.

Attached is three filmstrips from the US Department of the Navy‘s series on naval history from the 1950’s.  Its done in that tried-and-true high school filmstrip style, which may put off some students.  At worst, do what I do: make fun of the hokeyness while highlighting the important information.

Have fun.  Anchors aweigh!

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Videos for the Classroom: Last US Combat Brigade leaves Iraq

In all the hoopla over oil spills, a mosque in downtown Manhattan, and the upcoming midterm elections, a moment in in history quietly occurred yesterday with little fanfare.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last combat brigade left in Iraq, crossed the border into Kuwait yesterday, marking the official end of “combat” in the Iraqi theater.  This does not mean we won’t have troops there, but the mission is changed to a development/stabilization stage.  The actual “fighting”, at least in the eyes of the Pentagon, appears to be over.

All troops are, according to President Obama, supposed to out of Iraq by 2011.  We’ll see if that happens.  In the meantime, here’s the Associated Press video of last nights’ events.  You may want to use it in your classroom to compare it to the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.  What were the circumstances behind each withdrawal?  What was the end result?   What do you think the end result will be in Iraq?

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This Day in History 6/10: US Marines land in Cuba, 1898

US Marines hoisting the colors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1898

It’s an often-overlooked period in history, but the Spanish-American War had long-reaching consequences for the United States.

On June 10, 1898, the first US ground forces would land in Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay on the eastern side of the island.  Their landing site would give rise to an American military station that still exists today, albeit under clouds of controversy due both to our usage of it as a terrorist dumping ground and our not-so-wonderful relations with Cuba. 

The war itself would drag on until the Treaty of Paris on August 12, 1898.  The Spanish got rid of the costly remains of a burdensome empire (to the tune of about $20 million), and the United States, the country that staked its reputation as a beacon of freedom against colonialism, suddenly adopts colonies of its own.  It led to troublesome relations with Cuba (occupied by us until 1902, and you know plenty about the rest), Puerto Rico (where the parade comes from, and which we still have) and the Philippines (which after a bloody insurrection and surrender to the Japanese, we finally gave independence to in 1946). 

I included two clips from the 1997 TV movie Rough Riders, about the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt and his volunteer cavalry in Cuba.  The clips depict the battles for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, respectively.  Something to note about the movie: it’s sickeningly hokey and sappy.  Yet it does show two anachronisms that deviate from the popular version of these historic battles:

(1) The real hero of San Juan was not Theodore Roosevelt, but rather Lieutenant “Black Jack” Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers.  Fresh from the Indian wars, these black soldiers were among the ONLY US military personnel in Cuba with any combat experience.  If they weren’t covering Roosevelt’s right flank, the battle would ended very differently.

(2) Our naval forces were modern in 1898, but our land forces were a different story.  While outnumbered, the Spanish had Model 1893 Mauser rifles and Maxim machine guns that would be used less than 20 years later in the trenches of World War I.  Our boys were equipped with the Krag-Jørgensen Rifle, a complex, one-at-a-time loader that was difficult to clean and put together.  It served the shortest period in the US Army, until 1903.  As for automatic weapons, we still slung around 1862-model Gatling crank guns, but we also had M1895 Colt-Browning guns that spit out casings through a weird lever action.  It wasn’t until after this war that the US Army did a drastic overhaul of weapons, tactics and uniforms, finally putting the blue jackets to rest.

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Memorial Day Video: Liberation of a Concentration Camp, from Band of Brothers

We hope everyone at the Neighborhood is enjoying their Memorial Day weekend.

This piece from the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers demonstrates why it is so important to celebrate holidays like this one.  It shows Easy Company, 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne division as it inadvertantly liberated a concentration camp in Germany. 

Now this is obviously my opinion, but I have strong feelings about our men and women in uniform.  Say what you will about the reasoning of our wars; I will not broker disrespect of the troops in our armed forces.

Many people may question how our military is used, and the abuses it may have inflicted in its long history.  We used ragtag guerrilla tactics, genocidal ruthlessness and foreign assistance to defeat our colonial masters.  We vanquished our southern neighbor in order to seize half of its territory.  We systematically corraled the indigenous population of our continent to make way for settlement and land speculation. 

World War II, however, was our greatest hour.  The United States, attacked by surprise and unprepared, rose to defeat two aggressive powers bent on world domination.  Yet we did not conquer, we did not subjugate…on the contrary, we liberated occupied peoples and rehabilitated our former enemies. 

No army on Earth ever did that before, not in all of human history.

This is why we are American.  This is why we should honor our military personnel.  This is why we celebrate Memorial Day.

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This Day in History 7/16: The Atomic Bomb and the Constant Search for the Ultimate Weapon

On July 16, 1945, a pack of scientists sat worried in the high desert of New Mexico.  Some of the greatest minds of their generation, they created what they thought was the ultimate super weapon. 

Yet no one was happy about it.

Some feared that this new “atomic bomb” would lead to the destruction of the Earth itself.  Others thought that the atmosphere would ignite, engulfing the planet in a ball of fire.  Still others thought the darn thing was a dud—there was no way a thing that small can cause the amount of destruction they had projected.

Yet once the countdown finished, the genie (or the demon, depending on your point of view) was out of the bottle.

The successful test of the first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico changed history.  It was then conceivable that a weapon can be created that was so destructive and so terrifying as to render warfare obsolete.  Yet even after the Cold War, we continue to feel the lasting effects of these weapons—on our budgets, our environment, our foreign policy, and our everyday lives.

The search for the one super weapon, the “ultimate weapon”, has existed since the dawn of man.  In a few decades, perhaps sooner, a weapon will be developed that supersedes the atomic missile.  Let’s hope the US Air Force is building a Death Star, so we can wipe out countries that are a little too fresh.  Until that time comes, here’s a few of the “ultimate weapons” of history:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chariot—Blitzkrieg was not a German invention (sorry, Adolf).  The chariot was the perfect example of making the best of a bad situation.  The Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 16th Century BCE and brought with them a light cart that provided quick mobility.  The Egyptians took the technology and perfected the first terror weapon in human history.  Gangs of chariots zooming down the field, with archers and spearmen in tow; the Egyptians were the first to utilize speed and overwhelming force in battle.

 

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The Trireme—I knock the film 300 constantly, but here the offense is legitimate.  Xerxes was not defeated because of Gerard Butler and his scantily-clad Spartans, but rather due to an innovation in the Athenian navy.  The trireme was a fast, powerful galley vessel with three rows of rowers and a stout ramming prow.  These vessels not only defeated Xerxes at the straits of Salamis, but also propelled another half-century of Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean, spreading generic gyros and bland tzatziki sauce across an empire.

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“Greek Fire”—I don’t mean the feeling you get when you see Stavros, the hot waiter at that Astoria diner.   Greek Fire was a true wonder weapon, used by the Byzantines for centuries.  Its composition and origins remain clouded in mystery, another plus if you want to spread wanton fear in your enemies.  Greek Fire managed to keep the Islamic armies at bay for centuries, until the Turks basically figured out its nothing more than a crude flamethrower.

 

Trebuchet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trebuchet—used by the Chinese and Romans but later perfected in Medieval Europe.  If you needed to breach a wall, or lay siege to a castle, the trebuchet was often your only option.  Part slingshot, part catapult, it was designed to hurl projectiles over long distances at a high arc, similar to a low-altitude bombing.  It was also used in a crude form of biological warfare: sling a rotting, disease cow carcass over the wall and let the fun begin.

 

TheTsarCannonJuly2004

 

 

 

 

 

  

                                            The Firearm—the Chinese developed gunpowder around the second century CE, but firecrackers and bottle rockets can only do so much.  The firearm—first the cannon, then the musket—began showing up on European battlefields in the late 14th Century.  Heavily armed knights often had a good laugh at these toys, manned mostly by peasant conscripts or the local militia.  They weren’t laughing for long, not after they noticed the power and range of those weird brass and iron tubes. 

 

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The Rifle—early firearms were no better than blowguns with a gunpowder ignition.  In the 18th Century, German hunters developed a musket with a spiral groove in the barrel to spin the bullet, providing increased speed, power and accuracy.  These hunters settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, where their invention found fans in American colonists, frontiersmen, trappers, and the Continental Army.  The rifle was especially useful in hunting game and hunting British officers.  Now that’s not very sporting, is it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Ship of the Line”this was the first true “weapon of mass destruction.”  So called because of their single-file formation, “Ships of the Line” were giant sailing fortresses, often carrying over 100 cannon a piece.  The British navy were masters of this type of vessel, using “ships of the line” as protective convoys for Caribbean trade, in naval warfare with the French, Dutch and Spanish, and as intimidation for compliance (think Revolutionary Boston and New York).  Its high water mark came in 1805, as hundreds of British and French behemoths clashed at the straits of Trafalgar.  The British victory made Horatio Nelson a martyred hero and Trafalgar the name of a London square that drives motorists nuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Iron Ship—Leave it to a civil war in the United States to render every navy afloat obsolete in a matter of months.  The Confederates, with few ships in their navy, took old wooden ships and slapped iron sheets on its sides, with gun ports on two sides.  Their first, an old Union ship called the USS Merrimack, rechristened the CSS Virginia, terrorized the southern Atlantic coastline.  The federals countered with the USS Monitor, a ship made entirely of iron with a revolving gun turret.  The world watched in awe—metal could indeed float, with terrifying consequences.

 

Vickers_IWW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Machine Gun—developed by different inventors at different times, the machine gun came very close to being the “mother of all weapons”, the weapon that would render war obsolete.  American inventors Richard Gatling (in 1862) and Hiram Maxim (1896) developed weapons that fired multiple rounds in succession.  Gatling’s gun required multiple barrels and hand cranking.  Maxim’s model was self-propelled, with a single water-cooled barrel and belts of ammunition to feed into the gun.  Its grand moment came in World War I, when centuries of tactics and strategy, tactics dating back to Napoleon, were cut to ribbons in the spray of machine gun fire.

Shermans_disembarking_from_LST_at_Anzio_crop

 

 

 

 

 

                                             The Tank—armored vehicles are not a new concept; horses and other pack animals carried armored plating for centuries.  Yet when merged with automotive technology, heavy artillery and machine guns, you have a mobile killing machine.  The British first introduced the tank in 1917, and subsequent variations have spread destruction across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  It also provided another setting for Donald Sutherland to play a drugged-out weirdo (Kelly’s Heroes.)

 

Boeing B-17E

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heavy Bomber—as the machine gun was the poster boy for World War I, the heavy bomber takes the prize for World War II.  If there was one machine responsible for the majority of death and destruction in a single war, this would be it.  German Heinkel He-177s, British Avro Lancasters, American B-17s, B-24s and B-29s laid down more ordinance over Europe than every other European conflict combined.   It’s also responsible for the infamous bombing of Dresden.  Those monsters, how could you bomb all those porcelain figurines?

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                                     The Kalashnikov AK-47 Assault Rifle—another rifle?  Just hear me out.  The Soviets developed this Assault rifle at the tail end of World War II as a standard issue semi-automatic rifle for the Red Army.  It’s rugged, reliable, cheap to make, and easy to maintain.  The perfect weapon for the Communist on a budget, the AK-47 is the most ubiquitous firearm in the world.  In this case, don’t think quality, think quantity: find me a part of the world where you couldn’t get your mitts on an AK for a reasonable price…even a ridiculously low price.  These babies were going for $100 a pop in Sierra Leone not too long ago.

As usual, I probably missed many other candidates for the “ultimate weapon” of its time.  My apologies to the Greek phalanx formation, various Roman siege weapons, the longbow, the Mongol compound bow, the fighter plane, the heavy artillery of World War I (“Big Bertha”, or the “Paris Gun”), submarines, guided missiles, stealth technology and the neutron bomb.  Just to name a few.

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