Tag Archives: Womens 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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Links for Women’s History Month

Alice Paul source: http://www.americaslibrary....

Alice Paul (1885-1977) Activist, Suffragette, played by Hillary Swank in an HBO movie. Image via Wikipedia

March is Women’s History Month, something we take seriously at the Neighborhood, along with all our other holidays (even “Talk Like a Pirate” Day…AArrrggghh!).

It seems like we’re not the only site getting in on the act.  A typical Google search finds thousands of sites that have something to say about the holiday.  To that end, I’ve whittled it down to a list of websites you may find helpful when teaching about the importance of women in American history (as always, tell them Mr. D sent you):

National Women’s History Project - Here’s a good place to start.  The NWHP has a great clearinghouse house for anything and everything related to women’s studies.  Biographies, articles, lesson plans, resources, primary documents…you name it.

Women’s History Month from the Library of Congress – I guess you could call this the “official” page of the month.  Another one-stop shopping center of materials, but with the awesome powers of the Library of Congress, the National Parks Service, the National Archives, and the National Endowment for the Humanities backing it up.

Women’s History Month – History.com – History (which is what the History Channel calls itself nowadays) has also gotten into the act, just in case those shows about lumberjacks, truckers and pawnbrokers made you forget the original purpose of the network.  As expected, History’s site is a bit more multimedia, with streaming videos, links to photo galleries of famous women, etc.  Does have a nice summary on the history of the holiday, though.

Women’s History Month – Time for Kids - A little more kid-friendly than the other sites, TFK did a good job highlighting important women as well as the struggles for women’s rights, such as the suffrage movement and the 1970s feminist movement.  A really nice feature is “Name that ‘Toon” which takes political cartoons from past and present, asking the readers to supply their own captions.

Women Who Changed History – ScholasticScholastic‘s site is more of a research starter for students who can’t seem to find the right woman for their biography.  It includes the bios of women past and present, summaries of important movements, and quizzes/games for students to learn more.

Women’s History and Heritage Month – Smithsonian Magazine – Designed for older students and scholars, Smithsonian Magazine’s site features nuanced, scholarly articles on aspects of women’s history often overlooked by conventional sources, such as women artists of the Hudson River School, philanthropist Melinda Gates, Harriet Tubman’s spirituality, and a re-examinaton of Victorian womanhood.

National Women’s History Museum - Yet another omnibus site for the holiday, but with a concrete purpose.  The mission: to build a museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC dedicated to women’s history (a worthy cause, indeed).  Worth a look, even if you’re overloaded with materials.

Women’s History Month – Biography Channel – A favorite offshoot of A&E, the Biography Channel sure made it easy for students to research their favorite heroines for that big assignment.  Even if all the information isn’t there (and it probably isn’t), there’s enough story starters to get your kids on the right track.

Women’s History Month – The New York Times - The New York Times Education section has also gotten into the act, with resources, articles, lesson plans and printouts to be used in the classroom.  Their resources are worth a look, since they must use their vast archive of periodicals as a source.

Women’s History Month - ABC Teach – I don’t like putting pay sites on here, but the free part of ABC Teach is important, in that it has templates and worksheets that will help you plan your Women’s History Month activities.  DON’T BOTHER with the “member’s only” stuff – you can get that at the other sites for free.

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Mr. D’s History Bookshelf # 5: Rabble Rousers: 20 Women who Made a Difference

“In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” — Abigail Adams, 1776

Ever since the founding of our nation, the voices of women were important in building our society. 

Like so many of their male counterparts, many important female Americans were not willing to play nice to make a difference.  Anne Hutchinson braved Puritan aggression and a raging Indian war in New York in order to advance her beliefs.  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul endured constant opposition, both nonviolent and otherwise, in their quest to gain voting rights for women.   Harriet Tubman dodged very real dangers in leading enslaved Africans to freedom.

March is Womens’ History Month, and teachers will be hungry for good books for their students to use about these important women.  There are quite a few different books about many different women.  Yet if a student needs to do a biography, and hasn’t a clue about who (aside from the usual suspects mentioned earlier), then Rabble Rousers: 20 Women who Made a Difference by Cheryl Harness is a great start.

Harness took 200 years of womens’ activism and created a lively, engaging primer on many of the important women who changed our world.  20 women are documented in 2-page illustrated biographies covered with sidebars, photos and artwork detailing the lives, worldview and important events that these women lived through.

Many of the women documented here are well-known to students today.  Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Eleanor Roosevelt sould be familiar.  Yet there were others who may not be so well-known.  Mary Edwards Walker, for example, was an abolitionist and nurse who spied for the Union during the Civil War, becoming the only female to ever receive the Medal of Honor.  Frances Wright was an early 19th Century social reformer whose ideas about social issues made here at least a century ahead of her time.

One selection, however, puzzles me.  Ann Lee, the English mystic who founded the Shaker sect, or the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, is one of Harness’ revolutionary women.  I’m not really sure that the founder of a sect that is almost extinct today really warrants such a coverage. 

In spite of this, Harness excels in this work in both her detail and her focus.  Unlike other books on American women, she does not present a massive volume with hundreds of women in little detail.  Instead, her main thrust is to include 20 women who made active efforts to create positive change in their society, and to present them to the fullest extent possible.  Students who use the book in reports may only need one or two more sources to form a complete assignment.

Furthermore, girls can really use Rabble Rousers as a source of inspiration and encouragement.  By choosing women who led from the front, rather than behind, Harness is providing role models for women to become modern-day leaders.  She even provides detailed bibliographies, places to visit and suggestions for community action in the spirit of her revolutionary subjects.  Modern girls owe a debt to Cheryl Harness in providing such role models.

As we begin Womens’ History Month, make sure Rabble Rousers is necessary reading in your classroom.

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