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, 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.