The American Revolution is unlike any popular movement in world history. First, it is among the few popular insurrections where moderate forces were able to calm more radical elements in society for the betterment of the people and the country. Second, it was also one of the few to actually succeed.
Yet in the multicultural classroom of today, minority and immigrant students often feel a profound disconnect with the War of Independence. This is due to the way it is traditionally presented–a pageant of battles, victories, crowned heads of Europe, slaveowning bigwigs in Virginia and Puritan hotheads in Massachusetts. Notice something missing? Everybody else. What about African Americans, women, immigrant groups, children, and Native Americans…don’t they have a place in this story? It’s no wonder that today’s student sees our history as remote, elitist and irrelevant.
Thomas Fleming, the author of 1997’s Liberty! The American Revolution, makes an important contribution to this discussion with 2006’s Everybody’s Revolution. Fleming’s first book for young readers is an essential text for the multicultural classroom. Perhaps for the first time, Fleming highlights other heroes of the Revolution–many with names and skin tones familiar to your students.
Like many students, Fleming begins his work with anecdotes of his struggles with American history. He, too, did not see a place for his people, the Irish, in this story mostly told through the eyes of wealthy men of mostly English ancestry. According to Fleming, the United States was not a homogenous nation in 1776–immigrants, blacks, women, Native Americans all lived in an often uneasy mix. It is this mix he attempts to portray in this work.
Fleming’s research has shed light not only to those men and women who fought our country’s struggle, but also on the complex cultural makeup of the United States as a whole. From Scots-Irish like Patrick Henry, to French Huguenots like John Jay, to Germans such as Thomas Herkimer and Peter Muhlenberg, Italians like Francesco Vigo, Jews like Haym Solomon and even Spanish like Bernardo de Galvaez, Fleming shows the motley mix of peoples that all joined in the struggle for independence.
African Americans, both slave and free, are covered in their own fight for freedom, both for themselves and for their country. Women, and especially young people, are also profiled with extraordinary acts of courage. Along with familiar faces such as Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem and Molly Pitcher are characters even more compelling. Some of these include James Armistead, who spied on the British while posing as their slave, Sybil Ludington, who staged a daring midnight ride to warn the citizens of Danbury, Connecticut of a British attack, and the mysterious “Agent 13”, a New York woman who acted as a spy for the Americans while posing as a society lady.
One of the areas that is probably the weakest is Fleming’s treatment of Native Americans. This is not entirely his fault. Most Native American nations simply did not join the American cause for fear of losing more land to colonial settlement. The British had always provided a protective alternative. Most of the individual native leaders, such as Joseph Brant, fought for the British side. The Oneida and Tuscarora nations, as well as the Stockbridge nation in Massachusetts, did join the Revolution, but it is not entirely clear why. We do know that the Oneida/Tuscarora secession from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy basically destroyed them as a viable force in North America.
In all, however, Everybody’s Revolution is a necessary addition to any American history classroom, especially in schools with large minority and immigrant populations. The great thing about this country is that immigrants can adopt American history as their own. Unlike other countries, that often shun immigrants as outsiders to their “glorious past,” the assimilation process of U.S. public education requires immigrant students to buy into the ideals and myths of American society. Much of this process involves the absorption of American history.
With Fleming’s work, this process can continue into the 21st century. The American Revolution is truly EVERYBODY’S revolution.
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:
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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