Corbin, Margaret Cochran

views updated

Margaret Cochran Corbin

Born November 12, 1751
Franklin County, Pennsylvania
Died c. 1800
Westchester County, New York

Camp follower, soldier

A tablet in her honor at Corbin Place in New York City praises Margaret Cochran Corbin as the "first woman to take a soldier's part in the war for liberty."

Margaret Cochran Corbin picked up the gun of her soldier husband and took his place after he was killed by gunfire in a Revolutionary War battle. Wounded herself, she became the first woman in the United States to receive an annual payment from the government as a disabled soldier.

Corbin was born on November 12, 1751, reportedly near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of a Scottish-Irish colonist named Robert Cochran, but the name of her mother is unknown. In 1756 Native Americans killed Corbin's father and kidnapped her mother. Five-year-old Margaret and her brother, John Cochran, escaped capture and were raised by their uncle.

Around 1772 Margaret Cochran married John Corbin, a Virginian by birth. Four years later, when her husband joined a unit in Pennsylvania fighting on the American side in the Revolutionary War, Margaret went with him. At that time wives often accompanied their soldier husbands to cook, do washing, and nurse sick soldiers (see box).

On November 16, 1776, British soldiers and their German allies attacked Fort Washington, New York, where John Corbin was stationed. Fort Washington was the most important of a chain of forts along the upper end of Manhattan Island (now in New York City). The fighting was fierce, and the gunner whom John was assisting was killed. John took over the cannon, with his strong, tall wife (she was five feet, eight inches tall) at his side. When John was killed by enemy fire, Margaret immediately took her husband's place. She continued to load and fire the cannon by herself until she was wounded by grapeshot—clusters of small iron balls fired by a British cannon. The grapeshot tore into her shoulder and chest, pierced her jaw, and nearly severed her arm.

Original member of Invalid Regiment

The Americans were finally forced to surrender Fort Washington to the British. Corbin was taken to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the other wounded soldiers, and she lived there for a time. It is not known whether or not she received special treatment because she was a woman.

Corbin was enrolled by the military as one of the original members of the Invalid Regiment, a group of disabled soldiers organized by an act of the Continental Congress on June 20, 1777. Its members, who could not engage in battle, performed other light duties at a military post, as each person's health permitted. In 1778 the regiment was stationed at West Point, New York, where it remained until it was finally disbanded in 1783.

Margaret Corbin suffered greatly as a result of her war wounds. She was permanently disabled and did not have the capacity to earn a living on her own. After Corbin returned to Pennsylvania, she faced hard financial times and petitioned the state for assistance.

Board of War grants annual support funds

On June 29, 1779, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, moved by her condition, noted Corbin's heroism, and she was granted $30 "to relieve her present necessities." The Pennsylvania government recommended that the Board of War of the Continental Congress look into providing her with a pension (annual payments) for her war service.

In 1780 the Board of War reported that Corbin "still remains in a deplorable situation in consequence of her wound, by which she is deprived of the use of one arm, and in other respects is much disabled and probably will continue a cripple during her life." The board also reported that "as [Corbin] had [courage] 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 labours, the board can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate."

The Board of War ordered that Corbin receive a complete suit of clothes or an equal amount of money in cash. In addition, for the rest of her life she was to be given half the monthly pay of a "soldier in the service of these states." Thus, Corbin became the first woman to receive a pension from the U.S. government.

"Captain Molly"

By 1782 Corbin had married a soldier who was also an invalid. Captain Samuel Shaw of West Point wrote in a brief report that "her present husband is a poor … invalid who is no service to her but rather adds to her trouble." It is not known what happened to her second husband. He may have died or disappeared, since Corbin later lived by herself in various private homes in the area of West Point. In April 1783 she was discharged from the Invalid Regiment.

As Corbin's financial situation became worse, she filed for a rum ration (allowance) that normally was forbidden to women followers of the army. She was granted a full future rum ration as well as money for the period in the past in which the liquor ration had been withheld. She used the money to purchase small necessities to make her life a little better.

In January 1786 William Price, an official at West Point, wrote that Margaret Corbin, by then known as "Captain Molly," "is such an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge." He did not say what made Corbin offensive. According to historian John K. Alexander, in his account of her in American National Biography, people who knew her in Highland Falls passed along stories from generation to generation about the "Irish woman who was not [very careful] about her appearance, who could be [sharp-tongued], but who was also respectfully addressed as 'Captain Molly.'"

Death and honors that followed

"Captain Molly" probably lived near West Point from September 1787 to August 1789, and was taken care of by people at the local military supply store. After several difficult and lonely years, she died during her late forties and was buried at a humble gravesite in the village of West Point.

During the nineteenth century, the story of Margaret Corbin was often confused with that of another heroic woman who pitched in to operate cannons during the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, and was known as Molly Pitcher see entry. On March 16, 1926, the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of her heroic act, Corbin's remains were removed from an unremarkable grave and buried in a place of honor behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point.

Other honors to Corbin include a tablet erected in 1909 in Fort Tryon Park in New York City, near the site of the battle in which she fought. In 1926 a patriotic organization erected a monument over her grave at West Point.

For More Information

Alexander, John K. "Margaret Cochran Corbin" in American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 499–501.

Anticaglia, Elizabeth. Heroines of '76. New York: Walker and Company, 1975, pp. 1–9.

Blumenthal, Walter Hart. Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution. Salem, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1984.

Boatner, Mark M. "Margaret Cochran Corbin" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, p. 284.

Canon, Joel. Heroines of the American Revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: Bellerophon Books, 1995.

Claghorn, Charles E. "Anna Maria Lane" in Women Patriots of the American Revolution. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991, p. 120.

Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1976, pp. 130–31, 135.

Land, Robert H. "Margaret Cochran Corbin" in Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971, pp. 385–86.

"Margaret Corbin" in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1967, p. 399.

Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: Vanguard Press, 1976, pp. 61–62, 109.

Purcell, Edward L., ed. "Margaret Cochran Corbin" in Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Weathersfield, Doris. American Women's History. New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994.

Whitney, David C. "Margaret Cochran Corbin" in Colonial Spirit of '76: The People of the Revolution. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corp., 1974, p. 158.

Williams, Selma. Demeter's Daughter: The Women Who Founded America, 1587–1787. New York: Atheneum, 1976, p. 248.

Camp Followers

Camp followers have always been an important part of wartime activities. Camp followers are men, women, and children who accompany soldiers as they travel about during wartime. During the Revolutionary War women often went along with the soldiers to wash and mend clothing, make meals, and nurse the wounded. Commanding officers expected them to register their names and those of their children along with the soldier to whom they were attached.

Camp followers were not from any particular social class. They could be uneducated wives or lady friends, or educated women who were able to provide such services as writing letters for the soldiers, knitting, and managing field hospitals. They could be civilian drivers of wagons, storekeepers who carried items for the soldiers to purchase, or clergymen. During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers had camp followers, as did British and German soldiers (see Frederika von Riedesel entry).

Camp followers lived hard lives and were expected to earn their way. They had to keep up with the marching soldiers, and they often carried the unit's pots and pans and the soldiers' personal belongings. They were expected to follow camp rules or suffer punishment. Those who obeyed the rules received a portion of food and drink. Sometimes pregnant women and the wives of officers were permitted to travel in military wagons.

Women and children who stayed in the military camps (while the men went off to fight) often faced danger themselves. When battles became fierce, women such as Margaret Corbin, called half-soldiers, took off for the front to assist their mates. Camp followers could also be a danger to the army. For example, some American camp followers once wandered off to plunder houses that the enemy had abandoned. They brought back smallpox germs in the blankets they stole from the houses, and some soldiers were infected.

Anna Maria Lane and "Mother" Batherick

There are many tales of American women who made valuable contributions during the Revolutionary War. Two such accounts are those of Anna Maria Lane and "Mother" Batherick.

Anna Maria Lane was born in New England, perhaps in New Hampshire, around 1735. She followed her husband, soldier John Lane, as he took part in a number of battles. Anna Maria suffered a wound during warfare in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and recovered at a Philadelphia hospital. According to legend, she was wearing an army uniform and doing battle at the time of her injury.

John Lane was later taken prisoner by the British during the fighting at Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778. He was exchanged for a British prisoner and continued soldiering as part of a Virginia group that fought on horseback. At the same time, Anna Maria Lane served in Richmond, Virginia, as a nurse at the soldier's hospital there.

Years after the war, in 1807, Virginia Governor William H. Cabell asked the state government to pay Anna Maria Lane a pension (payment for her military service). They agreed that she deserved a pension because "with the courage of a soldier [she] performed extraordinary military services and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown." According to historian Patricia Edwards Clyne, Lane's deeds must have been "extraordinary indeed … [since she] was awarded $100 a year, whereas the average soldier's pension was only $40."

Another popular story that has lived on since revolutionary times is that of "Mother" Batherick, who lived in what is now Arlington, Massachusetts. The elderly woman was picking daisies in a field near her house on April 19, 1775, the day war broke out between the American colonists and the British. The town was being guarded by a group of old men, since all the young men had rushed away to join the army. In charge of the elders guarding the town was a retired black soldier. He and his men were hiding behind a stone wall when some British supply wagons came past. The old men yelled at the British soldiers to stop, but the soldiers ignored them. The old men then fired, shooting two British soldiers and four horses. The other British soldiers fled.

Suddenly six of the British soldiers, out of breath from their fast getaway, rode up to Mother Batherick and surrendered. She single-handedly delivered her prisoners to American forces and commented to the British, "If you ever live to get back, you tell King George that an old woman took six of his [soldiers] prisoners."