American revolutionaries who, during battle, manned artillery in the place of their fallen husbands—one at Fort Washington, November 16, 1776, and the other at the battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778.
Corbin, Margaret Cochran (1751–c. 1800). Name variations: Captain Molly; Dirty Kate. Born Margaret Cochran on November 12, 1751, in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania; died in Highland Falls, New York, around 1800; daughter of Robert Cochran; married John Corbin, in 1772 (killed 1776); married a person unidentified, in 1782.
Father killed by Indians (1756) and mother made captive, never to return; accompanied husband John Corbin to the army; at Fort Washington, took over gunner's position in place of husband who was killed (November 16, 1776); received army pension and became a soldier in the Invalid Corps (1779), remaining in this capacity until the unit was disbanded (April 1783); lived in vicinity of West Point, drawing provisions from the army commissary; eventually settled in what is now Highland Falls, New York.
McCauley, Mary Ludwig Hays (1754–1832). Name variations: Molly Pitcher; Mary Hays; McAuley, M'Kolly, or McKolly. Born Mary Ludwig on October 13, 1754, near Trenton, New Jersey; died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on January 22, 1832; daughter of John George Ludwig; illiterate, signed her name with an "X"; married William Hays, probably on July 24, 1769 (died 1788); married John McCauley, in 1793 (died 1813); children (first marriage) John Ludwig Hays.
Worked as domestic servant for the family of Dr. William Irvine, Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1769–77); joined husband's military unit as "camp follower" (1778); at battle of Monmouth, took over husbands place as cannoneer when he was disabled (June 28, 1778); awarded army pension for life from state of Pennsylvania (1822); worked at odd jobs and as a domestic in Carlisle until her death (1832).
In the heat of battle, two heroines during the Revolutionary War assumed the duties of their fallen husbands as cannoneers. Certainly other women performed similar deeds. It was customary at the time for both the American and British armies to have large numbers of women "followers of the army," who served as nurses or performed menial tasks, such as cooking, mending, and laundering for the men in their lives, or simply hired on, with army pay and rations, as noncombatant workers. Many of the "camp followers," as they have often been called, found themselves in combat situations. Sometimes there were so many camp followers that General George Washington had to order that none should ride in wagons. The military women were subject to much of the same disciplinary code as the soldiers, deviation from which meant severe punishment, such as whipping or being "drummed" out of the army. Some of the army women had their children with them.
Women, at the time, of course, could not enlist into the regular ranks of the soldiers. But some women performed actual army duty in urgent situations, more likely so in artillery units, which involved crews operating guns distant from the enemy and interdependent skills. The two artillerist heroines—the two "Mollies"—learned the intricate steps of loading and firing from observing their husbands in gunnery drills.
Both had very similar careers, so much so that in the past they were often confused as one and the same. Each had a hardscrabble existence before and after the war, hailed from frontier Pennsylvania, and performed identical war feats. If record of their lives is otherwise sketchy, documentation bears out their individual identities and their exploits.
Margaret Corbin and her family, like many Scots-Irish settlers, lived at Pennsylvania's far northwest frontier. At age five, when she and her brother were away from home for some reason, Indians descended on the farmstead, killing their father and taking away their mother. Margaret and her brother subsequently were raised by a maternal uncle. Nothing is known about Margaret's upbringing or education.
In 1772, she married John Corbin, who three years later enlisted as a matross (a private who assisted gunners in loading cannon), serving in Captain
Thomas Proctor's first company of Pennsylvania artillery. Margaret accompanied her husband when he and a detachment were sent to Fort Washington (at present 183rd Street, New York City) overlooking the Hudson River. He was assigned to a two-gun battery at an outpost on Laurel Hill, northeast of the fort on a ridge above the Harlem River. Each cannon shot a six-pound missile or its equivalent in grapeshot (a cluster of small iron balls used for a scatter effect). On November 16, 1776, John's battery withstood a heavy bombardment from the British frigate Pearl in the Hudson River, and from Hessian cannon across the Harlem River. When Hessian troops began an assault upon the ridge position, the American cannons proved ineffective because they could not be sufficiently lowered; John and his comrades then fired on the Pearl, striking the rigging and the hull. At this point, John was mortally wounded, and Margaret Corbin assumed her husband's duties. She received wounds from three British grapeshot; an arm was almost severed, and her breast was badly lacerated.
The British carried the day, and all Americans in defense of Fort Washington were made prisoners of war. Corbin, however, was an exception; because of her wounds, she was allowed to go to American-held Philadelphia for medical treatment.
The Executive Council of Pennsylvania, on June 29, 1779, granted Margaret Corbin $30 and recommended to the congressional Board of War that she receive a disability pension. Congress, on July 6, 1779, granted her a lifetime annuity of one-half monthly pay "drawn by a soldier in the service of these states." Later, Congress also provided that Corbin receive a suit of clothes annually or a dollar equivalent. Significantly, not only did Margaret Corbin become the first woman pensioner of the United States, but her award was for military service and not as the widow of a soldier.
Upon winning her pension in July 1779, Margaret Corbin was immediately enrolled for the duration of the war in the Corps of Invalids, whose members, despite their disabilities, performed guard or garrison duty. The Corps of Invalids was stationed at West Point. One of the obligations of the disabled was to instruct soldiers, and hence arose the idea that West Point would be suitable for this purpose in the future. Corbin was the only woman among the 286 "privates and others" who were discharged when the Invalid Corps was disbanded in April 1783.
By 1782, Corbin had remarried to a veteran artillerist who had served with her husband, but his name is unknown. Corbin felt discriminated against because she did not receive the full pay of a soldier and the allotted daily ration of rum. She appealed to Congress, which refused the pay request but accepted the claim for the spirits, thereby awarding her 257 gills of whisky (retroactive in relation to her military service) or the money equivalent. Known as a heavy drinker, Corbin might have opted for the whisky.
Margaret's new husband was apparently also one of the permanently impaired soldiers. He either died shortly thereafter or the two separated, but both were too incapacitated to work. Like many disabled Revolutionary veterans, Corbin became unable to care for herself, and the military command at West Point made arrangements for households in the neighbor-hood to take her in. But even this was a problem. Corbin developed such a nasty temper and sharp tongue that she insulted everyone. A person coming face to face with her would salute her and call her "Captain Molly" but behind her back refer to her as "Dirty Kate." A commissary officer at West Point in 1786 wrote the secretary of war: "I am at a loss what to do with Captain Molly. She is such an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge."
After leaving service, Margaret Corbin stayed close by West Point, from which she could draw rations. She died at Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls), New York, about three miles from West Point, and was buried in a private cemetery at Swimstown on a plot that became part of the J.P. Morgan estate. In 1926, in connection with the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the New York State branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had Margaret Corbin's remains reinterred at the post cemetery at West Point.
Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley
Although her parentage has not been confirmed by historical research, it is believed that Mary Ludwig was born near Trenton, New Jersey, the daughter of John George Ludwig, who migrated from the Palatinate (a region in Germany) in 1749. Mary helped out on her father's dairy farm. At age 15, in 1769, she shows up as a domestic servant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the household of Dr. William Irvine, who later became a general in the Continental army. She married William Hays, a barber, who had his shop in the same block as the Irvine home. The date of the event is uncertain. While the name of Mary's husband being William Hays is verified by later legal documents, the only mention of a Mary Ludwig being married in Carlisle during the immediate pre-Revolutionary period is a marriage bond of July 24, 1769, naming Caspar Hays as the husband. Be that as it may, it is well established that the Mary Ludwig who worked for the Irvines was the same person of "Molly Pitcher" fame.
William Hays, a native of Ireland, enlisted in the Pennsylvania artillery regiment of Colonel Thomas Proctor in May 1777 for three years; after discharge, he reenlisted in 1781. Mary Ludwig Hays initially stayed on with the Irvines, but sometime in 1778, probably toward the end of the Valley Forge encampment, joined her husband as a camp follower of the army. When the British evacuated Philadelphia and headed toward the New Jersey coast on their way to New York City, General Washington gave pursuit. Intending at first only to harass the rear of the enemy force, Washington suddenly called for a full attack. As a result, there was confusion in forming a battle plan; General Henry Knox, chief of artillery for the American army, however, did manage to set up batteries of eight to ten guns at critical positions. The artillery cut gaping holes through the British ranks. William Hays, serving in the crew for one of the sixpounders, managed to fire two or more rounds of grapeshot per minute.
Temperatures at the battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, reached as high as nearly 100°. Soldiers were dropping from heat stroke. Mary Hays did the best she could to assist her husband and the other gunners. Finding a spring nearby, she carried water in buckets, sometimes called pitchers, to the thirsty soldiers. When her husband passed out because of the heat, Mary Hays immediately took over his role in the loading and firing of his assigned artillery piece. As Private Joseph Plumb Martin recorded the occasion:
While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs, without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.
Mary Hays returned to Carlisle, and so did her husband after the war. William Hays died in 1788, and, as his widow, Mary received 200 acres of land conferred as a veteran benefit from the state of Pennsylvania; she sold the land in 1807. In 1793, Mary married John McCauley, a veteran and friend of her first husband. He was lazy, and lived off money earned by his wife. He died in 1813; the two probably separated before that time.
Fortunately, Mary Hays McCauley did not have the total disability that plagued Margaret Corbin, and continued to work the rest of her life. She held a variety of jobs—domestic servant in different households, nursemaid, and charwoman. She was hired to wash and clean in the courthouse and other public buildings. Tradition has it that she, for a time, cooked and washed for the soldiers at the Carlisle barracks that had been built by the Hessian prisoners from the battle of Trenton. Local tax records show that she and her two husbands owned a house on a halfacre lot, and usually one or two cows.
[Molly Pitcher] immediately took up his gun and cartridges and like a Spartan heroine fought with astonishing bravery.
—Dr. Albigence Waldo (July 3, 1778)
Unlike Margaret Corbin, Mary McCauley did not succeed in obtaining a federal pension. But the Pennsylvania legislature, on February 21, 1822, voted an annuity of $40, payable in half year installments, "for her services during the revolutionary war." Among her neighbors in Carlisle, Mary McCauley was often referred to as Molly Pitcher, as depositions from those who had known her attest. The name "Molly Pitcher," however, does not appear in print until the 1865 edition of Dr. James Thacher's Revolutionary War journal, 21 years after the author's death.
One soldier is said to have described "Molly Pitcher" as "rather stout and red" and a "coarse and uncouth looking female." In later years, neighbors remembered her fondly. Harriet Foulke , in whose home Mary McCauley worked, had childhood recollections of her:
She was homely in appearance, not refined in manner or language, but ready to do a kind act for anyone. She was of average height, muscular, strong, and heavy-set. She was a busy talker. She wore a short gown, white or calico, a linsey-striped skirt, very short and full, woolen stockings, heavy brogans, and a broad white cap with wide flaring ruffles.
McCauley eventually became blind in one eye, caused by the intrusion of a piece of lime. By 1830, she was living in the household of her son, John Ludwig Hays, in Carlisle. She died there in 1832, her death being "hastened by a stubborn cutaneous disease," and was buried in the Old Graveyard in Carlisle, next to her first husband. A stone marker was erected in 1876. There are memorials to her at Carlisle and at the site of the battle of Monmouth. In 1905, a cannon and a masted flag were placed at her gravesite.
The two artillerywomen—"Captain Molly" and "Molly Pitcher"—performed feats of bravery and skill in the Revolutionary War. In so doing, they showed devotion to their fallen husbands and to their country. Their stories had great appeal as the nation a century later looked back to the glory in winning Independence. The two Mollies' rise to the pantheon of American heroes coincided with the gathering momentum of a women's movement seeking equal rights and the onset of a progressive era that sought to redefine America's past. Both Corbin and McCauley, after the war, were very much like old soldiers. Margaret Corbin, disabled and virtually homeless, struggled to make ends meet. Mary McCauley had the security of family and friends. Both women were known to be heavy drinkers and prone to swearing like troopers. McCauley relished in telling war stories. Supposedly she often told girls in Carlisle: "You should have been with me at Monmouth and learned how to load a cannon." If the American Revolution did not have a Joan of Arc , it had two women, among many others, who demonstrated bravery in combat.
Hall, Edward. Margaret Corbin: Heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, 16 November 1776. NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1932.
Landis, John B. "Investigation into American Tradition of Woman Known as 'Molly Pitcher,'" in Journal of American History. Vol. V, 1911, pp. 83–96.
Perrine, William D. Molly Pitcher of Monmouth County, New Jersey and Captain Molly of Fort Washington, New York, 1778–1937 [Leaflet]. Princeton Junction, NJ, 1937.
Smith, Samuel S. A Molly Pitcher Chronology. Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1972.
Landis, John B. A Short History of Molly Pitcher: The Heroine of the Battle of Monmouth. Carlisle, PA: Cornman Printing, 1905.
Pierce, Grace M. "Three American Women Pensioned for Military Service," in Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine. Vol. LI, 1917, pp. 140–145, 222–228.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. Moll Pitcher. 1832.
The Molly Pitcher Papers, D.A.R., Cumberland County Chapter, Carlisle, Pennsylvania (includes photocopies of archival records).
Harry M. Ward , Professor of History, University of Richmond, and author of 11 books on early American history