November 16, 2016
Margaret flinched as she heard the cannon explode. She turned to see the gunner collapse. Her husband, John, who had been loading the cannon, quickly jumped into the gutter spot. Knowing he needed help, Margaret dropped her pitcher and ran to his side.
Margaret knew how to load the cannon from watching her husband do it for months. John was assigned the duty of matross, or soldier of artillery, ranked just below gunner.
When Margaret accompanied John as a “camp follower” after he joined the Continental Army, she knew she would be cooking, sewing, washing and nursing wounded soldiers. It never occurred to her she would actually be fighting on the front line. Until now, the closest she got to the fighting was bringing water to thirsty soldiers and to cool overheated cannons.
The 3,000 men General George Washington left to defend Fort Washington on Manhattan Island in New York were vastly outnumbered. (see ) British and Hessian soldiers threatened to overtake the area for 4 hours. The Hessians repeatedly charged up Forest Hill even as Americans blasted them with heavy cannon fire.
As Margaret loaded and sponged the gun, she could feel bullets whizzing by her. It was not long until one of them found her beloved husband. John fell behind the cannon, leaving a vulnerable gap in the Americans' defense. Without hesitation, Margaret leapt behind the cannon. Even without a loader, Margaret's cannon fired more accurately than any other.
As the Hessians moved in on the hill, their focus turned to Margaret as all the other guns turned silent. Margaret did not stop until a grapeshot, a small mass of metal balls packed tightly into a canvas bag, tore through her left shoulder and breast. She suffered severe wounds in her jaw and chest while her left arm was nearly severed. The British had won this battle.
As Margaret lay next to her dead husband, British soldiers canvassed the battlefield, bayonetting the most severely wounded. Dressed in men's clothes, they had no idea Margaret was a woman until coming upon her. She escaped execution, most likely because they didn't want to kill a woman. Instead, they left her for dead.
The British took 2,800 Americans prisoner, a large majority who would starve aboard prison ships in Walkabout Bay. John was among the 59 American casualties. A British doctor searching for survivors discovered Margaret and realized she was still alive. After receiving preliminary treatment, Margaret was one of 69 prisoners of war released to a Revolutionary hospital for care. They were sent by wagon to Philadelphia 100 miles away.
On November 16, 1776, Margaret Cochran Corbin lost her husband, the use of her left arm, and almost her life, fighting for the American Dream.
Margaret was born on November 12, 1751, near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. While visiting her uncle with her brother, 5-year-old Margaret became an orphan. Indians attacked her home, killing her father. Her mother was taken captive, never to be heard from again. Margaret and her brother were then raised by their uncle.
At age 20, Margaret married a Virginia farmer named John Corbin. When he joined the Continental Army three years later, Margaret went with him. It was not uncommon for wives to accompany their military husbands. These "camp followers" earned money cooking, sewing, doing laundry and tending the wounded. They often earned the nickname “Molly Pitcher” as they took pitchers of water to soldiers.
On June 20, 1777, the Continental Congress passed an act forming the Invalid Regiment, or Corps of Invalids. Depending on the disabled soldier's health, each member was assigned some form of light military duty. An original member, the enrollment books listed Margaret simply as “Captain Molly”. The regiment was stationed at West Point, N.Y., where Margaret remained until her discharge from the Army in 1783.
In 1779, Margaret’s story was brought to the attention of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. In June, they paid her $30 for her service while the Congress's Board of War reviewed her case. Impressed with Margaret's courage and service, the board granted her a lifelong pension equal to half of a soldier’s monthly pay. She became the first American woman to receive a military pension. Margaret was also given a new set of clothes annually.
After the war, Margaret fell on even harder times. Unable to dress or bath herself, she became an outcast from normal society. She moved just outside of West Point to Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls). Captain Molly soon earned the reputation of a scruffy, ill-tempered woman who preferred a good pipe and a stiff drink with her fellow veterans over feminine etiquette.
Margaret’s heroic story became so well-known at that time that the Philadelphia Society of Women decided to erect a monument in her honor. After visiting her in person, the project was promptly cancelled as Margaret was not the example of a socially appropriate woman.
Several messages to Secretary of War Henry Knox (see ) have been discovered referring to “Captain Molly”. The authors acknowledge both Margaret’s crudeness and roughness, but they also address her need for assistance. She was put in the care of several women in Buttermilk Falls, but as her reputation and vulgarity grew, so did the difficulty for finding care for her. She struggled the rest of her life though Knox did what he could to help.
As well known and heroic as she was, Captain Molly died alone. In fact, she is only surmised to have passed in 1800. The exact date is unknown. She was buried in Highland Falls with only a crude stone marking her grave. The site became forgotten and overgrown until the New York Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution discovered her story in the 1920’s. Wanting to honor the first woman hero of the Revolutionary War, the DAR set out to find her remains so as to give her a proper burial. Local legend, family stories, and a native riverboat captain led the DAR to a female grave on land belonging to J.P. Morgan. The captain claimed his grandfather helped with the burial.
A military surgeon at West Point examined the remains and determined them to be Margaret due to the injuries sustained on the face, chest and left arm. In 1926, Margaret was re-interred with full military honors. She now rests with fellow soldiers behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point, though she is only one of two Revolutionary War veterans there.
Several plaques and monuments have since been erected for her. A bronze plaque stands near the site of the battle in New York's Fort Tryon Park. It reads: “the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty.”
Captain Molly is often confused with another Molly Pitcher named Mary Ludwig (see ). Mary also heroically jumped behind a cannon after her husband collapsed to fight during the Battle of Monmouth, in New Jersey. As that battle took place two years later, Invalid Regiment Muster lists confirm these are two separate, but equally valiant women.
That’s my 2 cents.