Was there really a Molly Pitcher? Well, yes, but only in a manner of speaking.
She exists in historical memory as a legendary Patriot stalwart who allegedly carried water to the thirsty rebel soldiers manning artillery at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778. This was the longest one-day engagement of the war and involved the largest exchange of cannon fire on any Revolutionary battlefield.
Various accounts have even attached a name to the mythical heroine. John Ferling, in Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford University Press, 2007), references the fable in which Molly Pitcher—who was perhaps Mary Ludwig Hays of Carlisle, Pennsylvania—supposedly “took up a rammer and helped fire the field gun previously operated by her mortally wounded husband, if the doubtful story is true.”
Carol Berkin, in Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), seeks to put this bit of folklore to rest once and for all. “Molly Pitcher simply did not exist,” she asserts, except as the functional equivalent of Rosie the Riveter during World War II. Rather, this mythical moniker was “given to the many women who carried water to cool down the cannons so that soldiers could reload and fire them again.” (Professor Berkin’s work is listed among the one-hundred best American Revolution books of all time by the Journal of the American Revolution and deservedly so. It is simply masterful.)
But all is not lost. Those disabused of the Molly Pitcher legend can find solace—and inspiration as well—in the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin. She wore men’s clothing while standing by her husband John during the British-Hessian attack on Fort Washington high above the Hudson River on November 16, 1776, took his place in the midst of battle, was seriously wounded, taken captive, and returned home with a permanent combat disability.
As the enemy assault on Fort Washington began, assistant gunner John Cochran assumed his position with the artillery, but he was soon forced to operate the cannon when the gunner was killed. Margaret, then twenty-five years old, came to her husband’s aid, helping him load the big gun until he too was slain. She then loaded and fired the field piece herself but was struck by grapeshot—a type of exploding shell that featured a canvas bag wrapped around objects such as iron balls, nails, stones, or pieces of chain. Margaret sustained wounds to her left shoulder, chest, and jaw. The soldiers who saw her fall bore her away from the battle line and put her under the care of other camp followers who were caring for the wounded.
Fort Washington’s capitulation was one of the worst defeats of the war for the rebel cause—over 2,800 were taken prisoner with an equivalent number of muskets and forty-one field guns lost to the attackers. After the garrison surrendered, Margaret was among the wounded American soldiers whom the victorious British set free on parole. The released defenders were ferried across the Hudson River to Fort Washington’s sister citadel, Fort Lee, which would fall to the British several days later at the start of their invasion of New Jersey. But by then, Margaret had been removed by wagon en route to Pennsylvania.
A Melancholy Ending
The injuries to her chest and jaw healed over time, but Margaret Corbin was never again able to use her left arm. She did receive a veteran’s pension—”half the pay and allowances of a soldier in service”—in an unusual acknowledgment by Congress of her military contribution to the Patriot enterprise. But while she was able to live on that amount, Margaret did not find happiness in later life. Moving to Highland Falls, New York, she turned to drink and died in 1800, apparently disdained by the majority in her community who knew her as an acerbic alcoholic named “Dirty Kate.” Few of them were aware of her service in the Revolution.