This Day in History: The Legend of Molly Pitcher
On this day in 1832, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, one of the patriotic women behind the folk hero “Molly Pitcher,” dies in Pennsylvania.
Who on earth is Molly Pitcher?! Have you ever heard of her?
The story of Molly Pitcher is partly legend, which makes it difficult to tell where the real story ends and the mythology begins. But the legend appears to be based on the stories of two women: Margaret Cochran Corbin and Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley.
In 1778, Mary was married to her first husband, William Hays, an artilleryman in the Continental Army. She was following the army and helping however she could. During the Battle of Monmouth, she was carrying buckets of water onto the field of battle. (The water was needed to swab out the barrels of the cannons.) Unfortunately, Hays collapsed during the battle. Molly took up his duties at the cannon, loading and firing it herself. We know of this incident because a private in the army later wrote about it in his diary. According to the diary entry, a cannonball shot Mary right through the legs, tearing up her petticoats—but she kept going!
Private Joseph Martin explained: “While in the act of reaching a cartridge . . . , 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.”
Margaret Corbin’s story is similar. Apparently, she took over a cannon at the Battle of Fort Washington when her husband was killed there in 1776. She was wounded during the battle. Both Mary and Margaret later received pensions from a state or the federal government.
You hear less about the women in the Revolutionary War, but they were there! Many of these women followed the army. True, sometimes they were there because they’d lost their homes in the ravages of war and they were seeking safety. And, quite honestly, George Washington found the situation to be challenging. He was having trouble feeding and provisioning his own troops. How could he also take care of whole families? On the other hand, the army needed the women and relied upon them. These women were willing and able to help in many ways: They were cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, caring for the wounded, carrying water and apparently even taking over the cannon when they were called upon to do so.
How AWESOME that there were so many BRAVE men and women who worked so hard to make this country free!! Why would we not take time to learn about them? And why would we waste their effort now?
Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2005)
Mark Edward Lender & Garry Wheeler Stone, Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (2016)
Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin (modern version available HERE)
The American Revolution: Whose Revolution? (James Kirby Martin & Karen R. Stubaus eds., 1981)