This Day in History: The tragedy of the "other" Molly Pitcher
On this day in 1832, Revolutionary War patriot Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley passes away. Mary is often accepted as the woman behind the folk hero “Molly Pitcher,” and regular readers of this page have heard me tell her story before. But did you know that there is actually a fair amount of controversy regarding who the “true” Molly Pitcher is?
Some fervently contend that the “real” Molly Pitcher was not Mary after all. They believe the real heroine is a woman by the name of Margaret Cochran Corbin.
Margaret’s story is a tragic one. She was orphaned at a young age because of an Indian raid: With her father killed and her mother captured, Margaret was raised by an uncle.
She surely thought her life was taking a turn for the better in 1772: She left her uncle’s home and got married to John Corbin. The Revolution started soon afterwards, and Margaret followed her new husband into war.
We don’t know specifically what Margaret did during her time with the army, but she likely lived as so many other “camp followers” did in those years. The women who followed George Washington’s army would have helped in many ways: They were living a life far from home, washing clothes, cooking food, and mending uniforms.
Their contribution to the war effort was badly needed, although it surely felt rather menial and unglamorous.
Then, Margaret did even more. Indeed, her efforts at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776 were enough to grab the attention of the Continental Congress.
Margaret reportedly dressed in men’s clothing that day. She began helping her husband, who was working in the artillery line. John unfortunately took a mortal hit, but Margaret had no time for mourning: Instead, she stepped in and began firing the cannon herself.
Soon, Margaret was injured, too. Grapeshot injured her shoulder, chest, and jaw. When Americans surrendered, the wounded Margaret was captured, along with everyone else. Fortunately, she was released on parole, but Margaret had been permanently disabled by her wounds. She would never regain full use of her arm.
In 1779, the Continental Congress granted her a pension, but Margaret’s story still ended badly. It seems she never quite recovered from the losses that she suffered that day.
“When she died in 1800,” historian Carol Berkin concludes, “few local citizens realized that the sharp-tongued, alcoholic woman known as ‘Dirty Kate’ had taken ‘a soldier’s part in the war for liberty.’”
All sorts of sacrifices were made in the American fight for liberty, weren’t they?
Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2005)
John B. Landis, Investigation into American Tradition of Woman Known as “Molly Pitcher” (Journal of American History; 1911)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
John Todd White, The Truth about Molly Pitcher, in The American Revolution: Whose Revolution? (James Kirby Martin & Karen R. Stubaus eds., 1981)
William Henry Egle, Some Pennsylvania Women During the War of the Revolution (1898)