By Terry Pettee
Perhaps the most remembered heroine of the Revolutionary War is Mary Ludwig Hays, better known as Molly Pitcher. Molly Pitcher was not a nickname given exclusively to Mary Ludwig Hays. The nickname “Molly Pitcher” was given to the many women who courageously carried buckets of water onto the battlefield to cool and sponge gunpowder off the cannons as well as to refresh the soldiers.
The Molly Pitchers of the Revolution have largely gone unnamed with the exception of Mary Ludwig Hays and Margaret Corbin. According to some historians, the exploits of these two women borders on folklore and are perhaps a composite derived from embellished myth. Nevertheless, the women corps of Molly Pitchers who braved the battlefield are a documented fact.
History and folklore often walk hand-in-hand. For example, in grade school, those of my generation heard the account of George Washington cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree. When asked about it by his father, the six-year-old answered, “I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet.” This fictional short story, written by Mason Weems, was taught as a metaphor in public schools to several generations of children to account for George Washington’s integrity.
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German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously quipped, “History is written by the victors.” The almost exclusively male contemporaries who chronicled the Revolution glorified the events and those who engaged in them, primarily those of the male gender. In reality, the war was won more by attrition and the logistics of the Atlantic Ocean more so than by military means. The chroniclers of the battles and heroes of the war often included folklore ignoring the mistakes and failures of those who struggled for freedom.
Women, who contributed significantly to victory, were largely overlooked in the war’s historical documentation. The bravery of the Molly Pitchers is just one such example of the chauvinism of the time. Nevertheless, history and folklore when merged together have the capacity to teach and to inspire. For that reason alone, the history and folklore of the Molly Pitchers are important.
At the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey, General George Washington’s army attacked the rear-guard flank of British Lt. General Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton protected the rear flank of the main British army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis. Clinton’s force, though much smaller than the main army, nevertheless outnumbered Washington’s forces by a quarter or more. The battle was fought to a draw in temperatures reportedly reaching 100 degrees.
It was not unusual for wives to accompany their soldier husbands when they were away from home. Women performed domestic choirs vital to the men and nursed the ill and wounded. The corps of Molly Pitchers who braved the battlefield unarmed and unprotected reflect the courage of the women who contributed to the freedom and independence we now enjoy.
The story of Mary Ludwig Hays begins with her devotion to her husband William Hays. Folklore suggests Mary remained close to William to the extent she knew as much as he about aiming, loading, firing and maintaining a cannon.
Different accounts indicate William Hays suffered heat stroke and was wounded or killed during the Battle of Monmouth Court House. When William was unable to fulfill his duty, Mary stepped in to replace her stricken husband. There are several famous historic lithographs and paintings depicting Molly Pitcher with ramrod in hand loading a cannon. It is these artistic renderings that fueled the Molly Pitcher history and folklore.
Mary Ludwig Hays is known for more than replacing her stricken husband. Historic records bear the name of Mary “Molly” Hays among the women led by Martha Washington who in the winter of 1777 attended the sick and dying at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. These camp wives laundered the bed linens, nursed, bathed and fed the ill. Their presence did much to lift the morale of the suffering soldiers.
The Molly Pitchers endured the same conditions and often suffered the same fate as the soldiers they cared for. According to folklore, after the Battle of Monmouth Court House, Mary Ludwig Hays’ billowing skirts showed evidence of musket ball holes though she was never struck. That was not true of all Molly Pitchers. Some Molly Pitchers suffered wounds and even death.
Following the Battle of Monmouth Court House, General Washington is reported to have inquired about the Molly Pitcher seen loading the cannon. It is said he commemorated her action by issuing her a warrant as a non-commissioned officer. Thereafter, it is said, she bore the nickname “Sergeant Molly” for the rest of her days.
Margaret Corbin, another Molly Pitcher, replaced her husband in maintaining the cannon fire. John Corbin was killed during the furious battle of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, New York in 1776. Though seriously wounded in the arm and chest herself, Margaret Corbin remained at her post.
The wounds she suffered contributed to her early death following the war. For her bravery, she received a charity payment from the Invalid Regiment Fund and later a small pension from Congress. The eccentric Margaret Corbin was described as bad-tempered and hard-drinking, perhaps the aftermath of her wounds. This heroine came to outrank Mary Ludwig Hays if by her nickname only by often being referred to as Captain Molly.
The Molly Pitcher who took a place at the cannon during the heat and ferocity of battle is the story of more than one woman. The Molly Pitchers of history stood beside the soldiers that fought for this nation’s independence. Like the 50,000 casualties who secured American independence, most remain unnamed and unknown but nevertheless worthy of honor for their sacrifice
Terry Pettee is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where his undergraduate study prepared him for a career in secondary education. Prior to attending EMU, he was Editor-In-Chief of the Erie Square Gazette while a student at the St. Clair County Community College. Between his community college and university years he was Marysville Editor of the St. Clair County Independent Press where he was a newspaper reporter and columnist. After a brief teaching stint his life’s journey led him into human resource and industrial relations management; a career spanning four decades. Now retired, Terry writes both Christian value based fiction and non-fiction for his own amusement, which is babble-speak for saying he has only a single published book to his credit.