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Primary Source of the Month
"Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, June 1778," engraved by J. C. Armytage after a painting by Alonzo Chappel, ca. 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
As long as there have been wars, women have contributed to the military. During the Revolutionary War, women filled essential roles on both the home front and war front. In addition to managing the operation of the homes, farms, or businesses alone, women went to the military camps to cook and clean for the soldiers, carry supplies, and tend to the wounded. Some women worked as spies to gather information about British plans and troop movements. Other women spontaneously took up arms on the battlefield, while some even disguised themselves as men to enlist and actively serve on the front lines.
This engraving by J.C. Armytage after a painting by Alonzo Chappel depicts a valiant “Molly Pitcher” stepping in for her fallen husband to load a cannon for the American army. It disputes the notion that war is no place for a woman by showing the exception to the rule. Oral tradition says that "Molly" had been carrying water to her husband’s artillery crew. When he fell wounded, she replaced him at the cannon for the remainder of the engagement.
Historians believe the tale of Molly Pitcher was most likely created from the real-life accounts of two women—Margaret Cochran Corbin and Mary Ludwig Hayes McCauley. Both women’s husbands served in the American army and both men were wounded in battle in their wives’ presence. Accounts tell of how Margaret and Mary stood in for their fallen husbands and fearlessly engaged the enemy. Private Joseph Plumb Martin, an eyewitness at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, wrote in his diary about a woman he observed firing cannon: "A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece for the whole time." Historians believe the woman Martin describes was Mary Ludwig Hayes McCauley.
After the war, Margaret Corbin became one of only two women to receive a federal pension for military service (the other was Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted to fight with the 4th Massachusetts Regiment). The records of the Continental Congress record the following for Margaret Corbin:
Resolved, That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive, during her natural life Or the continuance of the said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states; and that she now receive out of the public stores, one complete suit of cloaths, or the value thereof in money.
Although Molly Pitcher is a composite and the stuff of legend, she was inspired by the actions of several real women who contributed to the Revolutionary War effort with patriotism and courage.
Source: This article was written by Greg Timmons, freelance writer and education consultant, Missoula, Montana.