Who Was Molly Pitcher?

Molly_Pitcher_engravingLast week I received my copy of Mark Lender and Gary Wheeler Stone’s Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of the Battle.  I look forward to reading it and processing it as part of my current work on the American Revolution in New Jersey.

If Americans know anything about the Battle of Monmouth it is probably related to Molly Pitcher, the name given to a woman who supposedly fought for Washington’s army.  So who was Molly Pitcher? If you want a nice primer check out the following series of posts by J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

The Legend of Molly Pitcher–A New Source

The Original Molly Pitcher

The Fleeting Facts of Molly Pitcher’s Life

“Seeking a Clear Image of Moll Pitcher

Here is a taste of Bell’s “The Legend of Molly Pitcher–A New Source:”

As Ray Raphael wrote inFounding Myths and this article for the Journal of the American Revolution, there’s solid evidence of awoman helping her husband in the Continentalartillery at that battle. In his memoir, first published in 1830, army veteran Joseph Plumb Martin wrote:

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 the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, 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.

There’s also contemporaneous documentation of the state of Pennsylvania awarding a pension to Margaret Corbin, who took her husband’s place at a cannon during the defense of Fort Washington in 1776.

But the specific legendary figure we’ve come to know as Molly Pitcher first showed up in the second volume of Freeman Hunt’s 1830 collectionAmerican Anecdotes:

Before the two armies, American and English, had begun the general action of Monmouth, two of the advanced batteries commenced a very severe fire against each other. As the warmth was excessive, the wife of a cannonier constantly ran to bring him water from a neighbouring spring. At the moment when she started from the spring, to pass to the post of her husband, she saw him fall, and hastened to assist him; but he was dead. At the same moment she heard an officer order the cannon to be removed from its place, complaining he could not fill his post by as brave a man as had been killed. ‘No,’ said the intrepid Molly, fixing her eyes upon the officer, ‘the cannon shall not be removed for the want of some one to serve it; since my brave husband is no more, I will use my utmost exertions to avenge his death.’ The activity and courage with which she performed the office of cannonier during the action, attracted the attention of all who witnessed it, finally of Gen. Washington himself, who afterwards gave her the rank of Lieutenant, and granted her half pay during life. She wore an epaulette, and every body called her Captain Molly.