Monday, August 29, 2011

Carve Their Names with Pride: Three Women Called Molly


      Every war produces its share of heroes. The American Revolution, the most desperate of our conflicts, was unusual because many brave women participated alongside their men and even took an active part in battle.
      Controversy still rages today about the role of women in combat. It is perhaps fitting to examine the lives of three women and their spontaneous heroism more than two centuries ago. Without such sacrifices, this nation might not have been created. Two were army wives who became impromptu cannoneers. The third masqueraded as a man and fought as a soldier. All were dubbed "Molly," then a popular diminutive of Mary.

Margaret Corbin
The first American woman to shed her blood in defense of this country, Margaret Corbin was born in 1751, the only daughter of Robert Cochran, a Scots-Irish settler in western Pennsylvania. When she was five years old, her father was killed by Indians, and her mother was carried off into captivity. Fortunately, Margaret was with relatives at the time.
      In 1772, she married John Corbin, a Virginian, who joined the Continental Army as a gunner’s assistant in the First Pennsylvania Regiment of Artillery. His wife accompanied the unit as nurse and camp assistant. After watching her husband at his work, Molly Corbin soon became as familiar with the sequence of loading, firing and sponging a cannon as any artilleryman
      John Corbin was killed in 1776 while manning a small cannon in a northern outpost of Fort Washington in upper Manhattan. Margaret took his place, loading and swabbing the gun "with skill and vigor" until she herself was severely wounded in the shoulder and chest by Hessian grapeshot.
      Following the capture of Fort Washington, in return for her promise that she would fight no more in the war, her captors delivered her to the American forces. Evacuated to Philadelphia in 1779, Margaret Corbin was voted a pension of "half-pay for life and one complete set of cloaths."
      After the war, she settled in Swimtown (later called Buttermilk Falls and now Highland Falls) outside of West Point. Famous for her flaming red hair, sharp eyes, shrill voice, shrewish temper and useless left arm, she was saluted as "Captain Molly." She died in 1800, a hard-drinking, impoverished veteran.
      In 1926, her obscure grave was located. Her remains were disinterred and moved to the cemetery at West Point. Sheltered by a small grove of arbor vitae near the Old Chapel, an imposing monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution memorializes this first artillery woman of the American Army.

Molly Pitcher
Evidence exists that Molly Pitcher actually was a generic name given to women who brought pitchers of water or grog (rum diluted with water) to thirsty soldiers on the battlefield. The name is most often associated with Mary Hays, born Mary Ludwig, a Pennsylvania Dutch girl whose parents had emigrated from Germany. Married to John Caspar Hays, a young barber, she accompanied her husband's regiment, the First Pennsylvania Artillery, when it joined Washington's Monmouth campaign in New Jersey. In a strange coincidence, this was the same unit in which Margaret Corbin's husband had served.
      Mary Hays's moment of glory came at the Battle of Monmouth on Sunday, June 28, 1778, remembered as one of the hottest days of that summer. Soldiers were dropping all around, not only from bullets but from thirst and overexertion in the hundred-degree heat. Mary carried water from a nearby spring, thus earning her the well-known nickname. When her husband suffered from heatstroke while firing his artillery piece, she grabbed a rammer and kept the gun in action.
      Let Joseph Plumb Martin describe her decisive action. His graphic contemporary picture of the life of an enlisted man in the Continental Army was published anonymously in 1830:
      "While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far from the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any damage other than carrying away the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass higher, for it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation."
      Her husband died shortly after the war, and Mary Hays married George McCauley, an ex-soldier from her husband's regiment. He turned out to be shiftless and a heavy drinker. She left him, supporting herself as a laundress and nursemaid.
      Although she "smoked, chewed tobacco and swore like a trooper" and in later life comported herself like an old soldier, "Sergeant Molly" regrettably never was awarded a veteran's pension by Congress. Contemporary writers described her as a stocky, ruddy-complexioned Pennsylvania Dutch girl. Apparently misled by the McCauley name, some writers claimed that Molly Pitcher was Irish. Responding to this, her granddaughter, Polly McLeister, described Molly as being "as Dutch as sauerkraut."
      A monument on the site of the Battle of Monmouth, near Freehold, N.J., celebrates the heroism of Molly Pitcher. She died in 1832 and is buried (as Mollie McCauley) in the Old Graveyard on South Street in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Deborah Sampson
Of all the stories to come out of the Revolution, none is stranger than that of the only woman to formally enlist in the Continental Army. Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760. After their sailor father died at sea, the Sampson children were all parceled out among friends and relatives.
      Deborah spent her teenage years as an indentured servant in Middleboro, Massachusetts, and a remarkable servant she was. Not only did she learn to read, but she educated herself enough to qualify as a part-time teacher. At the age of 22, dressed in borrowed male attire, she tried to enlist in the Continental Army as "Timothy Thayer." She was unmasked when she became tipsy in a local tavern celebrating her enlistment.
      Undaunted, Deborah Sampson walked some 75 miles to Worcester, where she succeeded in passing herself off as "Robert Shurtliff" and inscribing this name on the rolls of Capt. George Webb's light infantry company of the Fourth Massachusetts militia regiment.
      The success of her deception is understandable. A contemporary description portrayed her as "a heavy-boned woman of about 5 feet 8 inches in height, with an elongated horse-face and a long prominent nose." Teasingly nicknamed "Smock Face" and "Molly" because of his lack of facial hair, the new private marched off to West Point with his unit. In a skirmish with Loyalist troops near Tarrytown in Westchester, Deborah was wounded in the head by a saber blow that left a permanent scar.
      She was wounded again near Eastchester, receiving two musket balls in the thigh. Medical treatment of these wounds would have revealed her gender, so she removed one musket ball with a penknife and sewing needle. The other was too deep to remove; it caused her to limp for the rest of her life. After service at Fort Ticonderoga, she was transferred to Philadelphia as an orderly to General John Paterson of the Delaware militia.
      Having come down with a fever, she again tried to avoid treatment. Near death, she was treated by Dr. Barnabas Binney, who discovered her secret when he examined her. Discreetly, he said nothing and had her taken to his home to recover. The good doctor’s participation in her deception eventually backfired; his niece became infatuated with the young soldier.
      Dr. Binney decided the time had come to reveal that Robert Shurtliff was a female. When told that his orderly was a woman, Gen. Paterson exclaimed, "Why, this is truly theatrical!" It was also unlike anything in his experience, so he took the news to the Commander-in-Chief. George Washington decided that an honorable discharge should be granted to Private Robert Shurtliff. This was done, showing an enlistment of a year and a half.
      In 1784, Deborah Sampson married Benjamin Gannett, a prosperous Sharon, Massachusetts, farmer. Later, the Massachusetts legislature and Congress each awarded her small pensions. . She capitalized on her fame by appearing on the lecture platform, the first woman to do so. Her talk was a set speech about her wartime experiences that concluded with a performance of the complete manual of arms in full military uniform.
      She died in 1827. Her grave is in Sharon's Rock Ridge Cemetery, and a street in Sharon is named for her. The house in Plympton in which she was born, and the Gannett House in Sharon in which she lived and raised four children are both still standing. In 1943, the Bethlehem Steel Company's Sparrow's Point shipyard near Baltimore launched a Liberty ship that proudly carried the name of this unusual woman.
      It has been said that one of the reasons for many of our problems today is that we lack genuine heroes. For starters, we could reflect on the selfless courage of three American women called Molly, now only dimly remembered.

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