The Girls Behind The Guns

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On various occasions the American muse has sung of arms and the woman: a musketeer, a marine in the fighting tops of the Constitution, a color bearer, a cavalrywoman, even a brigade commander ex officio. The twain of this story, Molly Corbin and Molly Pitcher, were cannoneers, serving pieces in two of the hottest actions of the Revolution.

Fittingly they embodied tradition, for the patron saint of the artillery was of their sex. Since the day had passed when gun crews wore the image of St. Barbara on their caps and invoked her protection against premature explosion of their weapons, few comrades in arms of the two Mollys realized the appropriateness of their feat.

General Henry Knox, the Boston bookseller who became Washington’s chief of artillery: Major John Trumbull, as competent at ranging a gun as at painting in oils: perhaps young Captain Alexander Hamilton—these would have known the legend of St. Barbara: how that beautiful maiden of Heliopolis in Egypt was confined in a tower by her father to guard her against suitors: how he flogged and finally beheaded her when she embraced Christianity. Thereupon “the dread artillery of Heaven flashed,” a lightning bolt scored a direct hit on the cruel sire, and Barbara was duly elevated to be the gunners’ saint.

 

Molly Corbin and Molly Pitcher were unaware of such distinguished precedent when they faced the thunder and lightning of pitched battle. They were simple country girls, turned into artillerywomen by force of circumstance. Although both were wedded wives, the army classed them as camp followers, as it would continue to do with military families for more than a century, when it exchanged the term for “dependents.” The two girls did not care what they were called. It was enough that they could campaign along with their husbands, and the artillery offered advantages over the infantry. While they could march with the best, an occasional ride on an ammunition chest or a powder cart was welcome. There, too, precedent was provided. Families had accompanied trains of early European artillery, and boys born in the wagons were known as “sons of guns.”

Molly Corbin, christened Margaret, was the first to see action. When her husband John, a Virginian, enlisted in Proctor’s Pennsylvania Artillery, Molly, then 25, refused to be felt at home. With a number of other wives and sweethearts she attached herself to the regiment, which was glad to have them as cooks, washerwomen, and nurses. She watched John, a cannoneer—or matross, as they were then called—at gun drill. The sequence of commands soon grew familiar to her: Attention. Unlimber piece. Secure side boxes (these held the ammunition). Man out the piece (fastening dragropes to axles and holding them to check the gun’s recoil). From right to left, dress. Advance sponge. Tend vent. Sponge piece. Handle cartridge. Charge piece. Ram down cartridge. Prime. Take aim. Fire!

Soon she heard those commands given in battle. After the disastrous defeat on Long Island, General Washington had ferried the remnants of his army across the East River and retreated through Manhattan. He checked the enemy at Harlem Heights, and although defeated at White Plains, managed to slip out of a threatened encirclement. The General had hoped to blockade the Hudson by holding Fort Washington, in northern Manhattan, with 2,800 troops. But the British, abandoning the pursuit of Washington, moved against the now-isolated fort.

 

Among the garrison was Proctor’s Artillery, including Molly Corbin, who would not leave her husband. The British closed in. Redcoats, kilted Highlanders, and Hessians, with heavy artillery. 8,900 strong, poised for assault, and warships in the Hudson cleared for action. When surrender was refused, on November 15, 1776, a furious bombardment opened.

Molly stood beside John in a two-gun battery in the northern redoubt. Shells burst over the earthworks, and gunners began to drop. As a matross fell, Molly caught his rammer staff and stepped to the muzzle. In the long-familiar drill she plied it like a veteran, side by side with John at the other gun—sponge, charge, and rain. Her husband did not live long to grin across at her with pride. When he reeled and slumped to the ground with a mortal wound, his widow kept serving her gun without a pause.

Virginia and Maryland riflemen mowed down the assault waves, and cannon balls plowed bloody lanes through the close-packed ranks. Still the British surged forward overwhelmingly. When they swept over the defenses, storming the fort, Molly lay bleeding beside her gun, one arm nearly severed and part of a breast mangled by three grapeshot. Somehow she survived a jolting wagon journey to Philadelphia with other wounded prisoners of war. Alter partial recovery, she was released to the American Army’s Invalid Corps.

A day of battle for our second artillerywoman did not come until Monmouth, June 28, 1778. Mary Ludwig, born in 1754, was called Molly like Margaret Corbin, with whom she is sometimes confused. As Pennsylvania Dutch as sauerkraut, she was a plain, stocky, ruddy girl, with a tuft of hair on her nose. At 15 she married John Caspar Hays, and when he enlisted in the artillery, she followed him to war. Like the first Molly she absorbed gun drill by observation. Although Hays later transferred to the infantry, Molly did not forget the skills of the gunner.