The Girls Behind The Guns

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The British squeezed out of Philadelphia and marched for New York, with Washington and his army, rejuvenated after Valley Forge, in pursuit. Lafayette’s and Wayne’s brigades struck Clinton’s rear guard near Freehold, Monmouth County, New Jersey. Steady volleys and cannon fire were breaking the redcoat ranks when General Charles Lee, a former British officer, treacherously ordered a retreat. The Americans fell back in raging confusion. It was then Molly Hays won her nickname.

That Sunday had been hot even at dawn. Now it was torrid, the temperature soaring close to 100°. Molly’s bright skirt fluttered across the battlefield as she brought pitcher after pitcher of cool water from a spring to gasping, exhausted troops. She also tended the wounded and once hoisted a disabled soldier on her sturdy shoulders and carried him clear of an enemy charge. On one of her water trips Molly Pitcher found Hays back with the artillery, replacing a casualty. While she watched, John fell wounded. The crew of the gun, whittled down to too few to serve it, were about to drag it to the rear when Molly grasped the rammer staff from her fallen husband’s hands. Expertly she swabbed and loaded, standing fast at her post under heavy fire.

Her gun was still blazing when Washington galloped onto the field, dressed down the recreant Lee in language that “shook the leaves from the trees” and led his men in a rally that rocked back the British assault. Monmouth, so nearly an American victory, ended as a drawn battle. Molly Pitcher was its heroine. Washington issued her a warrant as a noncommissioned officer, and thereafter she was known to an admiring army as “Sergeant Molly.”

The two artillerywomen for the rest of their lives were typical old soldiers.

Margaret Corbin, stationed with the Invalid Regiment at West Point, dubbed herself “Captain Molly,” wore an artillery coat, and insisted on salutes as her right. From Pennsylvania she received a grant of $30, and from Congress half the pay of a private for life—equal rights were far in the future. Somehow she managed on it, although, badly crippled by her wounds, she had to pay a woman to help her and was reduced to making her chemises from canvas. It was only when the commandant denied her as a female the rum portion of her ration that she rose in wrath. Reams of official correspondence ensued, with higher authority finally ruling: “It appears clearly to me that the order forbidding the issue of Rum to a woman docs not apply to Mrs. Corbin.” Whereupon the commandant was directed to issue her the rations, a caution being added that “perhaps it would not be prudent to give them to her all in liquor.”

When Captain Molly died, she was buried in an obscure grave until patriots, remembering her gallant record, moved her body to the West Point cemetery where she lies beneath a granite headstone with a bas-relief showing her serving her gun.

Molly Pitcher’s husband recovered from his wounds but died soon after the war. She then married another ex-soldier, George McCauley, who, neighbors declared, “liked work so well he could lie down and sleep alongside it.” Molly left him and supported herself by working as a laundress and nursemaid. She received state grants in honor of her exploit at Monmouth but never was awarded the army pension which was her due.

She smoked a pipe, chewed tobacco, downed her dram, and could swear like a trooper. A veteran true to form, she loved to fight the war over for her son, who subsequently served as a sergeant in the War of 1812, and for all who would listen. To her grandson she confided that if it had not been for her, the Battle of Monmouth would have been lost. Her favorite audiences were groups of admiring girls. “You should have been with me at Monmouth and learned how to load a cannon,” she would tell them. When local militia drilled, Sergeant Molly regarded them with the bored nonchalance of an old regular and invariably remarked, “This is nothing but a flea-bite to what I have seen.”

She died in 1832 at the age of 78. A cannon stands beside her grave, and the flag she fought for waves over it from a tall staff. On the Monmouth battle monument she is depicted manning her gun. To her valiant memory artillerymen lift glasses in a toast,

… Drunk in a beverage richer

And stronger than was poured that day

From Molly Pitcher’s pitcher.