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.

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.