Molly Pitcher was a fabled heroine of the American Revolution. However, the name Molly Pitcher was a generic name for women who brought water to the troops during a battle. Historians believe the name came from soldiers yelling, “Molly! Pitcher!” whenever they needed someone to bring fresh water. Some historians feel that the legend of Molly Pitcher is an amalgam of many women who participated in the battles of the Revolution. There are three possible contenders for the title of “the” Molly Pitcher- Mary Ludwig Hays, Margaret Corbin and Margaret Sampson.
Mary Ludwig was the daughter of German immigrants who was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She married William Hayes, a barber, in 1777. They settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and as the troubles broke out in the colonies William enlisted with Captain Francis Proctor’s company in the Pennsylvania Artillery. Mary Hayes joined her husband in winter camp at Valley Forge with the company. She was described by the men in the company as a young, illiterate pregnant woman who could chew and smoke and swear with the best of them. Mary joined the group of women in camp who nursed the sick soldiers and did their washing and cooking. They were led by General Washington’s wife, Martha. An unlikely combination. William Hayes was a gunner and fought in the Battle of Monmouth. Mary was with him and brought water to the soldiers, both for them to drink and for the gunners to cool the cannon barrel, and kept her head under fire, earning the respect of the men. Her husband collapsed, either from wounds or heat stroke, and Mary took his place behind the cannon. One witness described her actions, “While in the act of reaching a cartridge … 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. … She observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher… and continued her occupation.” She was awarded a pension of forty dollars from the state of Pennsylvania upon the death of her husband for her service.
However, Mary Ludwig Hayes was not the only woman serving in Captain Francis Proctor’s company in the Pennsylvania Artillery. Margaret Corbin was also with her husband, John. Margaret was the first woman pensioned by the Continental Congress and was buried at Military Academy at West Point, NY. The only Revolutionary War soldier who had that honor. Like Mary, when John Corbin was killed in action defending Fort Washington against the Hessians, Margaret took his place behind the cannon. She kept firing until she was seriously wounded in the arm and could not continue. Officers from her regiment petitioned Congress in 1779, and she received a pension of fifty dollars a year for her service. In patriotic literature, Margaret is referred to as “Captain Molly”.
Our final contender is Deborah Sampson. Deborah pretended to be a man, and enlisted as “Robert Shurtleff”. She joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment and was teased by the other men for her smooth complexion and high voice. They called her “Molly” not knowing how close to the truth they were. She fought through the war, and then afterward married Benjamin Gannett. No one would have been the wiser except that after the war, Deborah petitioned the state of Massachusetts for back pay. She produced documents proving she was a soldier in good standing, including an affidavit from Col. Henry Jackson and a certificate signed in Dedham, Massachusetts (dated December 10, 1791), by Capt. Eliphalet Thorp, who vouched that it was Mrs. Deborah Gannett who had enlisted as a soldier. All of this was deemed acceptable, and Governor John Hancock granted her a pension.
There are many more women who fought and contributed to the American Revolution whose name we will never know. Their memories and deeds have been rolled into the legend of Molly Pitcher, who continues to inspire today. “Molly” has been on a postage stamp and had a liberty ship named after her in World War II. The Field Artillery and Air Defense Artillery branches of the US Army have established the Honorable Order of Molly Pitcher. This is made up of the wives of artillerymen, and are inducted on the Feast of St. Barbara.
Sources are available on request