The name Molly Pitcher may have originated as a nickname for any woman who carried water to men on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War. Today the name Molly Pitcher evokes the image of a folk hero who manned a cannon after her husband was struck down.
Some historians regard Molly Pitcher as a folktale or a composite of several women. However, the life of Mary Ludwig Hays is widely considered to be the origin of the story. Margaret Corbin is an alternate candidate for Molly Pitcher.
Born to German immigrant parents in Pennsylvania, Mary Ludwig married a barber named William Hays who eventually became an artilleryman in the Continental Army. Mary traveled with him as a “camp girl” providing water on the battlefield and wintering at Valley Forge.
Mary served as a water carrier during the Battle of Monmouth where temperatures broke 100 F (37 C). William eventually collapsed, either from heat stroke or a battle injury. After her husband was carried from the battlefield, Mary swabbed and loaded the cannon herself. At one point, a British cannon ball is said to have shot between her legs, ripping her skirt. Her skillful and heroic work led to commendation (or possible symbolic promotion to sergeant) from General George Washington. In her old age, Mary was awarded an annual pension of $40 for her heroism by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Today, Friends of Monmouth Battlefield offers programming relating to Molly Pitcher and the lives of camp women.
Margaret Corbin was also the wife of a Pennsylvania artilleryman. Unlike Mary Ludwig Hays, Margaret is said to have generally taken on the role of solider, dressing in a military uniform without disguising her gender. When her husband John was killed at the Battle of Fort Washington, Margaret took his place firing the canon and was eventually wounded. Captured by the British and released, she was assigned to the corps of invalids at West Point to perform guard duty. Listed on the discharge rolls for April 1783, Margaret Corbin was treated as a soldier by the military. She was later granted a pension by Congress, making her the first American woman to receive a military pension for her own service.