Molly Pitcher-Legendary Hero 6

Photo Molly Pitcher Restaurant Chambersburg Pa
Molly Pitcher Restaurant Chambersburg Pa

If you live in the Mid-Atlantic States, you have probably seen many things named “Molly Pitcher.” Most have no idea who Molly Pitcher was or what she did, and those who think they know are often wrong. There is no conclusive proof of her identity, and some historians believe she is a composite that represents all women who bravely served in our Revolutionary War when women had few rights and were denied military service. Thousands of women aided the Continental Army as camp followers, and field nurses. Some disguised themselves as men and became combat soldiers. I believe Molly Pitcher was a real person, but I also believe she symbolizes all women who served, some giving their lives for our independence. Molly Pitcher of legend was a true patriot, and without a doubt an American hero.

A consensus of historians agree that Mary Hays was probably the Molly Pitcher of legend. She was born Mary Ludwig in New Jersey in 1754, the daughter of Johann Ludwig and Maria Margaretha. Hers was a family of modest means so Mary probably had no formal education. In 1768 Mary moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania where she met William Hays, a local barber. The two were married on 24 July 1769.

When the Revolutionary War erupted, William Hays enlisted in the Continental Army as a gunner in the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery. Like many young women, Mary went to war with her man to care for him by bringing “home” with him. Military camp life in those days was not easy for either the soldier or his wife. Things were pretty spartan since the army was usually short of all types of supplies, ordnance, and food.

The name “Molly” was a common nickname for Mary. “Pitcher” referred to the buckets of water women carried to use for cleaning and washing and to cool the cannon and men during combat. It is believed that the nickname “Molly Pitcher” was applied to many women that followed the army.

Continental Army Artillery Crew
Continental Army Artillery Crew

Artillery batteries are large units that must drill more than most military units because precise teamwork is necessary to effectively perform in battle. A single gun requires a large crew consisting of officers and NCO’s, 7 or 8 gunners, loaders, and teamsters to name just a few. Each man  must know his duties and many drills are required to get the team working in sync like a well-rehearsed ballet. A ballet that is performed in the turmoil, heat, smoke, noise, and danger of combat. Lots of cross training is needed to be sure that firing can continue despite casualties sustained during battle. Undoubtedly Mary and other women often watched these drills.

The Continental Army began the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777 and the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery took part in that campaign. Mary accompanied her husband on the campaign and on 28 June 1778 they took part in the Battle of Monmouth Court House at Freehold, New Jersey. It was a brutally hot day and Mary made many trips to a nearby spring to fetch water for the men to drink and to cool the cannon.

Artist Depiction of Molly Pitcher at Monmouth, NJ
Molly Pitcher at Monmouth, NJ

According to the accepted version, which was related by eyewitnesses, while Mary was delivering water to the crew, her husband was either wounded or succumbed to the heat and was unable to continue his duties. At this point Mary took her husband’s place and became a member of the gun crew. This was not easy work. It required physical strength to handle powder, shells, fuses, and rams. It is also quite dangerous because the powder can be ignited by any stray embers. If the gun bore is not properly cleaned of embers and cooled after firing the whole thing can explode when powder is inserted for the next shot. The whole operation also produces a surprising amount of heat which rapidly exhausts the crew.

Mary continued servicing the gun until the end of the battle. According to a soldier and diarist, Joseph Plumb Martin, Mary served with valor. He wrote: “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. Looking at it with unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.”

According to legend, General George Washington recognized the brave woman working with the artillery crew and awarded her the rank of a non-commissioned officer. Mary never served in actual combat again, but she and William continued to serve until the war was won. She thoroughly enjoyed her new nickname of “sergeant” and used it for the rest of her life.

In April 1783, William and Mary returned to Carlisle, but William died three years later. He left Mary a good deal of land. Mary’s second husband was another war veteran, John McCauley, who wasted her inheritance and impoverished the family. John McCauley disappeared sometime after 1807. Mary spent the rest of her life in Carlisle as a poor, gruff, but well-liked member of the community.

In 1822 the Pennsylvania Legislature finally awarded Mary a veteran’s pension of $40.00 per year. This annuity was more than the average, which led some to believe it was in recognition of service “above and beyond.” There is no proof of this, however.

Photo of Molly Pitcher Grave, Carlisle, Pa Old Graveyard
Molly Pitcher Grave, Carlisle, Pa Old Graveyard

Mary died on 22 January 1832 and was buried in the Carlisle Old Graveyard. A cannon and a statue of “Molly Pitcher” stands above her grave. There is also a “Molly Pitcher” monument at the Monmouth Battlefield.

Early patriotic prints and literature depicting the incident at the Battle of Monmouth referred to “Captain Molly.” The use of the name “Molly Pitcher” did not appear until the mid-nineteenth century. Neither name was identified with a specific person until 1876 when the citizens of Carlisle claimed that Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was the literal hero of Monmouth. Military records of William Hays and the pension awarded to Mary, seem to support the claim, but the identity cannot be absolutely proved.

The only other candidate proposed to be the Molly Pitcher of legend, was Margaret Corbin who also accompanied her husband, John, into the army. John served in an artillery unit. At Fort Washington in 1776 Margaret fetched water for the men and the guns, and when John was wounded, she replaced him on the gun crew. Margaret was captured by the British but was eventually released. I believe she was posing as a man since she was in uniform and was later assigned to guard duty at West Point, New York. Obviously, her superiors believed she was a man.

Whatever the truth, the term “Molly Pitcher” and the monuments commemorating her bravery also celebrates all the women who contributed to American Independence. Some of these women gave their lives so we could be free, and we owe them our belated thanks and our respect. Real or not, “Molly Pitcher” was a patriot and a true American Hero.  

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