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It is hard to tell how much of Molly Pitcher’s life is a folktale and how much is fact. Most of her story is attributed to Mary Ludwig Hays who earned her nickname from carrying water to infantry troops on hot days. Legend has it she also baked delicious food, washed clothes and blankets, and cared for sick and injured soldiers. Her most famous story took place at the Battle of Monouth Court House in June of 1178 So who really is Molly Pitcher?

“Molly Pitcher” was a common nickname for women who carried water to the troops during the war since water was typically carried in a pitcher. History assigns the names of Mary Hays, Mary Ludwig Hayes, Mary Ludwig McCauley, Margaret Corbin and Molly Pitcher to the same person. However, there were more than one.

Mary Ludwig was born to a German family in Pennsylvania. There is some dispute over her actual birth dates. A marker in the cemetery where she is buried lists her birth date as October 13, 1744. Mary had a moderate sized family including Mary and her older brother Johann Martin, and their parents, Anna Margaretha (Wildt) and Hans Georg Ludwick, who was a butcher. It is likely that she never attended school or learned to read, as education was not considered necessary for young girls during this time. At the age of 13, she went to work as a domestic servant. During the same year (still13 years old) she married a man by the name of William Hays (a barber). On July 12, 1774, in a meeting in the Presbyterian Church in Carlisle, Dr. William Irvine organized a town boycott of British goods as a protest of the British Tea Act. William Hays’ name appears on a list of people who were charged with enforcing the boycott. When the Revolutionary War began, William enlisted and became a gunner in the Pennsylvania Artillery. Mary eventually joined her husband as a camp follower during the Philadelphia Campaign (1777-1778) in New Jersey eventually wintering with the Army at Valley Forge.

Her name, Molly Pitcher, came as a result of her actions at the Battle of Monmouth Court House. Departing Valley Forge in June 1778, General George Washington moved his army across the Delaware River with goal of attacking General Sir Henry Clinton as his troops marched from Philadelphia to New York. On June 28, Washington dispatched Major General Charles Lee with 5,000 men to assault the British rear guard near Monmouth Court House, NJ. Lee mismanaged the fight and was forced to retreat with the British in pursuit. As Lee feel back, Washington advanced with the main army and rallied the troops. Repeated British attacks were beaten off before the fighting ended with both sides ultimately claiming victory. At the Battle, Mary Hays attended to the Revolutionary soldiers by giving them water. Just before the battle started, she found a spring to serve as her water supply. Two places on the battlefield are currently marked as the “Molly Pitcher Spring.” Mary Hays spent much of the early day carrying water to soldiers and artillerymen, often under heavy fire from British troops.

The weather was hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometime during the battle, William Hays collapsed, either wounded or suffering from heat exhaustion. It has often been reported that Hays was killed in the battle, but it is known that he survived. A witness to the scene describes a husband and wife, Mary and William, working together: “A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, 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 apparent 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.”

Later in the evening, the fighting was stopped due to gathering darkness. Although George Washington and his commanders expected the battle to continue the following day, the British forces retreated during the night and continued on to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The battle was seen as a major victory for the Continental Army. After the battle, General Washington asked about the woman whom he had seen loading a cannon on the battlefield. In commemoration of her courage, he issued Mary Hays a warrant as a non-commissioned officer. Afterwards, she was known as “Sergeant Molly,” a nickname that she used for the rest of her life.

At the close of the War, William and Mary Hays returned to Pennsylvania. They settled in Carlisle where Mary went back to work as a domestic as well as a “charwoman” (a woman employed to clean) in the State House in Carlisle. After the death of William, Mary remarried another Revolutionary War veteran by the name of John McCauley. She was awarded a pension in 1822 by the Pennsylvania State Legislature and it wasn’t until the anniversary of the War in 1876 that a marker noting her exemplary service was placed on her grave. She died on January 22, 1832.

Another probable source for the legend of “Molly Pitcher” is the true story of Margaret Corbin, which bears many similarities to the story of Mary Hays. Margaret Corbin was the wife of John Corbin of Philadelphia, also an artilleryman in the Continental army. On November 12, 1776, John Corbin was one of 2,800 American soldiers who defended Fort Washington in northern Manhattan from 9,000 attacking Hessian troops under British command. When John Corbin was killed, Margaret took his place at the cannon, and continued to fire it until she was seriously wounded. Her arm was almost severed and her breast was lacerated by grapeshot. In 1779, Margaret Corbin was awarded an annual pension by the state of Pennsylvania for her heroism in battle. Margaret was the first woman in the United States to receive a military pension. She lived until about 1800 after receiving charity payments from the Invalid Regiment and later a small pension from Congress. She was known throughout her community as a bad-tempered, hard-drinking eccentric by the nickname of “Captain Molly!”

Information was taken from the following references: