At first glance, searching for the real Molly Pitcher, the fabled heroine of the American Revolutionary War, seems about as pointless as searching for Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. Nonetheless, legendary figures hold some fascination and usually contain a kernel of historical authenticity. In the case of the patriot-cannoneer Molly Pitcher, culling the fictitious from the real can be somewhat of a challenge. She has held a revered place in the patriotic lore of the American Revolution, right next to Betsy Ross, while real female patriots such as Deborah Sampson, a revolutionary soldier (a.k.a. Robert Shurtleff), or the multitalented, self-taught scholar, playwright, propagandist, and historian Mercy Otis Warren are rarely mentioned even in survey history texts. Two centuries after the Revolution, Molly's popularity flourishes, extending into the virtual world of cyberspace perpetuated by Web sites on the Internet on which browsers can discuss whether or not Molly Pitcher was a feminist. While all of this good-natured speculation has not led to anything of substance, it is quite probable that historical research can still render some interesting insights about Molly and, more important, about the role of women who served in the military during the American Revolutionary War.
Historian Linda Grant De Pauw, whose studies have examined women's roles in the War for Independence, believes that Molly Pitcher is merely a persona created from numerous sources. However, there are some viable contenders for canonization as the real Molly Pitcher such as a young soldier's wife named Mary Ludwig Hayes. Mary Ludwig, the daughter of German immigrants, had married John Hays, a barber, in 1769. She first entered the war record on June 28, 1778, when she signed up two years after her husband to serve with Capt. Francis Proctor's company in the Pennsylvania Artillery. Mary was described by the men in her company as a twenty-two-year-old illiterate pregnant woman who smoked and chewed tobacco and swore as well as any of the male soldiers. Mary had endeared herself to the troops because of her unusual courage and hard work under fire.1 During the Battle of Monmouth, Mary Ludwig Hayes earned the nickname Molly Pitcher for performing the exhaustive work of supplying battle-fatigued and wounded men with drinking water in the heat of combat. When her husband collapsed from heat stroke (some sources say he was injured in battle), Mary took his place at the cannon, performing skillfully and heroically. Like so many other patriots, tradition states that she received the personal thanks of General Washington.2 When her husband died in 1789 from his battle wounds, Mary Hayes married George McCauley, and some forty-four years after the war the state of Pennsylvania awarded her with an annual pension of forty dollars for her heroism at Monmouth. She died January 22, 1833, and is buried at Old Graveyard (the name of the town) in Pennsylvania near Carlisle. During the centennial of the Revolution in 1876, the citizens of Cumberland County marked her grave as a honored soldier. Today battlefield monuments at Monmouth and at her gravesite commemorate Mary Ludwig Hayes McCauley (i.e., Molly Pitcher) for her heroic contribution to American independence.
Her service record and place as a historical figure is also validated by the documentation of one eyewitness at the Battle of Monmouth, Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin, who substantiates that Molly Pitcher was more than just a legend. In his most engaging war diary, he described how during the battle he had observed a woman firing cannon.3 History is forever indebted to Private Martin for having the presence of mind to mention this woman's valor and for relating this humorous incident.
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 for 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.4
According to historian James Kirby Martin, the woman whom Joseph had observed firing cannon during the Battle of Monmouth was Mary Ludwig Hayes. If this were the only evidence, it would seem conclusive that Mary Ludwig Hayes McCauley certifies as the real Molly Pitcher. However, as it turns out, there are other Molly Pitcher candidates vying for the title.
Identifying the real Molly Pitcher is further obscured by the fact that Margaret Corbin served in the same artillery regiment as Mary Ludwig Hayes. She and her husband, John, served under Capt. Francis Proctor in the First Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery. Margaret Corbin, the first woman pensioned by the Continental Congress, holds the unique honor of being the only soldier of the Revolutionary War buried at the Military Academy at West Point, New York. Patriotic literature commonly refers to Margaret Corbin as "Captain Molly." Linda Grant De Pauw describes Margaret Corbin as a transvestite soldier who wore a uniform but made no attempt to conceal her sex.5 At the Battle of Fort Washington, when John Corbin was killed, Margaret took his place immediately on the firing line and was wounded in the engagement with the British. Captured by the British, she was subsequently released and reassigned to the corps of invalids at West Point performing guard duty. Her name is also listed on the discharge rolls of the invalid regiment rolls for April 1783. These events demonstrate that the military recognized Margaret Corbin as a regular soldier and treated her as such. Furthermore, officers from her regiment petitioned successfully for Corbin to receive both state and federal pensions the same year.6 On July 6, 1779, the Continental Congress
Resolved, That Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington, whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive, during her natural life Or the continuance of the said disability, the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states; and that she now receive out of the public stores, one complete suit of cloaths, or the value thereof in money.7
After the war, the invalid Margaret lived in straitened circumstances in Westmoreland County. She died at the age of forty-eight on January 16, 1800, as a result of her war injuries.8
Candidate number three is Deborah Sampson. Deborah was the only woman other than Corbin who received a federal pension for military service. Recruited as Robert Shurtleff, she is a startling example of the female patriot-soldiers who fought for independence. During the war, Deborah disguised herself as a man and signed up to fight with the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Because of her smooth complexion and high-pitched voice, her fellow soldiers had nicknamed her "Molly." After the war she was employed briefly by an uncle on his farm in Stoughton, Massachusetts. In 1784 at Sharon, Massachusetts, she married Benjamin Gannett, a poor farmer, and between 1786 and 1790 gave birth to three children, Earl, Gilbert, and Patience.
In 1792, Deborah petitioned the state of Massachusetts for her back pay. She had a number of documents to verify her service including the affidavit of Col. Henry Jackson testifying that Robert Shurtleff had served in his regiment and received an honorable discharge. Anticipating that her identity might be questioned, she also held 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. Her petition was approved by the legislature and signed by Governor John Hancock that same year. She is also very likely the first American woman to appear on the theatrical stage. In an effort to augment her income, Deborah Gannett performed in Boston and New York theaters, charging seven dollars an appearance.9 In 1802 the Mercury and New England Palladium, a Boston newspaper, advertised that "Mrs. Gannett equipt in complete uniform will go through the Manual Exercise. The whole to conclude with the Song and Chorus of 'God Save the Sixteen States.'"10 It was later reported that she had marched through twenty-seven maneuvers, wearing her blue and white uniform, armed with a musket, followed by a speech that was largely an apology for having "swerved from the flowery path of female delicacy."11 Breaking social convention in more ways than one, Deborah Sampson's stage appearances, which predate those of early female abolitionists and feminists, are notable for making her the first American woman to give public lectures to mixed audiences of men and women.
Deborah Gannett's influential advocate, the famous silversmith and engraver Paul Revere, wrote several times on her behalf for a pension. A letter to Congressman William Eustis of Massachusetts confirms that twenty-one years after the war, Deborah was still stigmatized as the woman who had dressed as a male soldier. Revere appealed to the congressman on her behalf, claiming that she had mended her ways:
I have been induced to inquire her situation and character, since she quitted the male habit, and soldier's uniform, for the more decent apparel of her own sex; and since she has been married and become a mother. Humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman of handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.
He explained that Deborah's impaired health was due to the wound she had received in combat. While Benjamin, her husband, was a good man, he was unsuccessful in business; even though the Gannetts had a few acres of farm land, they were very poor. In concluding his petition, Revere appealed to his congressman by reiterating that Mrs. Gannett was indeed feminine:
When I heard her spoken of as a soldier, I formed the idea of a tall, masculine female, who had a small share of understanding, without education, and one of the meanest of her sex. When I saw and discoursed with her I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable woman, whose education entitled her to a better situation in life.12
It is significant that Deborah felt it necessary to apologize on stage for having swerved from the path of femininity, and it was also critical for Revere to convince Congressman Eustis that Mrs. Gannett had recovered and maintained her femininity after the war. By disguising herself as a man, running away from home alone, and joining the army, Deborah had broken all the rules of social convention. Until the twentieth century, a young lady had only two legitimate reasons for leaving home—her marriage or the death of her parents. It was unthinkable for a single woman to be on her own without risking damage to her reputation. Popular literature abounded with horror tales of female deviants who had suffered the consequences of leaving home and living on their own. They met with the resulting moral deterioration of illegitimate childbirth, prostitution, or even death.13 Taken from this cultural perspective, Deborah's biography can best be understood not as an exaggerated account of her military exploits but as an apology to her community. Her biographer Herman Mann emphasized repeatedly that throughout all of Deborah's wartime escapades, she had maintained her chastity. Obviously, Deborah needed a man with the prestige of Paul Revere to speak for her and defend her femininity.
In 1809, after twenty years of petitioning the federal government, Deborah received a disability pension of four dollars a month. (Male veterans claiming disability received five dollars a month.) In large part due to Revere's intervention, the pension amount was made retroactive to 1803. With this money, the Gannetts were able to build a clapboard home on their acreage and plant a few trees. However, the pensions Deborah received never relieved their poverty or debt. Shortly after receiving the pension, Deborah wrote to thank Paul Revere and asked to borrow ten dollars.14 When the 1818 pension bill was passed by the Monroe administration, she applied again. The 1818 pension, designed specifically to help indigent veterans, promised government relief to those still struggling thirty-five years after the war. It required applicants to submit a personal inventory of their assets and net worth including real estate and household goods. (The government did not require that the value of clothing and bedding be estimated in the inventory.) In the application, Deborah Gannett, fifty-eight years old and mother of three children, claimed total assets of twenty dollars, which included her clothing. In order to qualify for the new pension, she had to relinquish the former disability pension of forty-eight dollars per annum as well as a state pension of four dollars a month. Deborah received the seventy-six-dollar stipend for about seven years.15
After her death in 1827, her husband (believed to be the only widower to file for a pension) could not qualify for benefits since they had not been married until l784.16 In 1831 Gannett, aged eighty-three, was sick and impoverished. He depended upon local charity for survival and decided to petition the government for a pension. Gannett's pension affidavit describes Deborah's life after the war. He stated that she had been honorably discharged and rendered an accurate account of her military service. He also believed that her discharge papers were lost. According to Mr. Gannett, her war wound, a musket ball lodged in her thigh for forty-six years, "followed her through life and hastened her death." Another witness, Mr. P. Parsons, testified that Deborah had been unable to perform any labor due to her wound. Consequently, Benjamin had been subjected to heavy medical expenses for more than twenty years before Deborah started receiving a pension. In 1831 Gannett still owed physicians six hundred dollars for her treatment. On March 4, 1831, a special act of Congress awarded Benjamin Gannett a more generous pension than Deborah had ever received. This stipend of eighty dollars a year was to continue "for and during his natural life." Four years after Deborah Samson Gannett's death, Congress stated in the pension granted to Benjamin, "the whole history of the American Revolution records no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage." Based on the evidence available, it is more accurate to state that although history does not record the heroic deeds of many military women of the American Revolutionary War, we cannot assume that Deborah Sampson Gannett was extraordinary.17
The historical record presents other candidates too numerous to mention here. But the evidence available begs the question—who is the real Molly Pitcher? The answer is quite simple—all of them and none of them. Molly Pitcher is, as Linda Grant De Pauw has suggested, a legendary personality constructed from the tales of bravery and daring of Revolutionary women. The name Molly Pitcher is a collective generic term inasmuch as "G.I. Joe" was a moniker for a soldier or soldiers in World War II. The name Molly Pitcher, like the term G.I. Joe, is a common label for the countless, nameless, women and men who are anonymously honored for their heroic service. Because no one individual can be accurately identified as Molly, many women qualify to be called by what has come to be the honorary title of Molly Pitcher. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women served not only as ammunition wives, manning and firing the guns, but also in the army and colonial militia. While this search for the real Molly Pitcher seems at first glance a rather futile academic pursuit, on closer scrutiny it actually yields not only a clearer understanding of the multifaceted roles that women played but also some clues as to the greater numbers who were engaged in the war effort. Indeed, while only two women, Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher, are enshrined in Revolutionary history, the major contribution of women in winning independence has been blatantly overlooked. Why have these women gone unrecognized for so long? This telling oversight reveals something of the prevalent eighteenth-century attitudes toward women.
A broader, more active, military role for females was first suggested by Walter Blumenthal's study of women in the Revolutionary War in which he identified as camp followers many who served as nurses, cooks, and military aides.18 Until his landmark study, women's contribution to the war effort consisted of anecdotal references in the literature or mythologized sketches of Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross. It was Blumenthal who first suggested that a significant number of women in the colonial population had participated in the military effort.
Surveying commissary records and military orders, he calculated the number of women who followed specific regiments. Because the British held the distinction of maintaining the highest number of camp followers with a ratio of women to men at one to eight, Blumenthal estimated the number of camp followers in Burgoyne's army at about one thousand women to eight thousand men.19 Among the American forces, he theorized that camp followers were fewer in number because of the shortage of food and the inability of the Continental army to sustain them. According to Washington's orders, the proportion of women in the camps was not to exceed a ratio of one per thirteen men. Since the combined fighting forces of the Continental army and the colonial militia never exceeded forty thousand troops in the field simultaneously, assuming Blumenthal's ratio of thirteen to one would yield about three thousand camp followers at any given period.
While the Blumenthal study is highly informative on the role of camp followers, his suggestion that mainly loose women "giddied by the uniform" or by the possibility of procuring rum rations attracted them to the camps for a romp in the open air is inaccurate. His treatment of camp followers fails to recognize that the chief motivation to follow the armies was not romantic adventure but was a result of the war itself. Many civilians whose homes had been destroyed were displaced and destitute. Homeless women, including military wives, single mothers, and widows, fled to the army for protection and the hope of daily rations for themselves and their children.
Blumenthal's seminal study of camp followers has, however, challenged additional research to determine just how many more women served on active military duty. While any estimate is specious, nonetheless inquiry does disclose significant details about patriotic women.
A closer examination of the war correspondence and papers of George Washington and other officers reveals that they gradually came to accept and appreciate the contribution of the wmen in the army. They came to be regarded as more than just auxiliary or paramilitary "hangers on" at camp or prostitutes. Initially, Washington forbade women in the camps, assuming that they were a nuisance and of loose morals. He complained especially about the women who were pregnant and those with children who were a "clog upon the movement."20 However, as the war progressed, General Washington recognized the value of the camp women to the survival of the soldiers and to an ultimate victory and exhorted his men to treat the women as regular army personnel.
One of the more colorful narratives about camp followers that describes their desperate condition is that of Hannah Winthrop. She had watched as Burgoyne's troops marched through Boston and wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren about this spectacle.
To be sure the sight was truly astonishing. I never had the least idea that the Creation produced such a sordid set of creatures in human Figure—poor, dirty, emaciated men, great numbers of women, who seemed to be the beasts of burthen having a bushel basket on their back, by which they were bent double, the contents seemed to be Pots and kettles, various sorts of furniture, children Peeping thro' gridirons and other utensils, some very young infants who were Born on the road, the woman bare feet, cloathed in dirty rags, such effluvia filled the air while they were passing, had they not been smoaking all the time, I should have been apprehensive of being contaminated by them.21
Linda Grant De Pauw asserts "tens of thousands of women were involved in active combat" during the Revolutionary War in three distinct areas: those who served in the Continental army referred to as women of the army; those who enlisted, wore uniforms, and served in the regular forces; and women who served as affiliates in state militia or field hospitals or as camp followers. Citing the memoirs of men who served, camp orders of commanding officers, and army records that periodically counted the women of the army for the purposes of rations assessment, she cautions that notions of women in the army solely as prostitutes or camp followers is misleading. Women of "vicious character," or camp followers, were first of all civilians, and not subject to military orders or discipline. She reckons that as many as twenty thousand females may have served as women of the army, but only a few hundred may have served in uniform, and "unlike camp followers, women of the army were subject to military discipline."22 When they were given military orders, they were expected to carry them out in the same manner as the male soldiers. When they did not, offenders such as Mary Johnson, at Valley Forge, were court-martialed. The women were not paid to darn socks and cook meals for the men but were recruited to augment them as support troops in the medical corps and the artillery. She believes it was so difficult for women to survive as camp followers that many chose to join the army to ensure rations and pay. De Pauw describes the women who served in the artillery, i.e., the Molly Pitchers, as ordinary wives acting in their capacity as deputy husbands trained in firing cannons and ready at a moment's notice to "stand in" for their husbands.
Other historians have calculated the number of women who served on active military duty. Elizabeth Cometti estimates that as many as twenty thousand American women joined the Continental army serving as nurses and carrying water and ammunition for the artillery regiments. She identifies these women as neither camp followers nor uniformed soldiers but members of soldiers' families, i.e., mothers, wives, and daughters, who received pay and food rations and were subject to military discipline.23 Cometti recognizes only a "handful of women" who dressed as soldiers and fought as regular troops even though military regulations forbade them to wear uniforms.
In addition to the war diaries of soldiers, food rations lists, military correspondence, and general orders, the ongoing search for the Molly Pitchers is greatly enhanced by a largely untapped source of historical evidence—the Revolutionary War pension file applications. These files contain testimonials of Revolutionary War soldiers and provide a rich source of military, social, and family history. The pension affidavit of veteran Lemuel Cook is one such example. As an eyewitness of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, he described the horrid physical condition of the camp followers who augmented the British troops, such as "the old devil women with no boots or shoes and about a pint of lice on them."24 There is no reason to assume that the American female camp followers would have made a more favorable appearance. Although historian Blumenthal and veteran Cook have characterized these women as the low life of colonial society, other pensioners give a different description. Veteran Alexander Milliner, who served as a drummer boy in the Continental army, described his mother, a camp follower, as "English, high larnt, understood all languages, and had been a teacher." Alexander testified in his pension application that his mother had volunteered to serve as a washerwoman in the camps just to be with him.25
Other pension file applications, specifically the records of Revolutionary War widows, hold great potential for further studies not so much on the role of military women but on their plight after the war. These women had applied for pensions initially to collect any unpaid army salaries due to their deceased husbands. Some were compensated later when widows' benefits were legislated.
Sarah Osborn Benjamin is a fitting example. Her pension file application contains a lengthy affidavit about her life as a camp follower and much detail about her military service. In 1780, when Aaron Osborn reenlisted with the Third New York Regiment of the Continental forces, he insisted that his wife, Sarah, accompany him into the service. Sarah relates that at their first camp there were only two other women—the wives of Lieutenant Forman and Sergeant Lamberson. She spent about three years in the military, during which time she had two children, Phoebe and Aaron, Jr. Living with the troops, Sarah must have been a rather pathetic sight. While encamped with her husband and family near Philadelphia, some Quaker ladies visiting the camp took pity on her, urged her to leave, and offered her asylum. Sarah explained to them that she could not because of her husband's refusal to leave her behind when the army resumed march. At the Battle of Yorktown, she and other women took their place just behind the American tents. They washed, mended, cooked, and served gallons of coffee along with beef and bread to the men in the trenches.26 After discharge, she and her husband stayed near their last encampment at New Windsor, New York (near West Point). Shortly thereafter, her husband abandoned her and the children. Sarah heard rumors that he had taken residence near Newburgh, New York, with another woman. She went there to confront him and discovered that he had married a young woman named Polly Sloat. Sarah returned to her birthplace of Blooming Grove in Orange County, New York, where she met and married Revolutionary War veteran John Benjamin. When John died in 1827, she was not eligible for a pension. But in November 1837, at the age of eighty-one, she qualified and was awarded a pension as Osborn's widow.27 She received a pension of eighty-eight dollars a year and remained on the pension rolls for twenty-seven years.28
The pension lists not only fill in some detail about women's wartime efforts and describe their economic struggle and social experience in the new Republic but also raise additional questions. The most obvious is why were so few women compensated for their patriotic service to their country? The Revolutionary War pension rolls contains about eighty thousand pension applications. With the exception of two women, Margaret Corbin and Deborah Sampson, all of the applicants were men. For this study, the files of 1,000 male veterans that contained the applications for 350 revolutionary war widows were analyzed. The discovery of Sarah Osborn Benjamin's application presupposes that other Revolutionary wives who had served in the military as well were not pensioned.
Trying to assess just how many Revolutionary War women served but were not compensated can be perplexing because the military evidence is deficient. Sarah's affidavit is unique. She disclosed her story despite the humiliation of her husband's bigamy and her abandonment. Her testimony suggests that other wives may have followed their husbands and served as well. As already mentioned, many women are not identifiable in the record because they used male names, masquerading as men in order to serve. Bearing all of this in mind, Sarah's testimony of life in the camps advances the question—why are the testimonies of the other women who served in the camps missing?
Faced with this silence, Linda Kerber's astute observation on the war's impact on gender roles offers some enlightenment. In the postwar period, leading Americans constructed the ideology of Republican motherhood as an attempt to reinstate the domestic sphere for women and carefully selected those attributes to assign to females that would maintain pride, decency, and the ritual of self-respect. "But," Kerber argues, "they denied the most frightening elements of women's wartime experiences. There was no room in the new construction for the disorderly women who had emptied pisspots on stamp tax agents, intimidated hoarders, or marched with Washington and Greene." In restoring order—patriarchal order—to American society, it was essential to deny the disordered behavior that had occurred during the War for Independence. The military women could not be rewarded because to do so would have dredged up the most disturbing aspects of the Revolution. Thus, Kerber concludes, "the women of the army were denied as the Shaysites were denied."29 Women such as Sarah Osborn Benjamin, Margaret Corbin, or Deborah Sampson were very likely regarded by Republican society as coarse, unfeminine, and of loose morals because they had cohabited with the soldiers. Their wartime exploits were not exemplary of Republican womanhood, not something to boast or write about, and certainly not the sort of thing a lady would tell her grandchildren. This would certainly explain why Deborah Sampson was compelled to apologise publicly on stage for her part in the war and why Paul Revere felt it necessary to assure Congressmen Eustis that she had returned to a more feminine role as wife and mother.
It is interesting to note that the only two women who were granted federal veterans pensions had one thing in common that the other courageous Molly Pitchers lacked: male sponsorship. Paul Revere had acted on Deborah's behalf and petitioned for her pension. (It also bears noting that her husband, Benjamin Gannett, was granted a special pension by Congress at a time when widows were refused benefits.30) Margaret Corbin was compensated when officers of the Pennsylvania Regiment petitioned on her behalf. Despite the extraordinary service of all of the Molly Pitchers in the American Revolution, the Republic that was established was still a man's world. As female veterans returned to a patriarchal society where their contribution went unrewarded and largely unrecognized, only the heroic imagery of Molly Pitcher commemorated their patriotism