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"Molly Pitcher" was a nickname for women who carried water to troops on Revolutionary War battlefields. Although many such women existed, there is one who is most closely associated with the Molly Pitcher story.
Mary Ludwig was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 13, 1754 (some accounts say 1744), the daughter of a dairy farmer. When she was 13 she moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she became a servant. At 16 she married William Hays (or Hayes), a barber, who subsequently joined the Continental Army as a gunner in the Pennsylvania Artillery. Like many other soldiers' wives, Mary became a camp follower, women who cooked for the soldiers, did their laundry, and helped with overall morale. Mary was with her husband during the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-1778 and at Valley Forge.
Mary's place in the Molly Pitcher story was set during the Battle of Monmouth, on June 28, 1778. Temperatures during the battle were over 100 degrees, and soldiers were in constant need of water. According to contemporary accounts, Mary found a spring near the battlefield and spent much of the day carrying pitchers of water to thirsty troops, often through enemy gunfire. At some point Mary was providing water to cool her husband's cannon when he collapsed (whether it was due to heat exhaustion or injury is not known). Once Mary was sure her husband would be okay she grabbed the ramrod and assumed her fallen husband's job of loading the cannonballs and ramming them down the barrel. The story also says that at some point either a cannonball or musket ball shot between her legs and tore off the bottom of her skirt. After stating that it could have been much worse (the shot could have passed higher and taken more of her skirt with it), she went right back to work. According to the story, after the battle ended for the day General George Washington asked to see the woman whom he had seen manning a cannon and promptly made her a Sergeant.
William Hays made a complete recovery and the couple returned to Carlisle after the war. He died in 1789, after which she married George McCauley. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was awarded a pension by the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1822, and died on January 22, 1832.
While there is ample evidence for Mary Hays being one of the women who carried water to soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth, how much of the rest of the story is true remains a matter of some debate. It is likely that the actions of several women contributed to the now popular Molly Pitcher story, including those of Margaret Corbin. Mrs. Corbin was the wife of John Corbin, an artilleryman from Philadelphia who was killed at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island on November 12, 1776. There are confirmed accounts of Margaret manning a cannon after her hasband was killed, and of her arm being almost severed and her breast seriously lacerated by grapeshot during the battle. Margaret Corbin collected charity payments from the Invalid Regiment and received a small pension from Congress after the war, and her exploits are well documented. It is likely that the Molly Pitcher story now familiar to many is a combination of Mary Hays and Margaret Corbin.
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Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Campaigns and Battles
This page was last updated on June 23, 2018.