2003-05-01 / Front Page
Historian examines the legend of Molly Pitcher
Historian examines the
legend of Molly Pitcher
By jane meggitt
ALLENTOWN — She is one of the Revolutionary War’s most famous women and a local legend, but did she really exist?
The answer, according to David Martin, is a definite "maybe."
Martin, a Latin teacher at The Peddie School, Hightstown, recently gave a lecture entitled "The Search for Molly Pitcher" at the Allentown Library.
The talk, sponsored by the Allentown-Upper Freehold Historical Society, is based on the three years of research Martin has done for A Molly Pitcher Sourcebook, to be published in June by Longstreet House.
Martin, a volunteer with the Friends of Monmouth Battlefield who also holds a doctorate in ancient history from Princeton University, said he was intrigued by the questions visitors to the battlefield had about Molly Pitcher.
He noted that there are two places marked on the battlefield as the site of her famous well.
His interest resulted in the Molly Pitcher Sourcebook, which he describes as "neither a traditional biography or a traditional history," but an analysis of the primary sources of the Molly Pitcher story. Martin said that evidence to support several different scenarios exists — although a credible argument can also be made that Molly Pitcher was not a real person, but an amalgamation of the different women on the battlefield who became rolled up into one mythical character in the years after the war.
One of the possibilities that intrigued the local audience at the library was the theory that Molly Pitcher may have hailed from Allentown.
According to Martin, in 1876, Sarah Smith Stafford gave an interview to the Monmouth Inquirer, saying, "Molly Pitcher was a daughter of John Hanna of Allentown. Molly lived as a servant with Mr. Bruere, father of Capt. Bruere of the Monmouth militia. Some said she also followed the soldiers as the wife of John Mahan."
However, this possible Molly, who died near Buttermilk Falls near the Hudson Highlands, had an ignominious end.
"Her life as a camp follower," according to the article, "with brevet husbands, soon lowered her reputation, and she finally received the sobriquet of ‘Dirty Kate,’ and about the close of the war died a miserable death of syphilitic disease."
According to Martin, the most credible candidate for a real-life Molly Pitcher is Mary Hays McCauley of Carlisle, Pa. A bill was passed in the Pennsylvania assembly in 1822, granting her an annuity for her services during the Revolutionary War, he said.
Martin explained that only three women received military pensions for the Revolutionary War: McCauley, Molly Corbin, who took over her husband’s gun after he was killed at the Battle of Fort Washington, and Deborah Sampson, who fought in the war disguised as a man.
The story about McCauley’s pension was printed in national newspapers. Elderly neighbors of McCauley in Carlisle gave depositions in the 1890s and early 1900s, swearing she had told them about her activities at the Battle of Monmouth decades earlier.
Martin did a large amount of historical sleuthing for his book.
He cited a 1905 account in which Molly Pitcher is described as pregnant on the battlefield; her grandson thought this uncertain, and her son didn’t think he was born on the battlefield.
In Carlisle, Pa., in 1788, Mary Hays appeared in the orphans court since her husband had died. Their only child, John, was 5 years old. Other records show that her husband was on leave in 1782, when the boy could have been conceived.
Martin said it was difficult to track down records of working class women in the 1700s. Records exist mainly for christenings, marriages, births, and when they died.
"There’s not much early primary source material," said Martin. "We don’t know when or where she was born."
In Philadelphia, Martin did manage to track down a marriage record of the union of a William Hays and Mary Ludwige.
Martin said that accounts of Molly Pitcher, which was an 18th century generic name for a woman who worked in a tavern, may be a combined memory of several women who aided fallen soldiers.
There were many "camp followers" who did nursing and cooking and other tasks for the Continental Army, he said.
Rich Walling, president of the Friends of Monmouth Battlefield, gave Martin important information in his search for Molly Pitcher, he said.
Martin knew that Proctor’s Artillery, to which Mary Hays McCauley’s husband belonged, was left in Philadelphia to guard the city and did not fight at Monmouth.
However, Walling has pension records of some individual soldiers at Monmouth, including William Hays. In 2001, the Friends of Monmouth Battlefield’s newsletter published an eyewitness account of the battle from the journals of Dr. William Read.
Read quoted George Washington at the battle commenting "that he was admiring the manner in which Proctor was handling their right," indicating that part of Proctor’s Artillery must have been present.
Martin encourages readers to study the sources and come to their own conclusions about the veracity of Molly Pitcher’s existence. He said there are strong arguments on either side of the question.
Martin said that there are no firsthand, contemporary sources from the Revolution that mention Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth. There are firsthand sources from after the time of the Revolution.
An 1830 narrative of Private Joseph Plumb Martin, who served in the 8th Connecticut Regiment, mentions that he witnessed "a woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband the whole time." According to his account, a cannon shot from enemy fire passed between her legs, doing no damage other than destroying her petticoat.
A secondhand source is an entry from the journal of Dr. Albigence Waldo, dated July 3, 1778, praising a camp woman whose "gallant" was shot down in battle; she then took up his gun and fought on, "discharging the piece with as much regularity as any soldier present."
However, Dr. Waldo did not witness this event; he heard it from an officer he was treating in a field hospital.
An 1840 pension application by one Rebecca Clendenen states that her husband, who fought at Monmouth, recalled "a woman, who was called by the troops Captain Molly, was busily engaged in carrying canteens of water to the famished soldiers."
As those who served in the Revolutionary War died off, the new country’s myth-building went into full swing, Martin said.
An 1837 article in the N.J. State Gazette described the Molly Pitcher story as something "every Jersey boy should know," and described how the water-toting heroine took the place of her slain cannoneer husband.
"Washington gave her a lieutenant’s commission upon the spot … and [she] was called Captain Molly ever afterwards," the article read.
George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of Gen. Washington, wrote an account of Molly Pitcher in his memoirs of Washington in 1840. In his account, Molly’s husband was a member of Proctor’s Artillery. His rather fanciful descriptions of "the Amazonian fair one" include her presentation to George Washington by Gen. Greene after the battle.
For more information about Martin’s book, contact the Allentown-Upper Freehold Historical Society, P.O. Box 328, Allentown, 08501, or e-mail AllntwnUFHistSoc@aol.com.