Born in 1754, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was the daughter of a New Jersey dairy farmer. Apparently dairy farming wasn’t for her, because young Mary became a domestic servant at the age of thirteen and married the same year. Her husband, William Hays, caught Revolutionary fever and later enlisted as a gunner in the Pennsylvania Artillery.
During the Philadelphia Campaign (1777-1778), Mary soon joined her husband as a camp follower and both wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge. Mary Hays and other “camp followers” served as “water girls” during camp training, carrying water to drilling infantry troops on hot days. Artillery soldiers like her husband also required a constant supply of water to cool down the hot cannon barrel. In addition, they used a “ramrod” or “rammer” — a long pole with a wet rag tied to the end—to remove sparks and gunpowder out of the cannon barrel after each shot. A bucket of water was kept next to the cannon to allow soldiers to soak the rammer rag after every shot. These buckets had to be continually refilled.
Though the name is attributed to others, there is little doubt the title “Molly Pitcher” had its origins with Mary Hays. The title was earned by her at the Battle of Monmouth. The only writing witness to the scene in June of 1778 described 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.”
With temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the day of the battle was blazing hot. At some time during the conflict, William Hays collapsed beside his cannon. As her husband was carried off the battlefield, Mary Hays took his position at the cannon. Throughout the rest of the battle, Mary continued to “swab and load” the cannon using her fallen husband’s rammer. At one point, with her legs spread wide, an enemy cannon shot passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away a portion of her petticoat. Mary is reported to have glanced down for only a moment before continuing to ram her cannon, with the comment; “It was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else.”
At the end 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” in the State House in Carlisle. After the death of William, Mary remarried another Revolutionary War vet by the name of John McCauley. She was awarded a pension in 1822 by the Pennsylvania State Legislature, but 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 “Molly Pitcher” was Margaret Corbin (b. 1751), who took up a cannon when her husband was killed at Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, New York, in 1776. She was seriously wounded there herself when her arm was almost severed and her breast was lacerated by grapeshot. She lived until about 1800 after receiving charity payments from the Invalid Regiment and later a small pension from Congress.
Whether Molly Pitcher is the name of one woman or many is of little matter. In fact, it is fitting that the name probably serves as a composite of many women who fought and died alongside their husbands. Unlike modern wars with volunteer armies going off to distant places, Molly and her husband were defending their homeland and their way of life. As such, we should join General Washington in saluting these women by the name he gave Mary Hays – “Sergeant Molly.”
©2011 Off the Grid News