Growing up, I was very interested in the American Revolution and the fight for independence. I was obsessed with the musical 1776, and even had a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging up on my bedroom door. But on the surface, this is a history full of important men doing important things. I would have loved to know at the time that women were involved, and did equally important things. So, saying that, you can understand why I was a tiny bit peeved to only learn about Margaret Corbin when I was studying history at Queens College, CUNY as an adult.
Margaret Corbin was born Margaret Cochran in Western Pennsylvania in 1751. When she was five, her parents were attacked by Native Americans – her father was killed and her mother was kidnapped – forcing Margaret and her brother to live with her uncle for the remainder of her childhood. She only survived the raid because she was not home at the time. When she was 21 years old, in 1772, she married a Virginian named John Corbin.
Fast forward to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Her husband, John, enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery as a matross – a member of a cannon crew who sponged out and loaded the cannon. Margaret became a camp follower, which was common for wives of soldiers. A camp follower is a civilian (usually wives of soldiers and their children) who literally follow armies from encampment to encampment. Camp followers were also known to take care of tasks that the army needed done; like cooking, laundering, nursing, and more. Many camp follower women, including Margaret Corbin, earned the nickname “Molly Pitcher” during this period, as they would bring water during battles both for thirsty soldiers to drink and to cool down overheated cannons. This worked out great for Margaret, as relaying water meant she could stay close to her husband while he worked the cannons.
Throughout the summer and autumn of 1776, the major action of the Revolutionary War was taking place in New York City. The British and Hessians were kicking team USA’s butt from Long Island to Manhattan. And, here, we find ourselves back with Margaret and John at the Battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776. Fort Washington was the last American stronghold on Manhattan, which made capturing it very important to Lieutenant General William Howe of the British. General George Washington issued an order to General Nathanael Green to abandon the fort and retreat to New Jersey, however, Colonel Robert Magaw, who was commanding the fort, refused to abandon it. When Howe launched his attack from the north, east and south with both British and Hessian forces, the fort was eventually surrounded by land and sea.
John Corbin was one of the soldiers who had remained to fight at Fort Washington, so naturally Margaret Corbin was there, too. John was in charge of firing a small cannon at the top of a ridge, towards the north, called Forest Hill. As the Hessians tried to attack up the hill, they were pushed back by cannon fire. Eventually, the gunner in charge of John’s cannon was shot and killed, leaving John to take over firing the cannon and Margaret to step up as matross. Then John was killed, leaving the cannon unmanned. But there was Margaret. She had been by his side the entire time and witnessed his death, and she immediately took his place operating the cannon. She knew how to since she had spent her time as a camp follower, watching and helping John. Margaret Corbin, now a widow, continued firing her small cannon on her own until her arm, chest, and jaw were hit by a round of grapeshot by the enemy.
Ultimately, the British overwhelmed Fort Washington and the Americans were forced to surrender. Fifty-nine were killed, including her husband John, and 2,837 Americans were taken as prisoners of war. [Which, side note, was not great – the treatment of American prisoners of war during this period was horrible, and of these nearly 3,000 prisoners only 800 would survive the 18 month wait to be released in a prisoner exchange – nearly three-quarters of them died in captivity. Prison ships, folks, just say no.] The good news for our gal Margaret Corbin, though, was that after the battle she was found alive and was treated as the equivalent of a wounded soldier, and shipped to Philadelphia, PA to recover. Apparently her left arm had almost been torn from her body in the battle, but she survived that and the rough journey to Philadelphia.
She survived the Battle of Fort Washington, but was permanently disabled, so Margaret Corbin was enrolled in the Invalid Regiment, aka the Corps of Invalids, despite never being enlisted as a soldier. This regiment was a group of disabled soldiers who could not fight but could manage light jobs, and was assigned to West Point, New York. She was nicknamed “Captain Molly.” Due to the severity of her disability – she could not use her left arm at all -, life was understandably difficult for Margaret Corbin. On June 29, 1779 the Executive Council of Pennsylvania (Supreme Court) recognized her heroics and awarded her $30 in aid for her current needs and then forwarded her case onto the Congressional Board of War for review, suggesting she receive a pension. Thankfully, the Board of War was sympathetic to her injuries and impressed by her service. On July 6, 1779, they granted her half the monthly pay of a solider in the Continental Army and a new set of clothes or its equivalent in cash. This act made Margaret the first woman in the United States to receive a military pension from Congress.
Due to Congress’ recognition of her service, Margaret Corbin was included in military rolls until the end of the war. In April 1783, the Corps of Invalids was disbanded and she was discharged from the Continental Army. She applied for a “rum ration,” which was essentially an allowance given to soldiers – not camp followers – but she was granted it, and paid money for the rations in the past that she did not receive – again, the first woman to do so. She died on January 16, 1800 in Highland Falls, New York at the age of 48. She was reinterred at West Point.
Margaret Corbin’s heroism is commemorated in many ways. There’s a memorial plaque for her in New York City’s Fort Tyron Park – the current site of the Battle of Fort Washington. The park also features “Margaret Corbin Circle” just outside the main entrance and a “Margaret Corbin Drive” that connects through to the Hudson Parkway. In 1926, the New York State chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution verified Margaret’s records through the papers of General Henry Knox, and erected the Margaret Corbin Monument in the West Point Cemetery.
Yet for all this commemorating in the city and state I live in, I still didn’t learn about Margaret Corbin until I was halfway done with my twenties. I think she’s incredible. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be in her place on that fateful day in 1776, and to just take over the situation as best as she could. And she was acknowledged as a soldier by both the British and American armies, granted aid, treated as an invalid, honorably discharged, AND received a pension. These are the stories that just take your breath away for a moment, and that’s why we need to share them – especially with little girls who love American history but don’t necessarily see themselves in the stories of our nation’s founding.
Written by Valerie Gritsch (she/her) from Queens, NY, USA. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
- Debra Michals. “Margaret Cochran Corbin” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. WomensHistory.org
- Daughters of the American Revolution. “Captain Molly Corbin Chapter.” TexasDAR.org.
- Kenna Howat. “Mythbusting the Founding Mothers.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. WomensHistory.org
- Stephanie Buck. “The First Woman to Receive a U.S. Military Pension Manned her Husband’s Cannon After He Was Killed.” 2017. Timeline.com
- Kathy Eastwood. “West Point hosts Monument Rededication and 92nd Anniversary Ceremony for Margaret Cochran Corbin.” 2018. US Army.
- E. J. Teipe. “Will the Real Molly Pitcher Please Stand Up?” PROLOGUE -WASHINGTON-. 1999. 31: 119-127.
- Gary B. Nash. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America
- David McCullough. 1776. 2006.
- Margaret Corbin biography via CBSD.org
- Margaret Corbin on Wikipedia