Who Was Molly Pitcher?

As the temperature approached 100°, and gunners collapsed from heat exhaustion, a plucky water carrier named molly hays stepped forward to help work Captain Francis Proctor’s field piece. The wife of gunner William Hays, memories of her heroism evolved into the myth of “Molly Pitcher.”

Image reproduced with permission from Don Troiani.

In June, 1778, 20,000 British soldiers abandoned the city of Philadelphia and marched to join their garrison at New York City. Simultaneously, General George Washington led an army of 15,000 Continental soldiers to intercept the British . On Sunday, 28 June 1778, a Continental detachment of 5,000 men attempted to surround the British rear guard. A British counter attack with 10,000 men forced the Continentals to retreat back over Spotswood Middle Brook to the safety of a hill where Washington had arrayed the main body of Continentals. When the British attacked the hill, Continental artillery raked the approaches. Then the British brought up their own artillery, and for 2 ½ or 3 hours, ten British guns cannonaded ten Continental guns. In the largest field artillery engagement of the Revolution, tons of iron shot and shell were fired across Spotswood Middle Brook. The Continental artillery won the engagement when four guns on Combs Hill enfiladed the British positions forcing them to withdraw.

In his autobiography, a Connecticut soldier described watching a Continental field piece cannonade a battalion of Highlanders in an orchard, noting:

a woman whose husband belonged to the artillery . . . attended with her husband at the piece 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 . . . continued her occupation.

The woman was Mary Hays, wife of William Hays, Gunner, Captain Francis Proctor’s company of the Pennsylvania or 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. After the war, the Hayses settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where, after outliving two husbands, Molly died in 1832.

In the 19th century, as Americans began writing their history, heroes and heroines were needed. The obvious male lead in the cast was George Washington, “Father of his Country,” but there was no obvious female lead. Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Betsy Ross played roles in the emerging story, but their heroism was domestic. Americans needed a martial heroine comparable to the heroines of ancient Israel or the French Revolution. Dim memories of Molly Hays filled the breach, and “Molly Pitcher” became our Revolutionary War heroine. Substituting imagination for fact, illustrators and writers portrayed her as a wilting maiden or a tough camp follower and claimed that she was Irish, French, and German. In Monmouth County, New Jersey, farmers argued from whose spring Molly had carried water.

Well, Well, Well

Where did molly get the water?

While the mythical Molly fetched water from eleven different wells or springs, there is no written evidence that the real Mary carried water.  She may have.  An artillery crew needed water for the men, the horses, and most especially for sponging the gun.  Someone from Captain Proctor’s artillery must have carried water.

The Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, 28 June 1778, was fought in killing heat.  Fifty years later, many Revolutionary War veterans would remember it as the hottest day of their life.  Almost as many British soldiers died of heat exhaustion and sunstroke as from cannon and musket balls.

One of the hot tasks that Sunday afternoon was working the guns of the Continental artillery line.  As heat exhaustion and British artillery fire decimated the crew of Captain Francis Proctor's gun, Mary, the wife of gunner William Hays, may have been promoted from carrying water to helping work the gun.  The only eyewitness account (written many years later) describes her filling in for a matross, carrying cartridges from the powder chest to the muzzle of the field piece.

Molly Hays' heroism was a subject of conversation in the Continental Army, but two days after the battle, the Continental soldiers marched out of Englishtown taking that knowledge with them.  Seventy years later, when Molly "Pitcher" became a symbol of Patriot heroism, no knowledge of her survived in Monmouth County.  With no information available, each of the Battleground farm families could--and did--claim that Molly had drawn water from their well or spring.  Unfortunately, nine of these claims are invalid, as they place Molly Hays drawing water from sources either in the no man's land between the two armies or behind British lines.  Following are the locations from which Molly is reputed to have fetched water.


1. 1.1 miles behind British lines: spring in Merchant John Craig’s woodlot.
2.  0.5 mile behind British lines: spring in the Barrack Meadow.
3.  0.3 mile behind British lines: Well adjacent to Freehold-Englishtown Road.      
(Because of its proximity to the road and the railroad, this well was aggressively promoted as a tourist destination for most of the 20th century.  However, Dr. J. C. Thompson (1804-1890) dug th1s well in the 1850s.)
4.  0.2 mile behind British lines: spring in Thompson-Taylor Farm barnyard.
(This lovely spring led the Taylor family to name their dairy the "Molly Pitcher Farm.")
5. 0.2 mile behind British lines: an improved spring along north side of Spotswood Middle Brook.  Connecticut private Joseph Plumb Martin drank from this spring or “well” after the British retreated.


6.  Between the armies: spring in Sutfin meadow.
(Perhaps the oldest pretender, the Herbert family marked this as Molly Pitchers’spring by 1860.)     
7.  Between the armies: Sutfin-Herbert Farm well.
(Unlikely, as the British Royal Highlanders were in the orchard north of the house.
8. Too far south: Spotswood South Brook.
(A water source for General Greene's men on Combs Hill.)
9. Too far west: spring near Ker dwelling and Tennent’s Meetinghouse


10: Spotswood North Brook: 0.22 mile from Proctor gun position.
11.  Behind the Continental artillery line: spring in Perrine Farm ravine.
(Less than a 1000 ft. behind the location of Captain Proctor's gun, this spring is illustrated on           Captain William Gray’s 1778 map of the battlefield.)


For more information on “Molly Pitcher’s wells,” see David G. Martin, A Molly Pitcher Sourcebook (Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet Press, 2003), chapter 13: The location of Molly Pitcher’s Well.

Where was Molly Hays During the Battle of Monmouth?

Maps, documents, and archaeology provide clues

In a letter describing the battle, Major General Lord Stirling described how the British “Infantry appeared also in the Rear of Sutfens, some of them advanced to the front of the Orchard these we drove back with Grape and Canister Shot.”   Lafayette’s map of the battle has an “X” marking the location of the British advance, and the orchard’s apple trees are shown on Captain William Gray’s map.  Battlefield archaeologists have established the precise location of the orchard.  It is marked by a dense concentration of lead canister shot and 2 ounce iron grapeshot. 

The archaeological map below illustrates not only the location of Derick Sutfin’s cider orchard, but also the probable location of Molly Hays’ cannon.  At the upper left of the map, four pieces of 2-ounce grapeshot appear to be the remains of a round broken by the Continental artillerists.

Distribution of 2 ounce grape or case shot locating the Sutfin cider orchard, Molly Hays, and Captain Francis Proctor’s Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery Regiment.
(Daniel M. Sivilich and Garry Wheeler Stone)