Who Was 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.