Thought to be Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, iconic figure in the US War of Independence, b. 1754, d. 1832
A water bearer to the troops in one of the hardest-fought battles of the American Revolution, a woman nicknamed Molly Pitcher became famous when she took the place of a fallen artillery gunner, her husband, and continued the fight. Her story abounds in vivid detail, including chatting with George Washington, but some historians question its authenticity and doubt that she existed as described.
The woman with whom Molly Pitcher is usually identified, Mary Ludwig, was born to German immigrants in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 13, 1754. She moved to the Pennsylvania town of Carlisle and began her connection with the army at the age of fifteen as a servant to Dr. William Irvine, later a brigadier general in the colonial army. Her first husband, John Hays, enlisted in the First Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775 at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and she soon joined him in the field with the permission of his regimental commander.
During the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, according to contemporary accounts a broiling hot day, Mary is said to have earned her nickname by returning to the battle lines again and again with pitchers of water for her husband and his fellow artillery gunners, who were dying of heat and thirst. “Molly” was a common form of “Mary,” and “Pitcher” commemorated the number of times the welcome water appeared at the front in her hands. As she watched, Hays, now an artillery sergeant, was knocked unconscious in the bombardment, and the order was given to remove his piece from the field. Without hesitation Molly came forward and seized the rammer staff from her fallen husband’s hands. She kept the cannon firing for the remainder of the battle and continued to fight till the close of day.
Other legends grew up around Molly’s service. While tending the wounded, she is supposed to have carried a crippled soldier “on her strong, young back” out of reach of a furious British charge. Another soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin of Connecticut, told this sexually tinted story of her coolness under fire:
While in the act of reaching for a cartridge, 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 observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else.
Her bravery was rewarded by George Washington himself, who issued a warrant making her a noncommissioned officer on the spot, resulting in another set of nicknames, “Sergeant” or “Major” Molly. This part of the story has seemingly endless variations, in which Washington’s cameo appearance also involves his presenting her with either a gold coin or, as befitting a magnanimous leader, a hatful of gold.
After the war, Mary and John Hays returned to Carlisle, where he died in 1789. Mary remarried one of her late husband’s comrades-in-arms, a John or George McCauley, but the marriage was not a happy one. McCauley is said to have treated her like a servant, a fate Mary, now known as Molly, had escaped years before. Perhaps it may have come as a relief to her that McCauley also died before too long.
But without a male provider, Mary/Molly may well have struggled financially, and she seems to have petitioned the government for relief. One undisputed fact is that later in life, in 1822, her war service was officially recognized when the state legislators of Pennsylvania awarded her a veteran’s annuity of forty dollars, which she claimed for the next ten years.
“Molly McKolly,” as some sources call her, died in Carlisle on January 22, 1832. Her son by her first husband, John Ludwig Hays, became a soldier and was buried with full military honors when he died in about 1853. At the age of eighty-one, John’s daughter, Polly McCleester of Papertown, Mount Holly Springs, unveiled a monument to her grandmother, which boldly asserts Mary/Molly’s claim to fame:
MOLLY McCauley, Renowned in history as MOLLY PITCHER, The Heroine of Monmouth, died Jan 1833, aged 79 years. Erected by the Citizens of Cumberland County, July 4, 1876.
A wonderful story—but is it true? In Carlisle, the town Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was born in, left, and returned to after the war, the place where she died among her descendants and where she is buried, there is no doubt. But however proud the local people were of their heroine, they mistook the date of her death. Molly died at least a year earlier than recorded on her monument, as shown by the fact that no application for her pension was made after January 1832.
There are other questions and inconsistencies. For many years it was believed that the real Molly Pitcher was born Mary Ludwig and that she had married John Hays in Carlisle. This identification with Mary Ludwig was later challenged in favor of another Mary, who married another Hays with another extremely common first name, William. Another woman known as Molly Pitcher, described as “the heroine of Fort Washington” and buried along the Hudson, is a different individual, frequently confused with the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth.
The confusion arose because Molly Pitcher was not unique. Mary Ludwig Hays was neither the first nor the only woman to take a gunner’s place on an American battlefield and man a field gun. She was preceded by Margaret Corbin during the defense of Fort Washington in 1776—possibly the heroine of Fort Washington described earlier. Corbin was recorded as staying resolutely at her post in the face of heavy enemy fire, ably acting as a matross (gunner). Other women fought in numerous engagements in the Revolutionary War and Civil War (see Sampson, Deborah, Chapter 3, and Tubman, Harriet, Chapter 4). Historical sources confirm that at least two women fought in the Battle of Monmouth, one at an artillery position and the other in the infantry line. There is no evidence linking either of them to Mary Ludwig Hays. And when she died, there was no mention of a cannon or the Battle of Monmouth in her obituary.
“Molly Pitcher” may therefore be not one woman but a composite. But the legend refuses to die. She remains a cherished character of the American Revolution and since 1876 has been firmly identified with Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. An unmarked grave believed to be hers was opened during the centenary events of that year, and the remains were reburied with honors under a plaque declaring her the real embodiment of the famous Molly Pitcher.
One fact remains. Whether or not Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was the real Molly Pitcher, the forty-dollar-a-year payment she was awarded by the state of Pennsylvania was more than the usual war widow’s pension granted to all soldiers’ wives. The citation published in The American Volunteer, February 21, 1822, under the heading “Legislature of Pennsylvania,” makes this plain:
A bill has passed both Houses of the Assembly granting an annuity to Molly McCauley (of Carlisle) for services she rendered during the Revolutionary War. It appeared satisfactorily that this heroine had braved the hardships of the camp and dangers of the field with her husband, who was a soldier of the revolution, and the bill in her favor passed without a dissenting voice.
Note the date. In 1822, veterans of the Battle of Monmouth were still alive to dispute the facts, yet her award was unanimously passed. The “services rendered” by Mary/Molly Ludwig Hays McCauley undoubtedly amounted to something above and beyond the ordinary conditions of war. If only we knew what they were.
Reference: Rachel A. Koestler-Grack, Molly Pitcher: Heroine of the War for Independence, 2005.