It was not unusual for women to accompany 18th-century armies in the field. It was less common in the American forces at the outset of the Revolution, but became increasingly more so as the war progressed. Some regiments - those drawing from immigrant populations from continental Europe in particular - did bring or attract a number of female camp followers. "The German Regiment", raised from among German speaking communities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, listed more than a dozen women drawing rations at the outset of Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois in 1779. At winter quarters during 1778-1779, it is estimated that the 22 companies of Knox's Continental Artillery had an average of three women camp followers per company. That is an interesting piece of information, as we shall see.
Margaret Corbin, heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, might have accompanied her soldier husband to war with a Pennsylvania unit, just the way her story has been retold by later historians. I have been making the hypothesis in this series of posts that there are reasons to suspect some of the critical assumptions in this story, including the claim that she had a husband named John Corbin who was killed (some say mortally wounded) serving the guns of Proctor's 1st Battalion of Pennsylvania Artillery in the defence of the Fort. Margaret Corbin was certainly wounded there, but I do not believe Proctor's unit was anywhere near northern Manhattan at the time of the battle, and can find no record in the available sources on-line of the service of a John Corbin.
Revolutionary War records are notoriously incomplete. Nevertheless, stories inevitably grow in the telling and the case of Margaret Corbin is no exception. She has been frequently confused with the woman associated with legend of Molly Pitcher, who was also associated with Proctor's Artillery and is said to have swabbed the guns at Monmouth. Very possibly the idea that Margaret Corbin's artilleryman husband was part of this unit stems from the same confusion.
We do have a number of colonial and early Federal era documents that relate to Margaret Corbin, her injuries in battle, and the recognition of her service and sacrifice as the recipient of the first military pension ever awarded to a woman by Congress. When there was renewed interest in our patriot forebears following the Revolution's Centennial, The Magazine of American History published a fascinating investigation of Margaret Corbin's story and reprinted several of these key documents in its "notes and queries" pages. Congress acted with atypical alacrity to relieve her "deplorable situation" and heeded the recommendation of the Pennsylvania authorities that she be provided for, and that raises questions about how a crippled camp follower of frontier background got their bureaucratic attention.
One of the magazine correspondents notes that "I have been unable to find the originals of Margaret Corbin papers after careful search. But they may turn up yet. At present, we know nothing further than the papers as printed in Coll. Records vol xii page 34." There is also a tantalizing list of other sources for "Captain Molly" - three of which turn out to be about Molly Pitcher - but the last of which may offer a clue as to Margaret Corbin's possible protector:
"...Major Boynton's History of West Point, page 167, where part of the correspondence with General Knox is modestly suppressed."
Even for 1886, such language carries the whiff of scandal, but just whose standards of decency might have been betrayed in the expurgated letters would be hard to judge without reading them. Luckily, Boynton's text is available on-line, and reveals more about Margaret Corbin's reduced condition after the war and the interest taken in her welfare by powerful men, including the former chief of the Continental Artillery and now Secretary of War, Major General Henry Knox.
Boynton clearly confuses "Captain Molly" Corbin, the pensioner at West Point, with Molly Pitcher on Monmouth. He reproduces several letters from Major George Fleming, commander at West Point where the tiny remnant of the American Army was garrisoned after the war - to Henry Knox, in whose regiment Fleming had previously served. Knox evidently knew the subject of these letters well enough so that the name "Captain Molly" was sufficient to identify her. This indicates either a degree of minor celebrity as that unique creature, a wounded woman warrior, or personal familiarity with her case.
It seems remarkable that the Secretary of War would be asked to provide her with undergarments, but two of the three letters reproduced by Boynton address her "want of shifts" and requests that three of four be made for her. Boynton then writes:
"Molly is described as usually appearing with an artilleryman's coat over her skirts. She was brusque, coarse, red-haired, wholly wanting in feminine charms, and one of her biographers has recorded that she made use of swear words"
Perhaps here, too, Boynton has confounded Margaret Corbin with the Molly Pitcher legend, though it may well be the case that she was just as described. Certainly she was a wounded veteran who had been carried on the rolls of the Pennsylvania Regiment as a private soldier despite her debilitating wounds until the end of the war. Possibly the missing correspondence contained evidence of her "coarse habits", but then in her masculine role she was little different from many other veteran soldiers. Yet she was different, because she was a woman and a symbol, even then, of noble sacrifice, stepping into her dead husband's place and receiving honorable wounds in the fight for her country.
Henry Knox married into a family of means (though as Tories their lands were forfeit and only his wife was able to inherit). His origins were humble, and he was close in age to Margaret Corbin. At least one history identifies the commander of the artillery at the place where Margaret Corbin fought as Captain Pierce, who had been one of Knox's officers. In June of 1779 when Congress voted Margaret Corbin a pension and suit of clothes, Knox was with Washington's Army outside Philadelphia, where Margaret Corbin was an invalid. He also commanded at West Point near the end of the war, where Margaret Corbin and the Invalid Corps were garrisoned.
I do not believe there was an improper relationship between the commander and and camp follower. I believe he was her patron, however. I believe he listened to his officers who told him that a woman of the artillery had fought and bled in her husband's place and that he had the political clout and position to ensure that she received relief from those in authority. I believe that without a fallen husband, she would have been deprived of the honorable widowhood that bolstered her case and kept her from being considered a fallen woman. And I believe Henry Knox cared enough about her case after the war that he would have tried to get her the underclothes and other case she required as her health declined. I wish I had the rest of the correspondence!