Margaret Corbin was the first woman in American history awarded a military pension in recognition of her heroic deeds in battle. That much is clear, but much of her story appears to have been embellished - or possibly suppressed. Along the way her identity became confused with the Molly Pitcher of Monmouth legend, which refers to a completely different time and place than the steep slopes at the north end of Manhattan Island where Margaret Corbin fought and bled.
During the last several days, I have tried to separate the available primary sources from secondary accounts and speculation by subsequent historians about Margaret Corbin's story. I began by searching for the moment i the historic record when her alleged soldier husband acquired a name and regiment, and along the way began to question other parts of her story that I do not expect to resolve through mining the Internet for a few brief blog posts. I have some questions, and the beginning of an explanatory hypothesis, about one of the undisputed facts of Margaret Corbin's life - her military pension - and the uncharacteristic speed in which a contentious Congress acted on her behalf. I have no desire to traduce her memory or accomplishments, but I am interested in the evolution of her story and the sources behind what is generally repeated as if it were documented fact.
There is no denying that Margaret "Captain Molly" Corbin received singular recognition during the Revolution as a wounded woman warrior. She gained the attention of at least one powerful patron who saw to it that she was pensioned and provided for. Then she vanished into obscurity and an unmarked grave, only to be rediscovered and rehabilitated in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, fleshed out to fulfill the requirements of contemporary times and values. She has been lost and found by researchers in nearly every generation since the 1870s, and has become such a powerful symbol that in 2007 her good name provided an unexpected solution to a Brooklyn street name controversy involving a racist namesake.
If we are going to get to the hard questions, it will help to give a brief synopsis of the current version of her story.
Margaret (Cochran) Corbin was no stranger to adversity. She was born on November 12, 1751 to Scotch-Irish parents near Chambersburg in what is today Franklin County, Pennsylvania. It was a vulnerable frontier existence, made far more precarious by the outset of hostilities with France and its Indian allies. In June, 1756, a war party killed her father Robert and carried her mother off into captivity. A single report from 1758 reportedly indicates that Mrs. Cochran was seen 100 miles west of the Ohio but the surviving Cochrans never saw her again. The orphaned children - 5-year-old Margaret and her little brother John - were raised by their uncle.
Margaret reportedly grew to be very tall for a woman of that time (5'8"). She is supposed to have married John Corbin in 1772, and all that is said about him is that he was a farmer from Virginia. As we have seen in previous posts in this series, he is alleged to have joined a Pennsylvania artillery unit - sometimes identified (I believe erroneously) as Proctor's 1st Pennsylvania Company or Battalion of Artillery. According to the story, she accompanied the regiment in the field.
The Corbins are said to have been present at an outer work of Fort Washington, New York which bore the brunt of the fighting on November 16th, 1776 when it was assaulted by a Hessian column. Captain Ewald of the Hessian Jagers, who was present but engaged at another part of the field, later recorded in his memoirs:
"The Knyphausen Corps began the attack under the fire of five or six hundred riflemen who were lying in the wood under the fortifications. All obstacles including the almost inaccessible cliffs and an abatis two hundred paces deep were overcome successfully, and one outer work after another was captured under the heaviest grapeshot and small-arms fire."
The defenders at this point were the 250 or so men of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Battalion, and a battery of three field pieces. John Corbin is described as a matross in the artillery battery that fought here. After he fell as one of the 53 Americans numbered by British General Howe as killed in the attack, "Molly" Corbin went into action. The Supreme Council of Pennsylvania described her in a letter sent to Congress dated June 29th, 1779 as "wounded and utterly disabled at Fort Washington while heroically filling the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery." 78 years later, Edward F. De Lancey of the New York Historical Society described her wounds more precisely as caused by "three grapeshot in the shoulder", and later histories have gone further describing a lacerated left breast, as well as the loss of the use of an arm which is further documented by a 1780 report of Congress.
Whatever the nature of the evidence presented in the 1779 petition for her relief, it was apparently compelling because less than a week later, Congress resolved to award her a soldier's half pay and a suit of clothes, the latter benefit being extended for life the very next year by another resolution of Congress. In so doing, Congress expressed the belief that
" As she had the fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband after his fall in the service of his country, and in the execution of that task received the dangerous wound under which she now labors, the board can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate."
It is a laudable recognition by a body neither known for its charity nor for speed in execution, and so I am lead to conclude two things further about Margaret Corbin and her military pension:
1. It was essential to her case that she stepped into the role of her fallen husband, and therefore that she actually have a husband in the unit where she was a camp follower, and
2. She must have had a powerful patron acting on her behalf who could navigate the bureaucratic tangle of state and congressional government and command attention be paid to her welfare.
Until I am confronted with primary source evidence both of her marriage to John Corbin and his service in a military unit that fought at Fort Washington, I have to consider an alternative hypothesis: that Margaret Corbin was a woman of the regiment without a husband, and that one was conveniently produced for her in suitably martyred form to support her pension claim.
As for the patron, I believe his name is known and the evidence is there in the historic record. We will talk about him in a subsequent post.