In yesterday's post I opened the proverbial can of worms when I questioned whether a central part of story of Margaret Corbin, heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, is supported by contemporary evidence. I have searched in vain through the available data on-line and have failed to discover any verifiable documentation of the revolutionary service of her husband, John Corbin, whom she is meant to have followed to war and replaced at the guns when he fell during the battle and subsequent capture of Fort Washington on November 16th, 1776.
There are a number of possible explanations. John Corbin's name could have been spelled differently on the muster rolls: as "Corbett", for example. His name could have been on a missing muster roll. It may be somewhere in a database that is not available to searchers on-line. Or he may not have been there at all.
I am disturbed that the unit histories I have found for the outfit to which John Corbin supposedly belonged - Proctor's 1st Company (later 1st Battalion) Pennsylvania Artillery - make no mention of its participation in this fight or even presence in New York at this time. One description of service states:
"The company, having reenlisted October 30th, 1776, remained at Fort Island until about December 25th, when a portion were ordered to New Jersey and took part in the capture of the Hessians at Trenton, also at the Battle of Princeton when Major [Thomas] Proctor captured a brass six-pounder."
Fort Island (later Fort Mifflin) was located below the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia. It is hard to imagine this company dashing north just after its reenlistment, only to be captured at Fort Washinton barely a fortnight later, and then being on hand for Trenton six weeks after that. On the other hand, what are we to make of this tantalizing entry in the Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army for Francis Proctor, who was the father of Thomas Proctor, the first Captain of the 1st Company Pennsylvania Artillery and the same Major Proctor mentioned above?
"Proctor, Francis (PA) Lieutenant 1st Pennsylvania Artillery Company. October 27th, 1775; was a prisoner in 1776, when and where taken not stated."
Part of Proctor's Artillery Battalion was captured in April 1777 at Bound Brook, so perhaps this is when Francis Proctor was taken and not 1776. Or maybe he really was there, with some of his men and at least one woman: Margaret Corbin. That is the way that history has remembered it, in a story that has been repeated as fact since at least 1877, when Edward F. DeLancy wrote with characteristic Victorian sentimentality:
"There were instances on both sides in this action of humor and gaiety, as well as of intrepidity and valor, in the midst of danger. One instance of the latter must be mentioned, which has rarely been equaled or surpassed. In one of the Pennsylvania regiments was a soldier named Corbin, who was accompanied by his wife. His post was at one of the guns in the battery on the hill attacked by the Hessians, where the battle raged hardest, hottest, and longest ; for it was between two and three hours before the Germans succeeded in carrying that position. In the midst of the fight Corbin, struck by a ball, fell dead at his wife s feet as she was
aiding him in his duties. Instantly, without a word, she stepped into his place and worked the gun with redoubled skill and vigor, fighting bravely till she sank to the earth, pierced by three grapeshot in the shoulder. Though terribly wounded, she .finally recovered, but was disabled for life. A soldier's half-pay and the value of a soldier's suit of clothes, annually voted her by the Continental Congress while John Jay presided, was all the reward that the first woman who fought for American liberty ever received for such heroic love, courage, and suffering.
Thirty-two years afterward Spain's glowing, dark-eyed daughter, erect in the deadly breach, fiercely defending her native city against the French invader, and hurling vengeance on the slayers of her lover dead at her feet, burst upon the world never to be forgotten. The deed of Augustina of Aragon, the Maid of Zaragoza, was not nobler, truer, braver than that of Margaret Corbin of Pennsylvania. Byron's immortal lines are as true of the one as of the other :
'Her lover sinks, she sheds no ill timed tear,
Her chief is slain, she fills his fatal post;
The foe retires, she heads the sallying host:
Who can appease, like her, a lover's ghost?'"
Is this the basis for the claim that Corbin's (here unnamed) husband was a Pennsylvania soldier? We know that the Pennsylvania Supreme Council granted her $30 on June 29th, 1779 "to relieve her present necessities", and are told that Congress subsequently acted on the recommendation that she indeed be awarded half pay and a suit of clothes annually. Margaret Corbin was taken to Philadelphia after her wounding and is said to have been born in Pennsylvania. She was apparently kept on the roles the Invalid Regiment of Pennsylvania through 1783. We know she later received a full United States soldier's pension, complete with rum rations. The evidence for her service and wounding in battle while defending and outerwork of Fort Washington is strong. The evidence that she had a husband there named John Corbin is not.
And there may be more at work here as well. We will pick up the story of how "Captain Molly" got her pension in a subsequent post.