This is not the piece I originally set out to write. I had intended to launch into the truly inspirational tale of the original "Molly Pitcher" - Margaret Cochran Corbin. Her exploits preceded those of her legendary namesake by more than a year, and earned her the first pension ever awarded to an American woman for heroic military service. She certainly seems to deserve that recognition, reportedly having been terribly wounded serving a field piece in the defense of Fort Washington on November 16th, 1776.
Nevertheless, as "trust but verify" is as much a watchword of the historian as for Reagan-era nuclear deterrence, I find myself unable to write about this patriot heroine without first trying to confirm a critical part of her story where I have encountered a puzzling and unexpected discrepancy.
Margaret Cochran is said to have been the wife of John Corbin - described as a Virginian who served in the Pennsylvania Artillery - and to have accompanied him in the field. Most of the histories of her exploits (see various examples here, here, and here) assign John Corbin to Proctor's 1st Company of Pennsylvania Artillery, which was organized in 1775 and latter expanded as the Pennsylvania Artillery battalion. The problem is that this unit seems to have played no part whatsoever in the defense and retreat across Manhattan in 1776, but was stationed at Fort Island in the Delaware River and first engaged in the attack on Trenton. Furthermore, I can find no record in on-line sources of the service of a John Corbin in any artillery unit during the war.
A general description of the American order of battle at Fort Washington says that the artillery consisted of "about 100 men, under Captain Pierce" If true, the only candidate for the commander of these men would have been Captain Thomas Pierce of Massachusetts, who lead one of the companies in Henry Knox's Continental artillery regiment during this period. While is is not known how many cannon were used during the battle, one account states the British captured 47 "ordnance of all sizes", of which one historian speculates "much less than one-half were mounted in the fort." Captain Johann Ewald of the Hessian Jagers puts the number at 43, ranging from 32-pounders to howitzers.
The Captain Pierce who was present at this battle was posted at the small earthen redan on Forest Hill: the only outwork of Fort Washington. It is here that Margaret Corbin is said to have fought and been wounded. Mark M. Boatner III's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (p. 386) says that there were three cannon placed at this position. This area was defended by the 250 men of Stephenson's Virginia and Maryland Rifle battalion, commanded since the death of its Colonel that fall by Lieutenant-Colonel Moses Rawlings. They had only recently been sent to reinforce the Fort Washington garrison. I can find no record of the service of John Corbin in this unit.
There may have been some Pennsylvania troops here as well. An entry for November 1, 1776 in the American commander's orderly book states: "Capt. Long's Company to join Coll. Rawlings Battn". I have not yet been able to positively identify this officer, but there was a Lt. Hugh Long in Joseph Hart's Pennsylvania Battalion of the Flying Camp, and some of the officers of this unit are listed as captured at Fort Washington.
If John Corbin served the guns at Forest Hill, he could have done so as a "matross", an infantryman who ranked as a private of artillery and was assigned to assist the gunners. Some of the histories declare that he was indeed a matross in Proctor's Artillery, though again there is no record available on-line to confirm this service in any unit. He might have been a regular infantryman who later stepped up to serve the cannon, with Margaret Corbin replacing him as he fell, in keeping with the legend.
Perhaps John Corbin really was one of the 54 (some say 59) Americans who died in the fight. I do not make the absolute claim that it didn't happen the way that history remembers it. It is just that I haven't found convincing proof that it did, and instead have unearthed inconsistencies in the story that make me wonder what else may have been repeated as fact without a primary source to confirm it. We will explore some of these in subsequent posts in this series.