(image courtesy of Washington Heights) Visitors to West Point who venture behind the Old Cadet Chapel have the opportunity to view a grave marker honoring Revolutionary War heroine Margaret Corbin. Throughout this series of posts, we have seen how the story of this disabled veteran of the Pennsylvania Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Washington took on the elements of legend, became confounded in memory with that of Molly Pitcher, and appears to have been embellished in certain key respects by later historians, such as the service of her supposed soldier husband.
The evidence behind the identification of her original grave site and her exhumation for reburial at West Point offers a fascinating coda to this tale. It involves the rediscovery of her story following the Centennial of the Revolution, and in particular the interest of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The D.A.R., established in 1890 by descendants of Revolutionary veterans as a women's service organization to promote their patriotic memory, found an ideal heroine in Margaret Corbin. In 1900, the Margaret Corbin Chapter, D.A.R. of Chelsea, Massachusetts received its charter. While the veteran ancestors of the D.A.R. might well have honored Corbin, it is doubtful whether women of their station in Corbin's day would have regarded her in the same light.
In her final years, the disabled Corbin appears to have become obnoxious to society. After her wounding and evacuation from Fort Washington in 1776, she was transported to Pennsylvania. Sometime after that, while her supporters petitioned the Commonwealth and Congress for her relief, she was enrolled in the Pennsylvania Invalid Corps as a private soldier, mustering out with her regiment at West Point in 1783. Margaret Corbin appears to have remained in the Hudson Highlands thereafter, and the commander of West Point corresponded with Secretary of War Henry Knox throughout the 1780s concerning her condition while she was in the care of a Mrs Randall in what is now Highland Falls, New York. In 1795, he wrote to Knox: "I am at a loss what to do with Capt. Molly. She is such an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge."
It appears that Margaret Corbin, a woman in her 40s, was unable to dress herself or to bathe, and according to one modern retelling was "was rebuffed by the ladies of the town because of her uncleanness and disagreeable temper. Margaret spent most her days at the post smoking her pipe and finding companionship among the soldiers." She also was entitled to an allotment of rum that came with her veteran's pension, which may have been a comfort to her but would not have appealed to the ideal of womanhood that prevailed in her time (or to women's service organizations at the turn of the 20th century, for that matter, which were often strongly in favor of temperance). It seems the unvarnished reality of her condition was also unacceptable to the Philadelphia Society of Women, which this source claims had considered erecting a monument in her honor while she was still alive but recoiled upon meeting her, discovering "that she was a hard-drinking impoverished veteran and [so] canceled the memorial to the first woman heroine of the Battle of New York."
Various sources place her death about 1800. She was buried, presumably in the Highlands, and her grave and memory were all but forgotten for most of the remaining century until later historians began piecing together her story from the available records and folklore of the region around the time of the Centennial of the Revolution. It was not until the 1920s, however, that a concerted effort was made to locate her remains, and it was lead by the New York State Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. They verified her pension and service records and also consulted the papers of Henry Knox, then set about finding her resting place. With the help of a riverboat captain, who claimed his grandfather helped with the burial in 1800, an overgrown grave was located containing the remains of a female that were sent to West Point for a post mortem. The West Point surgeon confirmed that the remains were Corbin's based on evidence that the "left side of the face, left shoulder, chest and upper arm were badly battered". These wounds are consistent with testimony given to Congress that she was deprived of the use of one arm and claims made by historians beginning in 1877 that she had been injured by grapeshot in the left shoulder.
With this certification in hand, the way was open to reinter the remains of Margaret Corbin with full honors at West Point and erect another monument in Highland Falls. The Time Magazine coverage of the day once again mistakes her for Molly Pitcher of Monmouth.
I will note that it is particularly fortuitous that local knowledge preserved a precise secondhand memory of the location of her grave more than 125 years after her death. It is also very interesting that the grave was discovered on J.P. Morgan's estate in Highland Falls.
As there is no better evidence proving or disproving these as the remains of Margaret Corbin, there I will let her lie. She was an old soldier, that is certain, and she suffered much from wounds received in battle. We can honor that, even if parts of the story may not be all that they appear.
The complete Margaret Corbin Series can be found here.