Women in the military are slowly gaining recognition in this country, and there’s debate over allowing women in combat. It’s too easy to forget that they’ve always been there, whether officially or not, since our country’s founding.
Quick FactGeorge Washington issued Molly a warrant as a noncommissioned officer, and the nickname 'Sergeant Molly' was added to her list of lifelong monikers.
The Revolutionary War didn’t see any female soldiers, but there were plenty of women on the battlefield, some led by Martha Washington herself. They served in support roles, but didn’t hesitate to step up when needed―as the legend of Molly Pitcher attests. It’s classified as a 'legend', because there is little evidence as to who Molly Pitcher actually was. There’s a possibility that 'Molly Pitcher' may just be a composite of all the women who served in battle during the Revolutionary War. But regardless of her actual identity, her exploits are gutsy, to say the least.
As far as historians can tell (and this is contentious in some circles), 'Molly Pitcher' is actually a nickname given to one Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. Born into a large family in Pennsylvania in 1744, she married a barber at age 25. About eight years later, her husband joined the Continental Army and went off to battle with the Proctor’s 4th Artillery, and she accompanied him.
War was different at that time, and it wasn’t unusual for women to follow their husbands’ units from camp to camp and serve as a sort of support staff. Mary joined a group led by Martha Washington to lend a hand to soldiers (including both their husbands) at the Battle of Valley Forge in the spring of 1778. Along with the other women, most wives, sisters, and mothers of soldiers in the regiment, she cleaned clothes, cooked food, and nursed the wounded and dying. The job for which she is famous, however, is that of a water-carrier. During the spring and summer, soldiers in their woolen uniforms would become incredibly hot, and needed frequent supply of freshwater―not only the soldiers themselves, but the canons required water for cooling, and the ramrod had to be rinsed between shots. The women of the support staff would fill pitchers at a nearby spring and carry them to the soldiers in need, even under heavy fire. Since Mary’s nickname was Molly, the cry, "Molly, pitcher!" became the page for her services, and the nickname stuck until the day she died.
As helpful as the water carriers were, you don’t hear legends about them in general (most folks don’t even know they existed). What made Molly Pitcher famous was what happened in June of 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth. It was a hot day, over 100 degrees, and Molly’s pitcher-carrying services were in great demand. She was tending to soldiers on the battlefield when her husband collapsed―possibly from the heat, or possibly from a wound―we don’t know for sure. We do know that he survived. Seeing her husband go down, Molly didn’t go to pieces―she took his place at the cannon. While her husband was dragged to safety to be treated, Molly kept swabbing and loading the canon in his place. At one point, she was hit by fire, either a musket or cannon ball. Although it missed her legs completely, it tore off the bottom of her skirt. Undeterred, she made a flippant remark along the lines of, "It could have been worse", and kept on fighting.
Mary did not return home as a war hero; that honor was reserved for men. After the war, she returned home with her husband, and had children. She earned a living as a cleaning lady and private nurse, and was a popular figure in town. She was awarded a USD40/year pension for her military service in 1822, and died in 1832 at about 88 years old.
Again, the legend may be about one woman, or it may be a combination of the stories of many women who served roles similar to Mary’s in our nation’s fight for freedom. Either way, it’s an inspiring tale for all of us, male and female, and a reminder to not take freedom for granted. People endured an awful lot to get us here.