Elementary students around the country often get their first dose of female patriots through the legendary quagmire of Molly Pitcher. Several women have acquired this handle through the centuries, but where does legend end and truth begin?
Most scholars agree the true identity of “Molly Pitcher” is confused because there were several “camp followers” involved in the Revolutionary War’s battle of Monmouth. Back then, these ladies tended the sick, cooked for their soldiers, repaired the uniforms, and even manned a cannon if the occasion called for it. Hence, the confusion. One of the best candidates, though, is Mary Ludwig Hays. Even if she’s not the actual “Molly Pitcher,” she is well-deserving of the fame.
Mary, born in 1754 to German immigrants, took a position as a domestic servant at the age of 15. A year later she married John Hays. In 1776, Hays, a barber, soldiered up and joined Pennsylvania’s artillery. Two years later, Mary appears in the military paperwork for the first time. She joined the same company as her husband mere months before the battle of Monmouth. She swore, she chewed tobacco, and expected no quarter just because she was a woman. During the battle, Mary hauled water under furious enemy fire and sweltering conditions. Both the rag-wrapped cannon ramrods needed continual soaking as did the over-heated soldiers. Mary and the others like her were angels of mercy or war, depending on your perspective.
As cannons and muskets thundered in the blazing sun, Mary’s husband John collapsed from heat stroke (some reports indicate he may have been injured). Mary gave him some water then heroically took over his cannon, repeatedly packing the barrel and sighting in on the enemy. The enemy, however, was also sighting in on her. An eye witness (the diary of a Colonial private), reported seeing a cannon ball literally shoot between her legs, removing a terrifying portion of her petticoat! Mary never missed a beat. She kept loading and firing.
The result of the battle: Lord Cornwallis withdrew and his army slipped away in the darkness. George Washington thanked Mary and the other women for their service. And with typical government efficieny, the state of Pennsylvania awarded Mary a pension of $40 a year, specifically for her heroism at Monmouth, forty years later.
Better late than never to respect the lace.