During the American Revolution, a barber from Carlisle, Pennsylvania named John Hays joined the Patriot forces, becoming an artilleryman in Captain Francis Proctor's company of the Pennsylvania Artillery. His wife, Mary Ludwig Hays, accompanied him on the campaign with George Washington's Revolutionary Army, as did many military wives of the day. Mary, a 22-year-old daughter of German immigrants, soon became known as an illiterate, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing woman who could curse with the best of the soldiers, and was popularly called Molly by the men. During the winter of 1777-1778, she stayed in the women's camp with Washington's army in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania after British forces had captured Philadelphia earlier that year.
By the summer of 1778, the British forces stretched thin, British General Sir Henry Clinton received orders to evacuate the city. Lacking a sufficient number of ships to carry them to New York by sea, Sir Henry was forced to march his troops overland through New Jersey. Sensing an opportunity, Gen. Washington mobilized his army of Patriots from Valley Forge and attacked the rear of Sir Henry's 12-mile-long baggage train. The resulting Battle of Monmouth Courthouse took place on June 28, 1778, in oppressive heat.
Gen. Washington deployed Capt. Proctor's artillery unit in a wing, and the cannons began to fire in enfilade at the opposing British troops. Women carried water to the fighting men, and on that day—when heatstroke caused many of the casualties on both sides—their water-bearing services proved to be invaluable, as overheating men desperately called for help. Molly Hays performed her duties heroically; barefoot, red with sunburn, and covered in blood and dust, and pregnant, she dashed around the battlefield, pouring life-saving water into the mouths of the soldiers, darting off before they could express their thanks. Her only break in her duties came when she paused momentarily to pull a wounded soldier out of harm's way, after which she hoisted her water bucket and continued her mission.
Molly saw her husband collapse in front of his cannon, grievously wounded by a British musket ball. After his fellow soldiers carried him away, the rest of his crew prepared to abandon the ircannon, as John had been their only loader; Molly, however, having seen her husband practice hundreds of times, knew his routine well, so she put down her water bucket and took her husband's place plunging the cannon as it continued to fire shot after shot into the British regiments. One of other soldiers wrote about her actions, even remarking that at one point she took a step to load a cartridge when a cannonball whizzed between her knees; the shot tore away her petticoat, but otherwise left her unharmed. Molly, unfazed, mentioned that it was a good thing the shot wasn't a little higher, and then continued to load the cannon.
That soldier's account and others led Gen. Washington himself to personally compliment Molly Hays as she and her wounded husband returned to Carlisle. John ultimately died from his injuries in 1786, after which Molly remarried a man named McCauly. In 1822, the Pennsylvania Legislature awarded Molly a pension of forty dollars per year—far higher than other war widows received—by unanimous vote. She died in 1833, at about 87 years of age, and is now the woman most identified with the American revolutionary ideal of Molly Pitcher.
Links and Sources:
"Will the Real Molly Pitcher Please Stand Up?" by Emily J. Teipe, at the National Archives' Prologue Magazine, Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2, retrieved March 29, 2012.
What They Didn't Teach You About the American Revolution, by Mike Wright, Presidio Books, 1999.
Hell Hath No Fury: True Profiles of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq, by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross, Random House Digital, 2008, retrieved March 29, 2012.
Top two images by Adam Hook, from Campaign 135: Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North, by Brendan Morrissey, by Osprey Publishing, 2004.
"The Cannoneer's Wife" © 2015 by James Husband.