Unburying the story of first female U.S. solider Margaret Cochran Corbin from legend

I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it is to find a truly wonderful story for this site, dig into the research a little more and then find out that most of it is a legend and has been warped by a decades-long game of telephone. It is especially frustrating since most of it has to do with women fighting at my favorite point in history—no, not during early aviation—the Revolutionary War. As I pointed out in my very first post on this site, on Sybil Luddington, many women’s real involvement has been distorted and embellished by family members and the real stories of their heroism are now lost to time.

One woman I was especially stoked to write about was Nancy Hart who was notorious for punishing Tory spies and British soldiers who tried to mess with her or her six children. For instance, one of her children spotted an eye peering through a crack in the wall of their cabin in Georgia. Once Nancy found out, she threw boiling soap water at the wall, hog-tied the man and took him to the local militia as a prisoner.

Her most famous act occurred when six (or five) British soldiers (or Tory spies) came to collect information about a Whig leader passing through the area (or to request boarding). Already you can see that the tale is jumbled. The Tories/British shot Nancy’s prized turkey and ordered it be cooked. She obliged and liquored them up with wine while her daughter, Sukey, acted like she was going to the spring for a bucket of water. In reality, she was signaling to neighbors that enemies had invaded the cabin. After Sukey returned, she helped her mother in surreptitiously sneaking the muskets away from the men. When the men finally caught on, one man lunged at her and she killed him right then and there. She reportedly killed another before her husband and a group of men arrived. Instead of shooting the rest, Nancy wanted them to hang.

Stories of Georgia by Joel Chandler Harris. American Book Company, 1896, p. 78. (Wikimedia)

It’s an awesome story, however, many historians argue that the legend is heavily exaggerated. The only concrete proof of any such incident is the six skeletons unburied by railroad workers in 1912 near the site of the old Hart cabin in Georgia. The true story behind the death of the men is unknown. I’m sure she was still a fascinating character and a badass in her own right, but telling her story gets tricky since we don’t know what is definitive or not.

An even trickier subject is Molly Pitcher. The story goes that she was an artilleryman’s wife fetching buckets of water from a spring for her husband’s crew to dampen the swabs they used to load the cannons while they fought at Take-Your-Pick Battle. When her husband fell down and died next to her, she took his place and worked to fire the cannons. However, the tale of Molly Pitcher is just that. A tale, either an exaggerated one based on a woman named Mary Hays or a composite one of many women who stepped in for their dead husband. In fact, there are dozens of markers in the Northeast that claim to be “Molly Pitcher’s Spring.”

Molly Pitcher (1884) by James E. Kelly, Monmouth Battle Monument, Freehold, New Jersey. (Wikimedia)

This story is similar to that of Margaret Cochran Corbin, or “Captain Molly,” a nickname that didn’t help her distinction from a Molly Pitcher. However, Margaret’s story is unusually well-documented placing her history far away from just a folk hero epic. Her most notable achievement, forgotten by all those who lump her in with the other Molly Pitchers, is that she became the first American woman to receive a congressional soldier’s pension, making her the first official female American soldier.

Margaret was born on November 12, 1751, in Pennsylvania. When she was five, Native Americans attacked their parents’ homestead and killed their father and abducted their mother. At the time of the raid, she and her older brother were visiting their uncle, who would continue to care for them the rest of their childhood.

Margaret married John Corbin in 1772 and they lived quite simply until the Revolution’s start when John enlisted in the First Pennsylvania Regiment of Continental Artillery as a private. Margaret went with him as a camp follower, a common role for wives, who cooked, cleaned and attended to wounds. However, some sources argue that she enlisted in the Regiment under her own name.

Sketch by Herbert Knotel
West Point Museum Art Collection

On November 16, 1776, Margaret was stationed with her husband and an outnumbered army of Continental soldiers at Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan who were defending the fort from nearly four thousand British and Hessian mercenaries. The only hope the Continental Army had for success was shooting their limited cannons at British ships on the Hudson River.

When the gunner John was assisting was killed, John stepped in to man the cannon and Margaret took the place of the assistant, helping John to load and fire the cannon until John was also killed. Immediately, Margaret worked to load, fire and aim the cannon by herself, shooting, some say, so accurately that she attracted too much attention to herself and soon, ten Hessian cannons were trained on her.

A British grapeshot tore at her chest, lacerated her jaw and nearly severed her arm. The Continental Army, with significantly less arm power, was forced to surrender the fort to the British, who took many of the soldiers as prisoners of war. However, they did not detain Margaret, presumably because she was a woman and none of the British officers therefore considered her a legitimate soldier. She was transferred to an army hospital in Philadelphia, though her wounds never fully healed and she lost the use of her left arm for the rest of her life.

Image Credit: Revolutionary War and Beyond

Margaret was awarded $30.00 by the Pennsylvania Executive Council on June 29, 1779, and, a week later, the Continental Congress recognized her contribution and wounds by paying her half the military stipend of a man and giving her a new suit of clothing. It would seem that, had she not been wounded, she would have received no recognition or compensation for her service. This was likely the case for many women who fought before her, however, as the first woman awarded a congressional soldier’s pension, she became the first female American veteran.

Still hoping to serve, she became the only woman to enlist in the Invalid Corps at West Point where she worked with other disabled soldiers to guard and recruit troops. In 1782, Congress denied Margaret’s petition to increase her pension beyond the half-pay. As a consolation, they granted her access to a monthly rum and whiskey ration, overruling the general West Point policy of denying women liquor. She calculated that she had rightfully earned 257 gills of whiskey through her service and produced a bill for the missing rations, which the army eventually paid. The same year, she married a fellow soldier from the Invalid Corps (his name is unknown), however, he passed away the following year around the same time that the Invalid Corps was disbanded after the end of the war.

She had befriended General Henry Knox and Quartermaster William Price during her service, both of whom worried about her ability to take care of herself given her disabilities. They contacted a caretaker in Buttermilk Falls, NY to watch after her and assist with bathing and dressing. She died in 1800 and was buried in an unmarked grave near the Hudson River.

Image Credit: Revolutionary War and Beyond

In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution began a project to track down her remains, reinter them at West Point and honor her memory. They succeeded, or at least they thought they did, until a couple months ago, a reexamination of the bones proved that they instead belonged to a man. (For more information on this discovery, check out the video below.) Though the body remains lost, her legacy as the first woman to officially fight for the United States, but also as one of the first women to fight for equal pay and compensation ought to prevail beyond being lumped in with the rest of the Molly Pitchers whose stories flicker between fact and fiction.