True Boots: Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin

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Grave marker for Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin at the U.S. Military Academy cemetery.

On a visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I found the grave of Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin, the first U.S. female combat veteran to receive pay and a pension for her war service and the debilitating wounds she incurred in battle.  She served during the American Revolutionary War.

As a young child in Pennsylvania, Margaret was orphaned in a raid by Indians who killed her father and abducted her mother, who was never seen again.  She was raised by an uncle, and as a young woman met John Corbin, a farmer from Virginia, whom she married.  Within a few short years John enlisted in the Pennsylvania militia, and Margaret, as many wives did, followed her husband to war.

By November 1776, Gen. Washington’s Continental Army struggled to keep a foothold in New York City, vastly outnumbered by the thousands of British and Hessian troops commanded by Gen. William Howe.  After a sweeping victory in Boston in April, Washington had rushed to protect the vital port and commercial center of New York City, digging in to defend Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Washington sought to recruit more volunteers for his outnumbered, out-resourced Army, and the hundreds of volunteers who came to fight without their own muskets were transferred to the artillery.

One of the forts established in Manhattan was Fort Washington, on the highest point of Manhattan in what is now Washington Heights.  This is where John Corbin, Margaret’s husband, was assigned an artilleryman as the brutal fight for New York unfurled.  By November 1776, after months of the heaviest fighting yet seen in North America, a mere three thousand Americans remained to defend Fort Washington against the onslaught of five thousand British soldiers and three thousand Hessian mercenaries approaching by both land and sea.

As part of Fort Washington’s fortifications, a small battery had been placed atop a redoubt called Forest Hill.  There, John Corbin served as a matross, a footsoldier acting as an assistant gunner, loading and sponging the cannon.  Margaret Corbin, his wife of three years, was a camp follower–a common role for women who helped with cooking, sewing, and tending to the sick and wounded.  Isolated on Forest Hill, Margaret grew to become a part of the unit, and by the time the Hessians began firing on them, she knew fully what each man’s role was to operate the cannons.

Corbin’s compatriots launched heavy cannon fire on the Hessians as they tried over and over to charge up Forest Hill.  But the Hessians drew closer, killing American artillerymen.  The gunner on John’s cannon was shot, and so John quickly took on the role of the gunner–and Margaret took over John’s role as matross.  John and Margaret fired repeatedly at the Hessians, until John himself fell in the gunfire.  The Hessians took a heavy toll on Forest Hill’s artillerymen, and the cannons began falling silent.  But not the Corbin cannon.  After John was killed, Margaret sponged, loaded, and fired the gun herself, and witnesses later attested that Margaret’s gun was the last to fall silent on Forest Hill, and only after she’d been struck by three musket balls and mangled by grapeshot, leaving severe wounds in her jaw and chest, and nearly severing her left arm.

At the end of the battle, British and Hessians took more than 2,800 Americans prisoner, a vast number of whom were doomed to die of starvation and neglect on prison ships floating in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn.  Fifty-nine Americans were killed in battle, and ninety-six wounded were moved on wagons to receive medical help.  Many severely wounded on the battlefield were met with bayonets.  Margaret Corbin was counted as none of these–perhaps because the British and Hessians didn’t know what to do with a severely wounded woman, they left her for dead next to her husband.  She was later discovered by a doctor searching the battlefield looking for survivors.  He gave her immediate help, then put her on a wagon that carried her more than 100 miles to Philadelphia, where she could receive surgery and long-term treatment.  Around this time, the state of Pennsylvania paid her $30 for her service in the state’s regiment and to help with her recovery.

Margaret survived, but would never recover from her wounds.  Her left arm was lifeless, and her other wounds left her in pain and unable to bathe or dress herself.  The story of her dogged fighting and miraculous survival at Forest Hill spread through the veterans community in the months and years that followed, and in 1779 the Board of War, appointed by the Continental Congress, checked in on her and saw firsthand that she was living in squalor and needed help.  They awarded her half a soldier’s monthly pay for the rest of her life, making her the first woman to receive a military pension in the emerging United States of America.  The Board of War wrote of Margaret:

As she had the fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband after his fall in the service of his country, and in the execution of that task received the dangerous wound under which she now labors, the board can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate.

She was issued a suit of clothes, and soon thereafter she entered the Invalid Regiment at West Point, which became part of the garrison.  In 1783, she was discharged from the Continental Army.  Yet after the war’s end and her discharge, she could scarcely regain normalcy.  She moved to Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) just outside of West Point, but she had crossed over into a life where she was known as “Captain Molly,” a short-tempered, unkempt, hard drinking woman who preferred smoking her pipe with fellow veterans than any role considered socially appropriate for women.

Hearing of Margaret’s heroism in the Battle of New York, the Philadelphia Society of Women decided to visit Buttermilk Falls with the idea of erecting a monument in her honor.  After a shocking meeting with this one-armed, disheveled, abrupt war veteran, the society women cancelled the project.  Margaret Corbin died just before her 49th birthday, and was interred along the Hudson River in a modestly marked grave, mostly forgotten by America.  It wasn’t until 1929 that the Daughters of the American Revolution located her grave, and her remains were relocated to West Point and buried with full military honors.

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