Margaret Corbin isn’t a household name. She should be. Born in Pennsylvania, Margaret was orphaned at age five when Native American raiders killed her father and took her mother captive (she never came home). Margaret survived because she was visiting an uncle at the time of the attack. In 1772, she married a Virginia farmer named John Corbin. Three years later, her husband joined the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery for service in the Continental Army. Margaret wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines. She decided to follow her husband to Fort Washington, New York, where she spent her days cooking, doing laundry for soldiers, and tending to the wounded.
On November 16, 1776, 4,000 British and Hessian troops attacked Fort Washington—the last American stronghold on Manhattan. Margaret followed her husband onto the battlefield. Corbin was a matross, which meant he was in charge of loading the cannon. After her husband’s partner was killed, Margaret started loading so her husband could keep firing. Things only went downhill from there. John Corbin was killed instantly when a Hessian bullet struck him in the heart. Did Margaret give in to despair? Nope. She started firing the cannon alone. Other soldiers marveled at her excellent aim. Unfortunately for her, the British and Hessians did too. Desperate to take her out, they soon started targeting her with their cannons. The Battle of Fort Washington ended in a crushing American defeat. Margaret’s cannon was the last one to stop firing.
Once the smoke cleared, Margaret was found in critical condition on the battlefield. She was wounded in the chest and jaw and her left arm was almost severed. Her fellow soldiers took her to a hospital in Philadelphia, but she never fully recovered from her injuries (she was unable to use her arm for the rest of her life). She later joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point.
Margaret’s injuries made it difficult for her to bathe and dress herself. On 26 June 1776, the state of Pennsylvania awarded her $30.00 in recognition of her bravery. Since this wasn’t enough for her to retire to a life of luxury, Margaret stayed at West Point until her death in 1800. According to contemporary accounts, her favorite pastimes included smoking her pipe and chatting with the soldiers. In 1779, Margaret received a lifetime disability pension of one-half pay from the Continental Congress—making her the first woman in U.S. history to receive a pension from Congress for military service. In 1782, she married a fellow wounded soldier. Sadly, he died a year later. Still struggling to pay the bills, she requested a rum ration—which was often given to soldiers. The government approved her request. Although she resented the fact that she had only been granted half-pay, she was happy about the rum.
Margaret wasn’t a stranger to controversy. During her tenure at West Point, she was called “Captain Molly by the locals, but Dirty Kate behind her back.” According to the National Woman’s History Museum, the Philadelphia Society of Women had planned to erect a monument honoring Corbin soon after the battle. “However, when they met with her they discovered that she was a rough woman who was poor and drank too much and decided to cancel the monument,” the museum notes. Although she never got her monument, three commemorative plaques honoring the Revolutionary war heroine can be found in the area near the Fort Washington battle site.
In 1926, her story resurfaced when the New York Daughters of the American Revolution found her records in the West Point archive. Determined to find her grave, the DAR enlisted the help of a retired riverboat captain who claimed that his grandfather helped with the burial in 1800. On April 14, 1926, Margaret’s remains were re-interred with full military honors at the cemetery of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Weird fact: Margaret Corbin is often confused with another Revolutionary War heroine, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. Both women helped inspire the legend of “Molly Pitcher.”
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