America’s First Woman Wounded Warrior

With Memorial Day just behind us, Flag Day on June 14 and the Fourth of July ahead, it may be a good time to remember America’s first Woman Wounded Warrior.  Although she is often confused with Molly Pitcher, Margaret ‘Captain Molly’ Corbin was a totally different heroine who was almost forgotten by history.  She was born Margaret Cochran on Nov 12, 1751 on the American frontier in western PA  to Irish immigrant Robert Cochran and his wife Sarah.  When Margaret was five years old, her father was killed in an Indian raid and her mother was kidnaped.  Margaret and her brother, John, escaped the raid and went to live with their uncle.

At 21, Margaret married a farmer named John Corbin.  When the American Revolution began, John enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery, a part of what was called ‘the line of Ireland’ by General ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee.  As was common at the time, Margaret accompanied her husband in his enlistment, joining the other women in cooking, washing, and caring for the wounded soldiers.  Margaret’s forceful personality won her the nickname ‘Captain Molly’ from the other women in the camp.

On November 16,1776, while stationed in Fort Washington, NY, the fort was attacked by the Brits.  John Corbin was on a canon crew that was slowly being decimated by enemy fire. When at last John was killed, Margaret sprang into action and began loading and firing the cannon by herself until she was wounded by grapeshot which tore her shoulder, mangled her chest and lacerated her jaw.  The fort was captured by the British, but the wounded Americans were paroled.  They were ferried across the river to Fort Lee and then transported in a jolting wagon all the way to Philadelphia.  Margaret never recovered fully from her wounds and was left without use of her left arm for the rest of her life.  Life was extremely difficult for this wounded warrior since she had no way to earn a living.  She even had trouble bathing and dressing and needed special care.  In June, 1776 the Commonwealth  of Pennsylvania gave her $30.00 to help with expenses in recognition of her bravery, but this didn’t go far.

Margaret had trouble getting along with the local women in town because of her blunt and tactless personality.  They considered her unsophisticated, unfriendly and unclean especially since she spent most of her time at the post smoking her pipe and conversing with soldiers.  The Philadelphia Society of Women planned to erect a monument honoring her as the first heroine of the Battle of New York, but when they met with her they discovered that she was a ‘hard-drinking impoverished veteran’ and cancelled the monument.  It seems the unpolished reality of her personality was unacceptable to the Philadelphia Society of Women

Nevertheless, in 1779 she received unprecedented aid from the government as Congress’s Board of War, impressed with her service and bravery, granted her half the monthly pay of a soldier and an annual clothing allowance.  She was even given a rum ration and the government added in some back pay. With this act, Congress made Margaret Corbin the first woman in the United States to receive a military pension.  She was included on military rolls until the end of the war when she was transferred to the Corps of Invalids, created by Congress for wounded soldiers.  In 1781, the Corps of Invalids became part of the garrison at West Point, NY.  Here, she performed many helpful tasks such as cooking and laundry.  In Major Boynton’s History of West Point, Captain Molly is described as “usually appearing with an artilleryman’s coat over her skirts. She was brusque, coarse, red-haired, wholly wanting in feminine charms, and one of her biographers has recorded that she made use of swear words”  She died in Highland Falls, NY on Jan 16, 1800, at the age of 48.  In an age of Victorian values the smokin’, drinkin’ and cussin’ heroine of the Revolution was hardly the image of an American lady and Captain Molly was soon forgotten.

All the help she received from the government however, clearly indicates how highly her military contemporaries appreciated her acts of bravery. Though she never got her monument in Philadelphia, today three commemorative plaques celebrating her memory can be found in New York’s Fort Tryon Park near the Fort Washington battle site.  One tablet, erected in 1909, commemorates her as “the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty“; the entrance to the park is named Margaret Corbin Circle in her honor.    A large Art Deco mural depicting the battle scene decorates the lobby of a nearby building at 720 Fort Washington Avenue.

In 1926, the 50th anniversary of American independence prompted a search for her forgotten burial site.  Her overgrown grave was finally discovered and her body was exhumed and identified by the wounds she incurred in the war.  The Daughters of the American Revolution had her remains re-buried with full military honors in the West Point Cemetery and erected the Margaret Corbin Memorial, making her the only Revolutionary War veteran honored in this way.  Today, Captain Molly’s grave and memorial can be seen behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point – a tribute to a young Irish-American girl, born on the frontier, who grew to become America’s first woman wounded warrior.