Historical Happenings ─ Margaret ‘Captain Molly’ Corbin
by Mike McCormack AOH NY State Historian
More than 200 guests gathered at the Captain Molly Memorial at West Point’s U.S. Military Academy on 1 May, 2018, for a re-dedication Ceremony. Recent developments revealed that Margaret Corbin was not in fact buried there as had been believed since 1926. After the grave was accidentally disturbed in 2016 by excavators building a wall nearby, the opportunity for forensic testing of the remains presented itself and the tests revealed the remains were of a middle-aged man who lived in the Colonial period. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) who erected the memorial felt that she was too important to be forgotten. With National Military Cemeteries and the US Military Academy a decision was made to schedule a special re-dedication of the monument to Margaret’s valor and celebrate her legacy regardless of where she may be buried. But just who was Captain Molly?
She was born Margaret Cochran in November 1751 on the western PA frontier to Irish immigrant Robert Cochran and his wife Sarah. When just five years old, her father was killed in an Indian raid and her mother was kidnaped. Margaret escaped and was raised by an uncle. At 21, she married farmer John Corbin. When America’s Revolution began, John enlisted in the regiment that General ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee called the ‘Line of Ireland’. As was common at the time, Margaret went with him, joining other women in cooking, washing and caring for the wounded; it was there her dominating personality won her the nickname ‘Captain Molly’. On 16 November 1776, while stationed at Fort Washington, NY, they were attacked by the Brits. John Corbin’s cannon crew was being decimated by enemy fire when 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. After the fort was captured, the wounded were ferried across the river to Fort Lee, then by wagon to Philadelphia.
Margaret never fully recovered from her wounds and was left without the use of her left arm for life which was a terrible blow for a such a previously dynamic Irish-American woman. She had no way to earn a living and even needed help bathing and dressing. In June, 1776 the Commonwealth of PA gave her $30.00 in recognition of her bravery, but that didn’t go far. Then in 1779, impressed with her service, Congress made an unprecedented decision; they granted her a pension of half a soldier’s monthly pay and clothing allowance; she even got a rum ration and some back pay. With this act, Congress made her the first woman to receive an American military pension. At war’s end she was transferred to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, where she helped, as best she could, with cooking and laundry. In Major Boynton’s History of West Point, she is described as ‘appearing with an artilleryman’s coat over her skirts, she was coarse, red-haired, wholly wanting in feminine charms and one of her biographers recorded that used swear words.’ She died in Highland Falls, NY on 16 Jan 1800, at the young age of 48. In 1909 a plaque was set to her memory in Fort Tryon Park near the Fort Washington battle site noting that she was ‘the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the War for Liberty’ and the park entrance was named Margaret Corbin Circle. A large mural depicting her in the battle also decorates the lobby of nearby 720 Fort Washington Avenue.
In 1926, the 50th anniversary of American independence prompted a search for her forgotten burial site. An overgrown grave was discovered and a body exhumed and identified by the wounds she incurred and the DAR had her re-interred with full military honors in the West Point Cemetery and erected the memorial, making her the only Revolutionary War veteran so honored. Despite the recent discovery that she was not really in that grave, the DAR decided to rededicate the memorial to her memory since her story is so important. DAR President Ann Dillon noted: “it epitomizes the very reason our organization was founded”. At the ceremony, Jennifer Minus, New York State Officers Club President said: “It’s important to remember that Margaret Corbin’s life and actions are not folklore; she was an actual woman who lived, fought and was recognized by name in Congressional and War Department records. Military spouse and widow, wounded warrior, prisoner of war and disabled veteran, she remains an inspiration to all who serve.” Colonel Diane Ryan, on behalf of the Military Academy added: “She is not just a role model for female cadets, she is an example to all Americans of what women are capable of when put to the test. Let this monument serve as a reminder to us all.” Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of National Military Cemeteries, followed by saying: “her bravery and legacy as one of the first women to fire an artillery cannon in the defense of our nation, continues to transcend and inspire women in military service even today.”
This story was taken from the New York State 2021 calendar which will be available soon.