It’s a story that’s in countless textbooks, that’s taught in schools and colleges, and that’s generally accepted as historical fact. But there’s actually no real evidence that a woman named Molly Pitcher went from carrying water to thirsty soldiers to firing a cannon in the stead of her fallen husband. There aren’t even any official records of the woman with the affectionate nickname of Molly Pitcher, and we didn’t even assign her a real name until 100 years after the American Revolution.
It’s a great story that speaks to the determination of the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and the strength of the women that stood beside them. According to the popular story, Mary Ludwig Hays McCarthy was a New Jersey woman who followed her husband into the Battle of Monmouth during the American Revolution. She carried pitchers of water to the front lines to cool the cannons and relieve thirsty men, and the soldiers gave her the affectionate nickname of Molly Pitcher. When her husband died in battle, she supposedly stepped into his spot and continued firing on the British troops.
Only, it’s not true.
This story has long been a part of oral history, and it’s featured in a number of books about the American Revolution. Even school textbooks tell the story of brave Molly Pitcher. The only problem is, the legend only actually dates back to the 1876 Centennial, when Molly Pitcher was assigned a real-life name by a Centennial celebration promoter from Pennsylvania.
So what do we know is true?
There were women at the Battle of Monmouth, as there were women at many of the battles during the American Revolution. These camp followers did exactly that; they followed the men to battle, they cooked, they did the washing, and they cared for the wounded.
And that’s about it. There are no official records of anyone named Mary Ludwig Hays McCarthy being present at the Battle of Monmouth, and there aren’t even any official records of her husband being there (whoever he might have been). There is a Hays in the records, but there are lots of those. And there are McKellys, McCauleys, McKollys, and McCallas living in the Carlisle, Pennsylvania area after the war, but still nothing official.
There are, however, records of a William and Mary Hays living in the area. When Mary was widowed in 1786, she made a living for herself and her son by cleaning and doing laundry. When she died in 1832, no mention was made of Molly Pitcher, her supposed deeds, or the honors that legend says she was bestowed with. (Not to mention, her husband died after the war.)
And there are no first-hand accounts of Molly Pitcher’s actions at the battle, either. There are several accounts, written well after the actual battle, that describe a single woman who picked up a musket and began firing on the opposing troops. No official records exist of the honors she was supposedly granted after her bravery on the front lines, including an honorary military rank.
At Fort Washington, there are first-hand accounts of a woman named Margaret Corbin who stood in for her husband after he was killed at his position by a cannon. But the name Molly Pitcher is never associated with her (in fact, some sources clarify that she’s often confused with the real Molly Pitcher, and they are in no way the same person).
Interestingly, history does tell of a woman named Moll Pitcher who lived around the same time and achieved her popularity in a very different way. According to history and poetry, she was a fortune teller in Massachusetts who would often be consulted by sailors getting ready to leave.