“Fighting is hot work in cool weather, how much more so in such weather as it was on the twenty-eighth of June, 1778.”
Those were the words of Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier of the Revolutionary War as he remembered that day on the Battlefield in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The fighting had been hard and fierce with soldiers on both sides dropping from the terrible heat. It was on this hot summer day that a young woman named Mary Hays McCauley took her place in history. Mary’s story has been told and retold many times since. In fact, it’s been told so many times (and in so many ways), that people have had a hard time agreeing on what did or didn’t happen on that day long ago.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Or, at least what’s most often believed about this woman who came to be known as Molly Pitcher.
Not much is known about her as a child, but Mary may have been born in New Jersey. It was believed her maiden name was Ludwig, but in recent years, historians have decided that may not have been the case. Like many people of her time, Mary couldn’t read or write. This is one reason why there are so many different versions of her story. She wasn’t able to write it down herself, so Mary’s story was passed down by word of mouth, from one generation to the next.
It’s been said that when Mary was just a young girl of about 13 years old, she left the home where she was born and went to work as a house servant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the home of General William Irvine. Mary enjoyed cooking, cleaning and taking care of people—skills that would later prove to be of great value to the men on the battlefield at Monmouth.
It wasn’t too long before the teenaged Mary met a young barber, William Hays, whom she married before the War for Independence began. When William decided to become a soldier in the fight for freedom, he didn’t go off to war alone. Mary decided she would go too.
In fact, Mary wasn’t alone in her decision to go off to war. Mary and many other ladies became what were called “camp followers”. These women would follow their husbands, brothers and fathers into war and helped out any way they could. The camp followers often took on many jobs such as cleaning the soldiers’ clothes, cooking for them (when there was food to be cooked), and taking care of the sick and wounded.
The Battle of Monmouth came after three years of fighting the King’s well-trained British army. At this point in the War for Independence, America’s courageous Continental army had survived long periods without food or a good night’s sleep. They often had to walk many miles to get to their next camp in order to prepare for another battle. Sometimes they marched until their shoes had holes in them, and their clothes were worn and ragged. There were times when they suffered through harsh weather—bitter, cold days at Valley Forge, and now, the unbearable heat on this June day in 1778.
Under the leadership of General Charles Lee and Commander-in-Chief General George Washington, the American forces met the British near Monmouth Courthouse around noon that day. By that time, the temperature had soared to near 100 degrees, and soldiers on both sides struggled against terrible thirst and exhaustion. Mary, who had been at her husband’s side all day, was helping him as he was loading his cannon. She was also running back and forth to a well, or possibly a nearby creek, to bring water in a metal pitcher to the soldiers on the field.
Imagine young Mary, probably very tired and hot herself, running through the battlefield—dodging enemy fire all the while—to bring refreshing water to the weary soldiers! This was definitely an unlikely place to find a young married woman back in those days, yet there she was. She wasn’t known for being a small, delicate girl. In fact, most people described her as short, sturdy and strong.
As the story goes, Mary was busy carrying water and helping her husband William at his cannon, when suddenly he fell (possibly from the heat) and was unable to continue firing his cannon. Seeing another need to be filled, Mary stepped in and took over loading and firing her husband’s cannon for the rest of the day. All the soldiers who saw Mary that day talked about the woman who brought them water and fired her husband’s cannon. Like many war stories, the details changed with every re-telling, as each person remembered Mary’s adventures in a different way.
Many people don’t believe that a woman could do such a thing, but there were those who saw Mary in action. One such person was Joseph Plumb Martin, the soldier mentioned earlier. In his own book that he wrote about the war, Martin says that he saw a woman (he didn’t know her name) working with her husband who was at one of the cannons. He said at one point, a cannonball from the enemy’s side passed straight between the legs of the woman, but it only tore away the bottom part of her petticoat. True to her spunky nature, Mary must not have been a bit scared by what happened, because Martin says she didn’t seem very concerned about it as she continued her work on the battlefield.
Another interesting twist to the story involves George Washington himself. According to his grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, General Washington heard about Mary’s bravery in the battle and he made her an honorary sergeant, which was the same rank her husband held. Representatives at Mount Vernon, however, were unable to verify this information.
You may wonder how Mary came to be called “Molly Pitcher”. There are a few different stories behind that as well, but the most common one is that “Molly” was a nickname Mary received in her childhood. When the men on the battlefield were thirsty, they’d call out, “Molly—pitcher!”, so that she’d know they needed a drink of water.
After the Battle of Monmouth, Mary stayed with her husband for the rest of the war and continued to make herself useful. When the war ended, they moved back to the town of Carlisle, where William went back to being a barber, and Mary went back to doing house work and taking care of children. The couple is even believed to have had their own son, named John. William Hays died in 1787, and a few years later, Mary re-married another Revolutionary War veteran, John McCauley. Some people say this second marriage may not have been a very happy one for Mary. During this time, she kept her own story alive by telling the children in her care about her days as a camp follower and battlefield heroine.
These children, and many of the people of Carlisle knew her as “Sergeant Molly”. That was how most of them remembered her until it seems no one could even recall her real name. Sergeant Molly was certainly a legend in her own time. The citizens of Carlisle came to know her as a kind-hearted woman, even though she was rough and uneducated.
Many years after her heroic acts, Mary Hays McCauley was given a pension by the Pennsylvania state assembly for her own service (apart from her husband’s) in the Revolutionary War. She received this money until she died sometime around the early 1830’s. She is buried in the Old Carlisle Cemetery, and a monument stands there today in her honor.
Even though we may not know all the facts about Mary, we do know that she was an American patriot who stepped in and did things that weren’t expected of her. She was a “revolutionary” woman, who lived a life of service to others—and to her country.
***NOTE: This article was originally written in 2005 for a homeschooling magazine. It was rejected by an editor who had previously asked that it be submitted for an issue on the Revolutionary War. That magazine no longer exists (in fact it’s been gone for years), but this blog continues to grow and has visitors from all over the world. If you’re interested in the resources used to write this, send an email to: email@example.com.