Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Today, American women are barred by law from most combat roles, but they have played a part in battle since the American Revolu­tion, a tradition that continued through the Civil War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam Conflict, the invasion of Panama in 1989 and, most recently, the Persian Gulf War. During the Civil War, at least four hundred women – those actually caught and counted – posed as soldiers, many of them as spies on either side. How many others fought and died, or survived undetected, will never be known. In this century, more than two hundred women serving in World War II were killed by enemy fire. The names of eight women are chiseled in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the nation’s capital. In 1989, Capt. Linda Bray led a platoon of military police in a battle in Panama. For more than two centuries, women have taken part in wars and conflicts, a tradition that began with the War for Independence.

Many women, in fact, have served in capacities not directly related to combat. Some acted as spies and secret couriers. Many more served on the home front, supporting the military services. Their roles and tasks on the home front have changed from war to war, and as technology has evolved. In the eighteenth century, women made clothing and provided food, while in the present century they have worked on factory assembly lines (see “No Summer Solstice: War Stories of the Home Front Survivors” by Catherine Quillman in the fall 1993 edition).

The stories of women who served on battlefields during the Revolutionary War are, perhaps, the best known, but many others aided the American cause by collecting funds, caring for the wounded and sick, making clothing, and carrying messages. Unlike those who participated in combat, they remain unsung and largely unknown.

Even the best-known stories about these stalwart soldiers have not been accurately documented. When Americans recall the women who served in combat, they invariably call to mind Molly Pitcher, imagining a solitary heroine, a brave woman who lugged pails of water and helped load cannon with ammuni­tion at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Actually, the term Molly Pitcher is similar in meaning to the designation “G. I. Joe.” As most everyone realizes, G. I. Joe (literally “Government Issue Joe”) is no one in particular, but a reference to any infantryman, the typical foot soldier who served in the U.S. Army during and after World War I. Although most Americans recognize Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley as the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth – the legendary Molly Pitcher – they probably fail to realize that there were many Molly Pitchers, just as there were many G. I. Joes.

Historian Linda Grant DePauw, director of the Minerva Center for the Study of Women and the Military, Washington, D. C., discovered that there was a category of organized female participation in the Continental Army, referred to by George Wash­ington himself as “Women of the Army.” DePauw believes that the number of male soldiers who served at some time during the war’s eight years ranges from one hun­dred thousand to more than two hundred and thirty thousand. She estimates that the Women of the Army numbered twenty thousand. (Those who made clothing, nursed the sick and the wounded, and served behind the lines of fire are not included in this number.)

DePauw has concluded that in his reference to the Women of the Army, General Washington meant women whose regular duties included the support of the medical corps, the artillery, and the infantry in combat areas, and who carried out routinely assigned duties, such as helping to supply ammunition, food, and provisions, tending to the wounded on the battlefield, and swabbing (or cooling) cannon. They were mostly wives of soldiers, and they received compensation if accompanied by children. Even some of the older children were given specific assignments.

That these women sewed, cooked, and washed for their husbands was generally assumed, but this was not the reason the Continental Army employed them. They differed distinctly from civilians labeled “camp followers” in European armies of the day; Washington’s forces could not have been accompanied by camp followers because his soldiers were so poor and so seldom paid that there was little, if any, money to be made from them.

A few accounts of the activities of the Women of the Army have survived, although they are largely symbolic and mythical. Many women who aided the cause outside the combat zone collected funds, cared for the sick and the wounded, made clothing, and carried messages. Unfortunately, for the most part their stories have eluded historians.

Part of the folklore of women who took part in combat is misunderstood. Legends tell of courageous women who carried water for the men in battle. However, any woman who gave water to a soldier would have been sternly rebuked for Washington’s Continental Army feared “cold water disease,” the heat stroke that killed young soldiers who had drunk cold water. Soldiers drank grog, rum diluted with water, but not water alone. Water was essential for swabbing out cannon, which had to be cleared of sparks before reloading. Women hauled pails of water for the cannon – not for the men.

Women posed as men to enlist as soldiers in the War for Independence just as they did in later conflicts. Samuel Gay was “Discharged being a woman, dressed in mens cloths,” in August 1777. For three years, Deborah Sampson served in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. In her first attempt to join the unit, she wore male garb to the makeshift recruiting office at the home of Israel Wood. After drinking heavily that evening at a local tavern, Sampson was recognized by an elderly woman who witnessed her recruitment. On her second attempt to enlist on May 20, 1782, she used her stepbrother’s name, Robert Shurtleff, and bribed the recruitment officer. As a member of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Sampson fought in the Battle of Tarrytown, New York, and volunteered for a reconnaissance foray to East Chester. Wounded, she lied to a surgeon and secretly treated herself to prevent an examination and, ultimately, detection. An army doctor later discovered her real gender while treating her for fever. For her valor, she was given an honorable discharge in 1783 by Gen. Henry Knox.

Two of the most famous members of the Women of the Army are Pennsylvania heroines Margaret Cochran Corbin and Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley.

Mary Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751, in what today is Franklin County, the daughter of Robert Cochran, a Scotch-Irish pioneer. In 1756, while she was away from home, Indians killed her father and carried off her mother, and she was raised by an uncle. In 1772, she married John Corbin, who enlisted in the American forces and served as a matross (the artillery’s equivalent of a private). Margaret Corbin accompanied John in his service with the First Company of Pennsylvania Antillery, carried water to swab the cannon and, in doing so, fought by his side.

On November 16, 1776, Hessian forces attacked Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, which the Americans defended. The fort’s cannon fired volleys so rapidly that observers remarked that the American soldiers appeared to be possessed by demons. John Corbin’s artillery company was defending a ridge later named Fort Tryon. On that day his wife stood by his side and passed ammunition to load the cannon. The Hessians’ fire fatally wounded John Corbin, but Margaret had little time to grieve as the enemy continued the assault. The First Company of Pennsylvania Antillery needed Margaret’s help more than her dying husband needed her care and comfort. She immediately sensed the urgent call to duty and filled John’s post as a cannon operator. Soldiers noted that Margaret Cochran Corbin served ably with “skill and vigor.”

For cannon ammunition, the Hessians fired grape shot, small iron balls linked together by chains. One round cut through the defenses and hit Margaret, tearing away part of her breast and nearly severing her arm. At the battle’s end, soldiers took Margaret across the Hudson River to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she received medical care and partially recovered from her injuries. When well enough to travel, she moved to Philadelphia where she continued her lengthy recuperation. Because of her disabling injuries, Margaret was eligible to become an original member of an invalid regiment that Congress created on June 20, 1777. The unit’s mission was to provide care for disabled and crippled soldiers.

Two years later, on June 29, 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania allocated a stipend of thirty dollars to Margaret Corbin “to relieve her present necessities.” In addition, Council members recommended that the Board of War award her a pension. Barely a week passed before Congress received a letter from the Board of War affirming the Supreme Executive Council’s recommendation. When the letter was presented to Congress, legislators granted Margaret, for the rest of her life, one-half a soldier’s pay, as well as a complete outfit of clothing. By this act, Congress pensioned the first female military veteran in American history!

Margaret Cochran Corbin died in New York’s Hudson Highlands in 1800. In 1909, Americans recognized her contributions with the placement and dedication of a tablet at Fort Washington Avenue and Corbin Place in New York City. She was honored as the “first woman to take a soldier’s part in the war for liberty.” A century and a half after her heroic act, admirers reinterred Margaret’s remains at the post cemetery on the grounds of the United States Military Academy at West Point on March 16, 1926. A few weeks later, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument near her final resting place.

A woman living in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, also fought on the bloody battlefield of the War for Independence. Mary Ludwig was born near Trenton, New Jersey, in 1754. In early 1769, she left New Jersey for Carlisle, a central Pennsylvania county seat, to serve as a domestic servant in the home of a physician, William Irvine. Shortly after her arrival in Carlisle, she married John Caspar Hays, a local barber.

On December 1, 1775, John Caspar Hays decided to serve his country and enlisted in Thomas Proctor’s First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery. After two years of service, in January 1777, he reenlisted as a member of the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment. The following year, Dr. Irvine, Mary’s employer, took command of the regiment. During John’s first two years of service, his wife remained in Carlisle. Upon his joining the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, however, she left Carlisle and joined him at the unit’s New Jersey encampment. Like many others called “Molly Pitcher,” Mary played a critical role in camp; she and washed nursed clothes, cooked meals and nursed sick soldiers.

Gen. George Washington led his army to victory over the British on June 28, 1778, at Monmouth, New Jersey. It was not an easy victory. During the encounter, Mary lugged buckets of water from nearby springs to swab out the cannon. While on one of her water runs she spotted John falling to the ground, either wounded or exhausted from the heat and battle. As an artilleryman, John loaded the cannon, and without him it could not be fired. His wife realized the enormity of the situation and quickly took John’s place. For the duration of the battle, she – as had many women before her – loaded the cannon and helped the American forces secure the victory.

Both John and Mary Hays survived the war and returned to Carlisle. After John’s death, Mary married John McCauley, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, in 1792. On February 21, 1822, the state legislature acknowledged her patriotism with an act “for the relief of Molly M’Kolly, for her services during the revolutionary war” and awarded her a forty dollar annuity. Mary died on January 22, 1832, and was buried in Carlisle’s Old Graveyard. In 1905, a cannon and flagstaff were added to her burial site, followed by the erection of a state monument less than ten years later. In New Jersey, on the battleground at Monmouth, a handsome bronze bas-relief depicts a barefooted Mary at a cannon, with a pail of water nearby.

Margaret Cochran Corbin and Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley are the two Molly Pitchers whose stories, fortunately, have been recorded for posterity. Although each is frequently identified as Molly Pitcher (as well as “Captain Molly”), each is representative of the thousands of women who roamed the battlefields during the War for Independence. Because both served in combat, their stories are recounted as footnotes in history books. The stories of other women – those who served on the home front – are more often than not com­pletely ignored or forgotten.

Some women, for instance, are known to have served as spies during the American Revolution. Lydia Barrington Darragh and her husband William lived in 1777 at “the corner of Dock Street, in Second at the Blue House,” in Philadelphia. When the British occupied Philadelphia, Gen. William Howe set up head­quarters in the Cadwalader house directly opposite the Darragh residence. Tales of Lydia’s spy mission vary, but according to her daughter Ann, the upper back room of the Darragh house was occasionally used by British officers for staff meetings. Such a meeting took place on December 2, 1777, and the Darraghs were ordered to remain in bedrooms. Lydia was curious – her son was serving with the American forces – and she crouched by a door, listening to the proceedings. She heard mention of Whitemarsh, where General Washington and his troops had retreated after the Battle of Brandywine. Lydia scrawled some notes: General Howe was leaving the following day for Whitemarsh with five thou­sand soldiers, thirteen can.non, eleven boats mounted on wagon wheels, and baggage wagons. On the day the British forces were to move, Lydia told her husband that she had to buy flour at Pearson’s Mill in Frankford, southeast of Whitemarsh.

Accounts differ as to how Lydia Darragh actually penetrated the lines separating the opposing forces. Either she relied on an order issued by Howe’s headquarters that women needed no passes through the lines between eight o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon, or she carried a pass cleverly (if not covertly) obtained from the British headquarters. She trudged about five miles, in snow, to Pearson’s Mill. One account holds that she depos­ited empty flour sacks at the mill and then met Lieut. Col. Thomas Craig, charged with the defense of Frankford, who immediately relayed her information to Washington. In another version, Lydia is reported to have carried a sack of flour from Frankford to the Rising Sun Tavern, and there met Elias Boudinot, American commissioner for the exchange of prisoners, who would have speedily informed Washington.

Historians contend that there is reason to believe that Lydia Barrington Darragh’s is merely the only documented story of one of a group of female informants, for on December 2, Capt. Robert Smith at Germantown reported to headquarters that “some ladies that go out [from Philadelphia] by special favor say as the accts from British officers are to be attended to a movement [which] will take place tomorrow morning.” When the British approached Whitemarsh, they found Washington so well prepared that they returned to Philadel­phia without engaging him in battle.

Washington chose Ann Simpson Davis of Bucks County to carry messages to his generals while the army was stationed in eastern Pennsylvania. An accom­plished horsewoman – and because she had Tory neigh­bors – Ann was able to slip through areas occupied by the British. She carried secret orders hidden in sacks of grain to mills around Philadelphia and Bucks County. She sometimes carried messages in bullet cartridges or in her clothes. She was never caught, although on one terrifying occasion she was searched and had to swallow her secret message.

In addition to the combat­ants and spies, women served as support staff for the Continental Army. Some made clothing, others brought supplies, and still more cared for the sick. Their stories remain neglected, their contributions unsung.

Following the encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, during the bitter winter of 1779-1780 the Revolutionary cause faced an equally bleak spring. Economic chaos reigned, jealousies divided units and shattered friend­ships, resignations in Washington’s officers corps ran rampant, and at times it seemed that the army could only survive by looting civilian property. The fall of Charles­ton, South Carolina, to the British on May 28, 1780, seemed to foreshadow further military defeat and misfortune. In Philadelphia, an association for soliciting private financial contributions to purchase clothing for the soldiers was formed by women. Esther De Berdt Reed, wife of Pennsylva­nia patriot Joseph Reed, led the organization until her death in September 1780. On July 4 of that year she apprised Washington of her progress.

The Subscriptions set on foot by the Ladies of this City for the use of the Soldiery is so far completed as to induce me to transmit to your Excelly, an account of the Money I have received, and which, altho it has answered our Expectations, it does not equal our Wishes but 1 am persuaded will be as proof of our Zeal for the great Cause of America, and of our Esteem and Gratitude for those who so bravely defend it.

She sent more than two hundred thousand dollars in paper currency and six hundred and twenty-five pounds in specie.

The association – members of which assembled at Esther Reed’s house to spin, sew, and knit clothing for the soldiers­ – eventually spread to six states. On Esther’s death, Sarah Franklin Bache (daughter of Benjamin and Deborah Reed Franklin) assumed leadership of the association, aided by Susan Shippen Blair, Mary Clarkson, and Anne Francis. At Washington’s suggestion, they used their own money to purchase material and make two thousand shirts for the soldiers. From his temporary headquarters at New Windsor, New York, Gen. George Washington dispatched a missive to Susan Blair, thanking the Association members for their generosity.

I had the pleasure, a few days ago, of receiving your favor of the 8th: inst. I am to thank you, in behalf of the Army, for the trouble you have taken in prosecuting the very benevolent business begun by the late worthy and amiable Mrs. Reed …. I have a sum of money which was sent to me by the Ladies of Trenton, and which I shall take the liberty of forwarding to you by the first safe opportu­nity, with a request to dispose of it in the same manner of the donation of the Ladies of Pennsylvania.

The following month, on January 15, 1781, Washington wrote, again from New Windsor, to Sarah Bache.

I pray you now to be per­suaded, that a sense of the Patriotic Exertions of yourself and the Ladies who have fur­nished so handsome and useful a gratuity for the Army, at so critical and severe a season, will not easily be effaced, and that the value of the donation will be greatly enhanced by a consider­ation of the hands by which it was made and presented. Amidst the distress and sufferings of the Army, whatever sources they have arisen, it must be a consola­tion to our Virtuous Country Women that they have never been accused of with holding their most zealous efforts to support the cause we are engaged in, and encourage those who are defend­ing them in the field.

On February 13, Washington wrote yet another letter of thanks to Anne Francis, Henrietta Hillegas, Mary Clarkson, Susan Blair, and Sarah Bache.

Unknown to many­ – including knowledgeable students and astute scholars of Pennsylvania history – are the thousands of women who helped the American cause in innumerable ways. During the famous winter 1777-1778 encampment at Valley Forge (see “The Apotheosis of George Washington: America’s Cincinnatus and the Valley Forge Encampment” by William C. Kashatus III in the winter 1994 issue), Eliza­beth Myer Reily of Lancaster made clothing and sent food to Washington’s haggard Continental Army. Margaret Murray Simpson and her Bristol neighbors and friends supplied food and made clothing. Mary Worall Taylor Frazer of Thornbury Town­ship, Chester County, provided more than three hundred pairs of stockings to the soldiers, in addition to collecting food, blankets, and clothing. Carlisle’s Sarah Haines Irvine and her neigh­bors spun and wove clothing and made food. Alice Erwin Johnston of Philadelphia collected and sent supplies. According to one account, Lydia Barnes Potter “spun and wove the wool and cut and made the garments, learning the tailor’s trade that she might more expeditiously supply the soldiers’ needs. She worked so unremittingly at her task, standing continu­ously in a half-bent position over her cutting table, that she was never able to stand upright.”

But the Valley Forge encampment was not the only event around which Pennsylvania’s women rallied.

Jean Murray Watts lived on a farm in what is present-day Perry County a long the Juniata River. She and her neighbors made clothing for soldiers. Rebecca Lyon Armstrong of Carlisle organized a group of women that made clothes for the soldiers, the first in Pennsylvania. Sarah Richardson Atlee provided food, as well as financial help. Bethlehem’s Liesel Beckel, a Moravian, nursed the Marquis de Lafayette in fall 1777 as he recovered from a wound he had suffered during the Battle of Brandywine. Elizabeth Depui Broadhead of Reading cared for wounded soldiers who had returned home after battle. Sarah Shippen Burd of Tinian, located on the Susquehanna River six miles below Harris Ferry (now Harrisburg), lived on a large plantation and had slaves make clothes for soldiers. Sarah Simpson Cooke of Northumberland converted her house into a hospital for wounded soldiers in 1778, in addition to caring for widows and orphaned children. Martha Hoge McKee of Butler and her neighbors spun flax to make material for clothing. In Lebanon, Rosina Kucher Orth and fellow sympathizers made clothing. Margery Hannum Gibbons, living in Chester County, smuggled money and provisions to American prisoners kept in Philadelphia.

And there do survive a few precious stories that reveal not only the contributions that women made, but their sheer bravery as well.

Mary Richardson Biddle, a Philadelphia resident, was a good friend of Martha Wash­ington. After food was stolen from the American troops in summer 1777, she ordered a servant to buy provisions with her own money, prepared it, and gave it to the soldiers. The same year General Howe seized the residence of Philadelphian Mary Phillips Bull – whose husband John was serving as a colonel in the First Pennsylvania Battalion­ – and showered her with promises. “Madam,” he told her, “if you will send or write to your husband and prevail upon him to join us, I will take you to England, present you to the king and queen. You shall have a pension and live in style.” Mary Phillips Bull stood firm. “General, my husband would despise me, and I should despise myself if I did so.” Hessian troops confiscated what had not been given to the American soldiers and burned the fields sur­rounding the Bull homestead. They also set a fire in the building’s cellar, which Mary was able to extinguish. In October, Ann Swent Drinker of Philadelphia was asked to care for a wounded British officer. She refused. However, she did suggest that his soldiers entrust him to the care of one of the nearby Presbyterian meetinghouses that had been converted into a make­shift hospital.

Today, too few realize that women actually took part in combat during the American Revolution and even fewer recognize the sacrifices and contributions made by many more throughout Pennsylva­nia. In their homes and on their farms, they worked swiftly and valiantly to support the colonies’ quest for independence. They have earned a legitimate place in the nation’s history. Remember the ladies. They served too.


For Further Reading

Bolton, Charles Knowles. The Private Soldier Under Washington. London: G. Newnes, Ltd., 1902.

Bowman, Allen. The Morale of the American Revolutionary Army. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1964.

Claghorn, Charles E. Women Patriots of the American Revolution: A Biographical Dictionary. Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Cooper, Helen M., Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier, eds. Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Military Representation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

DePauw, Linda Grant. “Women in Combat: The Revolutionary War Experience.” Armed Forces and Society. 7, 2 (Winter 1981).

Egle, William Henry. Some Pennsylvania Women During the War of the Revolution. Baltimore: Genealogical Publish­ing Company, inc., 1993.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, and Sheila Tobias, eds. Women, Milita­rism, and War: Essays in History, Politics, and Social Theory. Savage, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990.

Enloe, Cynthia H. Does Khaki Become You? The Militariza­tion of Women’s Lives. Boston: South End Press, 1983.

Ganoe, William Addleman. The History of the United States Army. New York: D. Appleton­Century Company, Inc., 1943.

Hassler, Warren W. With Shield and Sword: American Military Affairs, Colonial Times to the Present. Ames: Iowa State University, 1982.

Heller, Charles E., and William A. Stofft. America’s First Battles, 1776-1965. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

Howes, Ruth H., and Michael R. Stevenson, eds. Women and the Use of Military Force. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993.

Montrose, Lynn. Rag, Tag, and Bobtail: The Story of the Continental Army, 1775-1783. New York: Harper and Row, 1952.

Peterson, Harold Leslie. Arms and Armor in Colonial America, 1526-1783. Harrisburg: Stackpole Company, 1956.

Stuart, Reginald C. War and American Thought: From the Revolution to the Monroe Doctrine. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982.

Thompson, D. W., and Merri Lou Schaumann. “Goodbye, Molly Pitcher.” Cumberland County History. 6, 1 (Summer 1989).

Wilbur, C. Keith. Picture Book of the Continental Soldier. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1969.

Williams, Christine L. Gender Differences at Work: Women and Men in Nontradi­tional Occupations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.


Chadwick Allen Harp, a native of Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania, is a writer and novelist, and a first year student at the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Cumberland County. He received his bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in 1989. His articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Arizona Republic, Washington Times, Montgom­ery Advertiser, and Tampa Review. His article entitled “The Tax Collector of Bower Hill” appeared in the fall 1992 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.