When one thinks of the ‘Revolutionary War,’ it is natural to recall the stirring renditions of its various battles & participants, but such recollections generally invoke famous officers and soldiers, not female heroines.
Though there are many women of the Revolutionary Era, that are somewhat familiar to the general public, who served directly or indirectly in a martial capacity, such as the famed ‘Molly Pitcher’ (Mary Hays McCauly) or Deborah Samson Gannett, too few today remember the life and sacrifice of ‘Captain Molly,’ or Margaret Cochran Corbin, who would become the first woman in American history, to receive a pension for military service.
Edward Hagaman Hall’s 1932 biography of Corbin, ‘Margaret Corbin: Heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, 16 November 1776,’ is not currently required reading in college texts, and though she continues to appear in editions of the well-respected Dictionary of American Biography, for the most part, this native Pennsylvanian is poorly remembered or completely ignored.
In 1751, Margaret Cochran Corbin was not born into a life of luxury and ease, but on the frontier in what was then, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania where she became an orphan at the age of five. In June of 1756, during the ‘French & Indian’ or ‘Seven Years War,’ her father Robert Cochran, a Scot-Irish settler was killed and scalped during the ‘Ft. Bigham Massacre’ in the Tuscarora Valley, while Jane her mother, along with her brother, were also taken captive by the Indians during the same attack and never returned.
Raised by a maternal uncle, Margaret would eventually marry a John Corbin from Virginia, who would enlist in the artillery at the opening of the Revolutionary War, in Capt. Thomas Proctor’s unit of the ‘Pennsylvania Continental Line,’ which was engaged in battle against the British forces on November 16, 1776 at Fort Washington, New York.
While manning his cannon, John Corbin was killed during the above conflict by Hessian forces, thus leaving his wife Margaret a widow, who was present at his side, to ‘man’ the gun herself and continue the efforts of her deceased husband. The ‘Minutes of the Supreme Executive Council’ for Pennsylvania, as found in Vol.12 of the Colonial Records, dated June 29, 1779 records the following:
“And in favor of Margaret Corbin, for Thirty Dollars, to relieve her present necessities, she having been wounded and utterly disabled by three grape shott, while she filled with distinguished Bravery the post of her Husband, who was killed by her side, serving a piece of Artillery at Fort Washington.
Ordered, That the case of Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and utterly disabled at Fort Washington, while she heroically filled the post of her husband, who was killed by her side…be recommended to a further consideration of the Board of War, This Council being of opinion, that notwithstanding the rations which have been allowed her, she is not Provided for as her helpless situation really requires.” (p.34-35)
Margaret Cochran Corbin eventually was enrolled within the ‘Invalid Regiment,’ and on July 6, 1779, Congress voted that,
“during her natural life or the continuance of said disability the one-half of the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in the service of these states…and now….one complete suit of clothes, or the value thereof in money” (see, Journals of the Continental Congress, XIV: 805; Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV: 1938, p. 438).
After the Revolution, Margaret was living with a second husband at Highland Falls, New York, near the Hudson River, and passed away on January 16, 1800. In 1926 her remains were disinterred, the surgeon of the West Point Hospital, verifying that her skeleton bore the evidence “that her shoulder and breast were badly bruised and battered” as history attested. Her remains were taken to West Point where they were reinterred, and a granite memorial with a bronze tablet erected over her grave. As stated on the marker:
“In Appreciation of her Deeds for the Cause of Liberty, and that her Heroism may not be forgotten, her dust was removed to this spot and this Memorial erected by THE NATIONAL SOCIETY OF THE DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, IN NEW YORK STATE, 1926.”
As we commemorate ‘Women’s History Month,’ during March, let us not forget the many sacrifices and hardships that women endured, some who are now forgotten or are barely-known and remembered, such individuals like Margaret Cochran Corbin, a Pennsylvanian, but most importantly, an American heroine.