3) Sargeant Molly
For all of their spirit, almost without exception American women warriors come on stage briefly, perform their noble act, and return to obscurity. Their legends transform them into selfless, high-minded daughters of the Revolution, but their records betray them.
In the case of Mollie Pitcher, even her real name is lost to the national imagination. Mary Ludwig was the daughter of John George Ludwig Hass, who apparently dropped his last name after emigrating from the Palatinate in 1730. She was born on a small dairy farm near Trenton, New Jersey, on October 13, 1754. A rough, unlettered country-girl, she went as a servant of Dr. William Irvine to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she married a barber, John Casper Hays on July 24, 1769. When the fighting broke out, John enlisted and served a year in the first Pennsylvania Regiment of Artillery, while Mary remained in Carlisle. In 1776 he reenlisted in the seventh Pennsylvania Regiment; this time Mary followed the camps.
John was detailed with the artillery at the Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778. The day was terrifically hot and while John served with his battery, Mollie went back and forth from a well or spring, bringing water to the exhausted and wounded, thus earning the generic title “Mollie Pitcher.” In the fighting–which proved indecisive–John fell–some say exhausted in the 100-degree heat, some that he was wounded, others that he was mortally wounded, and still others that he was struck dead. An officer ordered John’s gun to the rear, according to most accounts, when Mary Ludwig stepped up to take her husband’s place. Barber and Howe in the Historical Collections of New Jersey give Molly a speech nearly worthy of Addison’s Cato: “No, the cannon shall not be removed for want of someone to serve it; since my brave husband is no more I will use my utmost exertions to avenge his death.” If she said anything, it is more likely to be the lines Curtis gives her in his Recollections: “Lie there, my darling, while I revenge ye,” she declares to the fallen John.
At least one account has General Greene present her to Washington, who, in recognition of her service, gives her a gold piece and commissions her “Sergeant Molly”; however, all that is known definitely is that she returned to Carlisle after John’s death (probably in 1789) and married a drunk named George McCauley. She took a job scrubbing for soldiers stationed nearby, and Miss Caroline Eye of Carlisle recalled that she drank, swore, “smoked, and chewed tobacco.” A society of patriotic Philadelphia ladies planned a monument to Mollie but abandoned the design when they discovered her character was none of the best.
Nor is anyone likely to raise a monument to Deborah Samson, our most ambiguous daughter of the Revolution, who served one and a half years as a common soldier in the Continental Army disguised as a man. Born in Plympton, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, in 1760, Deborah was a tall, horse-faced girl whose father was a sailor lost at sea in 1765. Her mother was penniless and farmed the children out among friends and relatives. At the age of ten, she became an indentured servant of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleboro, in whose household she learned to read and write well enough to teach grammar school part-time. Early in 1782, for whatever motives it is impossible to say, Deborah borrowed a suit of clothes from a townsman and enlisted in the Continental army as Timothy Thayer. She took her bounty fee for enlisting–probably $100 in nearly worthless paper money–and repaired with the other heroes to a tavern nearby. The effects of her first exposure to rum were predictable and Deborah blew her cover. She was drummed out before she got fairly well started. One account adds that she was also drummed out of the local Baptist church for her “very loose and un-Christian-like behavior.”
In May of 1782, Deborah made a more careful attempt to serve her country: she bound her breasts in a bandage, donned a suit of men’s clothes, and hiked 75 miles to Worcester, where she became Private Robert Shurtleff of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of foot. Though Yorktown had been won in the fall of 1781, there was a good deal of skirmishing in Westchester County, north of New York City, and Deborah saw action on at least two occasions and passed as an able soldier. Deborah was wounded twice in battle, once by a saber-cut in the head, and once by a musket-ball in the thigh–that wound she was compelled to clean and dress herself. How Deborah managed things in camp is anyone’s guess–her biographers without exception avoid this knotty point.
Mrs. Ellet feels that “there is no reason to believe that any consideration foreign to the purest patriotism, impelled her to the resolution of assuming male attire and enlisting.” Be that as it may, Deborah Samson as Robert Shurtleff attracted and enjoyed the attentions of at least one admiring maiden under circumstances in which patriotic feelings play no important role. Robert fell ill in Philadelphia of a disease that was described as “malignant fever,” then endemic in the city. The doctor who attended Robert and his stricken comrades is identified by one writer as a Dr. Binney. Pvt. Shurtleff was so wasted with fever that Binney placed a hand inside the patient’s shirt to feel for his pulse, wherein he discovered that Robert was in fact a very sick young woman. Binney did not reveal Deborah’s secret–what his motives might have been is unclear–and had the Private removed to his own household, where his niece promptly fell in love with the fallen hero. Improbable as it seems, neither Binney nor Deborah discouraged the girl’s affections, and Robert/Deborah was the object of the young girl’s love-letters and passionate glances. On one occasion she presented “him” with a small token of her affection: six shirts, a watch, and 25 Spanish dollars. “Robert” accepted the gifts, and the two went riding together often in a carriage during his convalescence. But when Deborah recovered and returned to her regiment she wrote the love-struck maiden a letter telling all, and supposedly signing it “Your Own Sex.” With that, Binney told all as well, and Deborah Samson’s enlistment was up.
Deborah returned to Massachusetts in November 1783 in uniform. For a time she worked on a Massachusetts farm calling herself “Ephraim Sampson,” but in April of 1784, she married Benjamin Gannett, a moderately successful farmer who had prudently sat out the war. What sort of marriage it was is difficult to say, but Deborah gave birth to three children–two daughters, Mary and Patience, and a son, Earl. In 1802 she added to her distinctions by becoming probably the first woman lecturer in the United States. She spoke briefly in platitudes of War and Liberty and Virtue, of her experiences in the Continental army, and completed her talk by performing the manual of arms in full military dress.
If Deborah Samson is not an unlikely enough heroine, there is Nancy Hart of Wilkes County, Georgia. A coarse, illiterate woman, Nancy was “cross-eyed, with a broad angular mouth–ungainly in figure, rude in speech, and awkward in manners.” She was by all accounts a merciless termagant into the bargain, and even Mrs. Ellet concedes that she was “a devil of a wife.” Nancy’s chief claim to the national memory derives from an incident in which four Tories on the trail of a Whig courier rode into her yard, shot her gobbler, and demanded that she have them to supper–they would pursue the courier later, they thought. Nancy was alone and content to abuse them verbally for the time being. While she cooked the turkey, the Tories applied themselves to the bottle, and by the time they applied themselves to the feast, they had “become merry over their jug.” At which time Nancy reached for one of the muskets stacked in the corner, leveled it at the crew, and declared with an oath that she would kill the first man who approached–and she did. One of their number–perhaps over-confident on the basis of Nancy’s cross-eyed aim–was shot dead on the spot. She leveled a second musket and demanded that the rest surrender “their d—– tory carcasses to a whig woman.” They did. When Nancy’s husband arrived with the neighbors, they proposed to shoot the three remaining, but Nancy dissented: they were her prisoners and in her judgment, “shooting was too good for them.” They were bound and hanged from a tree in the yard. So much for the Nancy Hart memorial.
The stories of Mary Ludwig, Deborah Samson and Nancy Hart are more or less typical of America’s women warriors. These women enjoy a brief moment of glory and disappear into obscurity. Grace and Rachel Martin, wives of two brothers in the Continental army, held up a British courier with dispatches and sent the documents to General Greene. Emily Geiger carried a message from Greene to General Sumter, was captured, but ate the letter and later delivered the message to Greene verbally. Margaret Corbin, like Mary Ludwig, took her husband’s place in battle at Fort Washington. Elizabeth Zane (an ancestor of Zane Grey) is credited with saving Fort Henry, Virginia, from an Indian attack by crossing open ground to bring gunpowder to the defenders. Despite their heroic symbolism, in a military sense, the role of women in the Revolution is a limited one.
Of woman’s wider role in revolutionary America, perhaps Abigail Adams said it best when she wrote to her husband, John: “I cannot say, that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”