J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Searching for Margaret Corbin

Now this is a lede:
Revolutionary War hero Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin was long thought to be buried beneath her granite monument at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The Daughters of the American Revolution moved her remains there in 1926 from an unmarked grave nearby. But it’s now clear they removed the wrong remains.
That’s from Michael Hill’s dispatch for the Associated Press.

Corbin is known from decisions by the Pennsylvania government and the Continental Congress in June 1779 to provide her with financial support. The paperwork surrounding that grant describes her as:
Margaret Corbin, who was wounded and disabled in the attack on Fort Washington whilst she heroically filled the post of her husband who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery
Because of her wound, a 1780 report said, she was “deprived of the use of one arm.” Which for me raises questions about the statements that she worked as an army nurse until 1783. The original Congress documents don’t mention such service.

To confuse matters further, nineteenth-century authors amalgamated Corbin’s story with the legend of “Molly Pitcher,” though that tall tale grew from the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, two years after Corbin lost her husband and the use of her arm.

Corbin retired to the vicinity of West Point. In 1786 and 1787 Maj. George Fleming, in command at that army outpost, reported to Secretary of War Henry Knox about arranging for locals to board “Captain Molly” and supplying her with clothing. “Molly is such a disagreeable object to take care of,” the major said.

But sentiment and nostalgia for the Revolutionary generation won out, and by the mid-1800s Margaret “Captain Molly” Corbin was being recalled as a hero, with a growing set of anecdotal legends. In the first wave of American feminism authors lionized her as the first woman to receive a U.S. military pension.

Back to the A.P. dispatch:
Corbin died in 1800 at the age of 48 and was buried in a modest grave, likely near West Point. By the time the DAR decided to honor Corbin with a reburial in 1926, any marker on the 126-year-old grave was gone.

Relying in part on passed-down information from locals, the DAR pinpointed Corbin's grave a few miles south of West Point near a cedar stump on the old riverside estate of banker J. P. Morgan. The disinterred remains were placed in a silk-lined casket and driven by hearse to the storied cemetery in West Point and a new monument depicting Corbin beside her cannon.

End of story. Until October 2016.

Excavators working near the monument accidentally disturbed the grave, starting a chain of events that led to high-tech tests on the exhumed remains. Tests showed the skeletal remains belonged to a male, probably one who lived in the 19th century.
The monument was rededicated this spring, but it’s now more symbolic of women’s contributions to the U.S. of A. than an actual grave marker.

6 comments:

Don Carleton said...

But then who was the mysterious male occupant of that grave on JP Morgan's "old riverside estate?" Could foul play have been involved? What a premise for a good murder mystery!

Chsucerian said...

So what percentage of historians, academic or otherwise, are familiar with the term "lede"?

J. L. Bell said...

I think the simplest explanation for the mystery of the surprising corpse is that in the early 1800s no one really care where a cranky, disabled, poor old woman was buried, so by the time Margaret Corbin became celebrated locals could only guess at her burying-place. But that’s hardly the stuff of good fiction.

So let’s imagine that she faked her own death and substituted a man’s body for her own. Why would that be?

J. L. Bell said...

It‘s well known that all historians secretly wish to write op-ed essays that will be read by millions, so they keep up on century-old journalistic jargon.

Don Carleton said...

Let's set aside Margaret Corbin for the moment, I still wonder who the anonymous occupant of the grave on JP Morgan's estate could have been...THAT's what I (somewhat facetiously) had suggested would make a good murder mystery premise!

Jane said...

After reading all your blogs about Molly Pitcher, Both Margret and Mary are from PA with connections to Carlisle and their stories are almost identical. Which is why people tend to mix them up and muddle the history. So here is the primary source information on the two women and a brief synopsis of what we know.
See Papers Continental Congress Vol 3 Folio 501_Referenced Journals CC Vol XIV.
Journals Of Continental Congress 1774-1789_Vol XIV
Minutes Supreme Executive Council PA_Vol XII
Margret Corbin by Edward Hagamen Hall 1932 for more primary sources
see also PHS archives, national archives and masshis.org archives
Margret Cochran Corbin, born out by Carlisle PA, was Irish. Newly married she accompanied her husband when he enlisted as a matross in Proctor's Irish artillery unit July 1776. Her husband was assigned to support Virginia's riflemen at the forward defensive location of Fort Washington. (located at today's Margret Corbin Circle) On Nov 16th 1776, She took over the whole operation of the 12 pound cannon after both her husband and the gunner were killed. She did such a great job, she was pinpointed by the Hessians. She was hit by grapeshot to the left shoulder/breast. Disabling her for life.
She was taken to New York city as a POW, along with 2800 men. She is paroled, finds her way back to Philly and is enlisted under her own name as a private in the newly formed Invalid regiment. Eventually her unit is assigned to west Point where she is mustered out in 1783 and lives in Highland Falls the rest of her life. She was Known by both her real name and Capt Molly by Knox, Tench Tilghman, George Washington, and John Jay. While others called her Capt Molly to her face, behind her back it was "dirty Kate" (probably due to permanent lead shrapnel marks on her face and/or the fact she wore her husbands artillery coat everyday). Her pension from the Congress is not fulfilled and she complains. See Knox correspondence, west point provision and payment authorizations and correspondence from Tilghman. Knox had old tents issued to fulfill the suit of clothes pension award and backed her up on her authorized rum ration which had been withheld. Pennsylvania had also provided her a pension prior to the congressional one. She dies at highland falls 1800 at age 50. Her pension records burn in 1814.
Mary MaCauley Hayes her husband are in Proctors German artillery unit. Her heroics are documented at the battle of Monmouth. She remarries and moves to New Jersey which is where she lives for most of the rest of her life. She too will receive a pension from the US congress, which her second husband who did not serve will continue to get and even gets it increased after her death, consequently there are pension records refiled after 1814. During her lifetime she will speak to groups as did D.Sampson and but Hayes will call herself Molly Pitcher. She is buried at Carlisle.
Most historians of women's history believe the term Molly Pitcher was used to describe the woman carrying water to the men on the battlefield. Molly is a common nickname in the 18th century, did the men cry out Molly pitcher to get water? we really don"t know, but we do know women were out there bringing water and other supplies, tending the wounded and received 1/2 rations.