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.


Donald Carleton, Jr. 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.

Donald Carleton, Jr. 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!