When the American Revolution began, many of the men who were called into action brought their wives along with them. One of these wives was 22-year-old Mary Ludwig Hays, the daughter of German immigrants whose husband, John, was a barber from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who became an artilleryman in Captain Francis Proctor's company of the Pennsylvania Artillery. She became one of many women who travelled with George Washington's Revolutionary Army, and became known as an illiterate, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing woman who could curse with the best of the soldiers. During the winter of 1777-1778, she stayed in the women's camp with Washington's army in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
British forces had captured Philadelphia in 1777, but by the summer of 1778, their forces stretched thin, British General Sir Henry Clinton was ordered to evacuate the city. Not having enough ships to carry them to New York by sea, Sir Henry was forced to march them overland through New Jersey. Seeing an opportunity, American General George Washington mobilized his army from Valley Forge and attacked the rear of Sir Henry's 12-mile-long baggage train. The day in which the battle - later called the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse - took place was June 28, 1778, and would turn out to be a stiflingly hot day.
Captain Proctor's artillery unit was stationed in a wing of General Washington's army, firing in enfilade (down the length of the line) at the opposing British troops. The heat was punishing, and many of the day's casualties on both sides were as a result of heatstroke. American soldiers, desperate for water, would call for the women who were frantically carrying water to the soldiers. Mary, who was better known by the popular nickname Molly, was one of these women, and she performed the duty heroically. Molly was covered in blood and dust, red with sunburn, and barefoot as she dashed around the battlefield, pouring the water into the mouths of the soldiers, and then darting off again before they could express their thanks. Once, Molly - who was also pregnant at the time - stopped to carry a wounded soldier out of harm's way, but otherwise she was diligent in her duty.
She saw John get shot and collapse in front of his cannon. Other soldiers carried him away and, with no one to load his cannon, the other crewmen prepared to abandon it. Molly, however, had seen her husband practice it hundreds of times, and knew the routine, so she put down her water bucket and took his place plunging the cannon as it continued to fire shot after shot into the British regiments. One of other soldiers witnessed her actions and wrote about it, even telling that at one point she took a step to load a cartridge when a cannonball went whizzing between her knees. The shot tore away her petticoat, but otherwise left her unharmed. Molly, unfazed, mentioned that it was a good thing the shot wasn't a little higher, or it would have carried away something else. She then continued to load the cannon.
That account and others led Washington himself to personally compliment Molly Hays as she and her wounded husband returned to Carlisle. John died from his injuries in 1786, and Molly remarried a man named McCauly. In 1822, the Pennsylvania Legislature awarded Molly a pension of forty dollars per year - far higher than other war widows received - by unanimous vote. She died in 1833, at about 87 years of age, and is now the woman most identified with the American revolutionary ideal of Molly Pitcher.
Links and Sources:
"Will the Real Molly Pitcher Please Stand Up?" by Emily J. Teipe, at the National Archives' Prologue Magazine, Summer 1999, Vol. 31, No. 2, retrieved March 29, 2012.
What They Didn't Teach You About the American Revolution, by Mike Wright, Presidio Books, 1999.
Hell Hath No Fury: True Profiles of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq, by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross, Random House Digital, 2008, retrieved March 29, 2012.
Top two images by Adam Hook, from Campaign 135: Monmouth Courthouse 1778: The Last Great Battle in the North, by Brendan Morrissey, by Osprey Publishing, 2004.