Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Molly Pitcher--Behind the Name

Ladies on the Battlefield--Day Two

A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece for the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky It did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.

Joseph Plumb Martin

In short--a woman, whose husband was a member of the artillery crew, took a position on the crew during the Battle of Monmouth. The reason for this is most likely that she was in the vicinity--running water, bringing supplies--when a crew member fell to enemy fire or became ill with heatstroke (as a sidenote, at least 50 British regulars died of heatstroke at the Battle of Monmouth--it was hot). It is also possible that she was standing between the person loading the gun and the person running cannon rounds, making the trip more efficient.

The biggest topic of conversation surrounding the story of Molly Pitcher is, it seems, her identity. This has been examined over and again, with two contenders--Mary Hayes and Margaret Corbin--standing as top choice for the "original" Molly Pitcher. This article does a nice job explaining how each may be Molly and gives a brief biography.

Another take on Molly, however, is that of Ray Raphael's People's History of the American Revolution. He, along with earlier historians, suggests that Molly Pitcher may have been a generic term, like G.I. Joe, for a whole set of women who ran water and supplies to the battlefied. This does make some sense--though the name Molly is a diminutive for Margaret and Mary (the ladies presented above), it is also in many ways the eighteenth-century equivalent of "Jane"--the any-woman's name. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue cites the word "moll" as a whore; other sources as just "a girl."

In either case, the nameless woman in Martin's famous account shows us a few important facts about women on the battlefield at the time.

I propose, they were not terribly unusual. Look at the way in which Martin describes the incident--the exciting fact is not that a woman was present, but that something extraordinary happened to her. Her petticoat was half torn away by an enemy shot (likely not a cannon ball, by the way, which would have been too large to do such minor damage--probably "antipersonnel" cannister or grapeshot, which consisted of small balls bound up together and intended to spray the enemy with dozens of small projectiles at once). This is why he shares the story--not simply because she was there. How many women on the field were not recorded by their peers because nothing "out of the ordinary" happened to them?

Second, when it became necessary, Molly stepped outside her "feminine" role and took up a position on the artillery piece. Why didn't the crew just pull a man to do the job? They probably preferred working with a woman who knew what she was doing--as a camp-follower member of the artillery, she would have been familiar with the drill in a way that an inexperienced infantryman would not have been. Pulling a green man would have slowed things down or, worse, caused an accident--cannons are dangerous pieces of equipment to work with. Perhaps, as a lark, the men even trained some of the women--after all, teaching is the best way to sharpen up your own skills:

A 1780 cartoon depicting such a lark--and I know the boys of our reenacting unit love to try to teach us the Manual of Arms. Emphasis on "try."

Before we sign off on Molly, let's take a look at the varied (hilarious) artwork depicting Ms. Pitcher in action:

I'm not sure what she's supposed to be wearing (ye olde milkmaid costume?) but when the cannon she's lighting off recoils, she's going to be Flat Molly. No account of Molly Pitcher indicates that she fired the piece, by the way. But perhaps an unrecorded "Molly" did...

"Action Molly." I do like her discarded bucket in the corner--nice symbolism, Currier and Ives. But what is the fellow firing the cannon with--a sparkler?

Molly with Shirtless Guy. And a very cluttered field--you kids need to clean up this mess or no hardtack, do you hear me?

Puritan-Costume Molly with Gun Pointed at Ground. Or downhill--better move that wounded guy or he's going to be in bigger trouble if that thing rolls downhill.

Tomorrow...Cross-Dressing for a Cause...


Katy said...

Very interesting! I like all of your Great pics too--except one of them didn't show up for me ("Action Molly").

Kat Zhang said...

Haha, your comments on these pictures are great! I love checking back on this blog for all these neat historical tidbits. My interest in history is blooming like crazy. I'm going to have to start checking out some more books on the subject!

Rowenna said...

Whoops! Hopefully Action Molly is fixed now :)

Thanks for stopping by--history is so much more fun when you get to pick what you want to learn about (and it's not just stodgy old white guys)!

dolleygurl said...

Wow, I had never heard of Molly Pitcher before. I think I would be of the mindset that it was a generic term for many women rather than just one woman. Thanks for the info!