“American women also won fame for their bravery during the war. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley earned the name Molly Pitcher by carrying fresh water to American troops during the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in 1778. When her husband was wounded, she took his place in battle, loading cannons.” — United States: Making a New Nation (Harcourt Social Studies text, 2012)
“After the battle, General Washington asked about the woman whom he had seen loading a cannon on the battlefield. In commemoration of her courage, he issued Mary Hays a warrant as a non commissioned officer.” – Wikipedia entry for Molly Pitcher, duly referenced to Anne Rockwell, They Called Her Molly Pitcher, Grade Level: Preschool – 2nd grade
We have no evidence, dating from that time, that Mary Hays (who later married John McCauley)[i] took the place of her fallen husband at Monmouth and received great honors for her heroics, nor that anyone called her Molly Pitcher while she was alive. Only after the Molly Pitcher legend had reached full swing, three-quarters of a century after the Battle of Monmouth, did Mrs. McCauley’s family and neighbors try to peg her to the mythic character.
Legends can form in two ways. Sometimes the actual exploits of a real person are exaggerated with the passage of time to create a tale of mythic proportions, but a legend can also derive from the gradual assemblage of diverse strands that feature multiple and in many cases anonymous protagonists, with added touches of fantasy. This was the dynamic here. The legend came first – then, generations later, Mary Hays McCauley was attached to it.
When Mary Hays McCauley died in 1832, a local paper, The American Volunteer, ran an obituary: “She lived during the days of the American Revolution, shared its hardships, and witnessed many a scene of ‘blood and carnage.’” She had been “an efficient aid … to the sick and wounded,” it noted, but it did not highlight carrying water to thirsty soldiers, the activity that would later earn her the name of Molly Pitcher. She had been awarded an “annuity from the government,” it said, referencing the small pension the Pennsylvania Legislature had granted her in 1822, forty-four years after the Battle of Monmouth. The piece closed with generic words applicable to nearly any local resident:
For upwards of 40 years she resided in this borough; and was during that time, recognized as an honest, obliging, and industrious woman. She has left numerous relatives to regret her decease; who with many others of her acquaintance, have a hope that her reward in the world to which she has gone, will far exceed that which she received in this.
Had Mary Hays McCauley been celebrated during her lifetime for firing her husband’s cannon, the hometown editor surely would have seized on the opportunity to mention her most notable deed – but he didn’t. Fifty-four years after the Battle of Monmouth, the legend of “Molly Pitcher” had yet to attach to this unsuspecting woman, who died with no great honors.[ii]
But by the time Mary Hays McCauley’s son died 24 years after – three-quarters of a century after Monmouth – the Molly Pitcher legend was in full swing, and her son’s obituary, appearing in the same newspaper, told a very different story:
The deceased was the son of the ever-to-be-remembered heroine, the celebrated “Molly Pitcher” whose deeds of daring are recorded in the annals of the Revolution and over whose remains a monument ought to be erected. The writer of this recollects well to have frequently seen her in the streets of Carlisle, pointed out by admiring friends thus: “There goes the woman who fired the cannon at the British when her husband was killed.”[iii]
In the life of a legend, what a difference a generation makes.
From then on, it would only get better for Mary Hays McCauley. During the prelude to the Centennial in 1876, Wesley Miles, a long-time resident of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, recalled that forty-four years earlier, he had been present at the funeral of a local woman whom he claimed had been buried with military honors. (If so, it is truly remarkable that a woman buried with military honors somehow escaped the gaze of Mrs. McCauley’s obituary writers.) Miles wrote to the local paper: “Reader, the subject of this reminiscence is … the heroine of Monmouth, Molly Pitcher.”[iv]
That’s all it took. Town promoters immediately claimed the legendary figure as their own. After Miles had identified the unmarked gravesite, residents of Carlisle raised $100 to place a new headstone by the bones of their forgotten heroine:
RENOWNED IN HISTORY AS
THE HEROINE OF MONMOUTH.
DIED JANUARY 22, 1833
AGED SEVENTY-NINE YEARS[v]
Years later, somebody pointed out that the date of death on the tombstone was a year off. What if the site of the grave, as indicated by Wesley Miles, was off as well? In 1892, just to be sure, concerned citizens of Carlisle dug up the grave and discovered the skeleton of an adult female; they carefully placed it back, certain that those bones had once worked a cannon at Monmouth.[vi]
Once Carlisle had discovered and declared the true identity of Molly Pitcher, elderly residents came forth with confirming tales. One former neighbor, a young girl when Mary Hays McCauley was an old woman, recalled her saying, “You girls should have been with me at the Battle of Monmouth and learned how to fire a cannon.” Another suddenly remembered that she had met Mary in 1826, when “she was known as ‘Molly Pitcher’” – although that was actually during the reign of “Captain Molly,” before the first recorded use of “Molly Pitcher.”[vii]
In 1905 historian John B. Landis used these recovered memories to confirm Carlisle’s claim to the “real” Molly Pitcher. “No imaginary heroine was Molly Pitcher,” Landis wrote, “but a real buxom lass, a strong, sturdy, courageous woman.”[viii]Today, if elderly people suddenly came forth with stories they had heard from aging veterans of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the veracity of those stories might be questioned—but few people at the time seemed to care that more than a century had elapsed between deed and memory, and that the memories were twice removed. In 1911, when the prestigious Journal of American History published Landis’s findings, the McCauley/Molly Pitcher connection was anointed with a quasi-official stamp of approval.[ix]
With her identity revealed and confirmed, Molly Pitcher began to accumulate physical artifacts. In 1903 a great-great-granddaughter of Mary Hays McCauley made a generous gift to the local historical society: “Molly Pitcher’s pitcher,” an ornate piece featuring oriental pagodas, some sort of fortifications, and figures floating in thin air.[x] In 1905 the Patriotic Sons of America placed a flagstaff and a cannon by Molly’s tombstone; this cannon, acquired from an arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts, had supposedly been used at Monmouth.[xi] Meanwhile, at Monmouth, history enthusiasts constructed two sign-posts declaring “Mollie Pitcher’s Well” on either side of the water source she supposedly used to fill her pitcher, but Monmouth’s most prominent historian, William Stryker, revealed that the marked well had been dug fifty years after the battle.[xii]
If facts are troubling things, so are facts that don’t exist. Since there is no credible evidence from the time that Mary Hays of Carlisle carried pitchers of water to thirsty soldiers, took her husband’s place at a cannon after he was killed, and was honored and rewarded by General Washington, those still wishing to tell the story have conveniently walked it backwards. Mary’s husband, who apparently survived the war, was only wounded or even just thirsty, they say, when Molly took his place. The lieutenant’s commission is mostly gone, and Washington’s gold pieces now appear primarily in renditions intended for children, the true believers. But the delicate vessels of water must remain, embedded in Mary’s name of fame, Molly Pitcher – no cumbersome pails permitted.
So that is how a poor scrubbing woman from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who died without fanfare 54 years after the Battle of Monmouth, made her way into the quasi-official American National Biography, updated in 1999 to include an entry for “PITCHER, Molly (13 Oct. 1754?– 22 Jan. 1832)” – the estimated birthday and actual death day for Mary Hays McCauley. In the end, this camp follower performed a service to her nation above and beyond her work with the Continental Army. Molly Pitcher needs a flesh-and-blood woman to make her way into the textbooks, where mythic figures are not allowed, and modern textbooks, seeking a female presence, need those dramatic paintings of Molly working her cannon. Friends and family volunteered Mrs. McCauley for the job, and how could she, being dead, refuse?
[ii] D. W. Thompson and Merri Lou Schaumann, “Goodbye, Molly Pitcher,” Cumberland County History 6 (1989), 21. A second obituary, although less low-key, likewise failed to acknowledge Mrs. McCauley as “Molly Pitcher”:
[v] The Cumberland Valley Chronicle: Writings about Colonial Times and People, in a packet of information put out by the Cumberland County Historical Society, states that the spelling on this headstone was actually “McCauly.”
[x] This was not necessarily “the very same pitcher carried by Molly Pitcher at the battle of Monmouth,” the descendent admitted, but she claimed before a notary that the pitcher had belonged to her great-great-grandmother. A picture of the pitcher, along with a newspaper article announcing the gift to the Hamilton Library and the Cumberland County Historical Association, is included in the packet on Molly Pitcher available through the Cumberland County Historical Society.