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An American Heroine

On a blistering hot day in June 1778, young Mary Hays became an American Legend.

Molly Pitcher Monument, Old Public Graveyard, Carlisle, PA

While she is not in my family tree, I have a special place in my heart for Molly Pitcher. She is buried in Carlisle, PA where my undergrad alma mater is located. So, being a history buff, I was fascinated by her story and visited her grave frequently. Even to this day, if I am in Carlisle, I stop by to pay my respects.

Much of Mary McCauley's story is told from oral histories or court and other legal documents correlating with some parts of the oral tradition. Scholars disagree on many of the details, including what her first husband's name was (the famous husband who collapsed and whom she replaced at the cannon) or even whether she is the Molly Pitcher of history. The Molly Pitcher of legend may be completely folklore or may be a composite.

"Molly Pitcher" was a nickname given to a woman said to have fought in the Revolutionary War. The story of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley is considered folklore by historians, or they suggest that Molly Pitcher is probably a composite of a number of real women. The name itself may have originated as a nickname for women who carried water to men on the battlefield. It has also been suggested that the story of the cannon also applies to another brave woman named Margaret Corbin, but both accounts could be true.

Mary Ludwig was born on 13 October 1744 (or 1754, as some sources claim), on a small farm near Trenton, New Jersey. She grew up, helping her father, Johan Georg Ludwig, a dairy farmer, with the chores. She was raised to be a hard worker and as typical hardworking farm girl.

At the age of thirteen, Mary Ludwig was hired by a Mrs. Irvine of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who wanted a young girl to help with the housework.

The settlement of Carlisle, at the intersection of several Indigenous trails, was designated by the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Penn family in 1751 as the seat of Cumberland County. The first structures of the Carlisle Barracks were built in 1757, during the French and Indian War.

Mary lived with Dr. and Mrs. Irvine for many years, and it was there that she met her future husband, John Casper Hays, a young barber who lived in the village. Mary and John were married on 24 July 1769, Mary Ludwig married John Casper Hays.

In 1775, John Hays enlisted in the Fourth Pennsylvania Artillery (Proctor's Regiment) as a gunner. After her husband's enlistment, Mary Hays first stayed in Carlisle, then joined her parents where she was closer to her husband's regiment. Not wanting to be separated from her beloved John, she became a camp follower, which was not unusual at the time.

Mary was probably with him through his entire military experience, since records show that she was at Valley Forge from December 1777 through June 1778. Like Martha Washington who was also at Valley Forge, Mary nursed the sick and helped by cooking, washing and sewing.

In 1778, John Hays honed his artillery skills under Baron von Steuben's instruction. The camp followers were trained to serve as water girls.

On Sunday, 28 June 1778, the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, was fought on a very hot day, reported as "one of the hottest days ever known," with temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Proctor's Regiment was present at the battle. Colonel Thomas Proctor had charge of 12 guns in General Washington's main body during the afternoon fight.

Molly Pitcher, engraving by J.C. Armytage, 1859

According to the stories told later, Mary Hays was among the women bringing pitchers of water from a nearby spring to the thirsty soldiers on that hot and smoky battlefield, earning her the nickname "Molly Pitcher". Dying of heat and thirst, the men welcomed the sight of Mary, as she repeatedly brought water to the exhausted and wounded men. The water was also used to cool the blazing cannons and soak the rammer rag.

She also tended to the wounded and once, heaving a crippled continental soldier up on her strong young back, carried him out of reach of hard­-charging Britishers. On her next trip with water she found her husband back with the guns, replacing a casualty. While she watched, Mary saw her husband collapse, whether from the heat or from being wounded was not clear, though he certainly was not killed. The cannon, its crew too depleted to serve it, was ordered to be withdrawn from the causeway. Mary would have none of it. Without hesitation, she stepped forward and took the rammer staff from her fallen husband's hands. For the second time on an American battlefield, a woman manned a gun. (The first was Margaret Corbin during the defense of Fort Washington in 1776.) Resolutely, she stayed at her post in the face of heavy enemy fire, ably acting as a gunner until victory was won.

According to the oral tradition, Mary was nearly hit by a musket or cannonball that sped between her legs and ripped her dress. She is said to have responded, "Well, that could have been worse."

The tale of her efforts passed through the Colonial camp that evening. Supposedly George Washington had seen her action on the field, and after the British retreated unexpectedly rather than continuing the fight the next day, Washington made Mary Hays a non-commissioned officer in the army for her deed. Some say it was General Nathanael Greene who gave her a sergeant's commission for her act of heroism on that day. From that day forward, Mary apparently began calling herself "Sergeant Molly".

Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier from Connecticut, was witness to Mary Ludwig Hay’s valiant actions, and wrote this of her in his memoirs:

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 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.

After the war, John and Mary returned to Carlisle, where they purchased Lot #257. Mary went back to work as a domestic in the county court house in Carlisle and John went back to the barbering business. Their only child, Johanes "John" Ludwig Hays, was born in 1783. They continued to live happily together until her husband's death in 1786.

After John’s death, by 1793 she married John McCauley (McKolly or McCalla or McCawley or McAuley), who had also been a soldier in the Revolutionary War and a friend of her husband. He was probably a general laborer and was paid for hauling stones and clay for the prison in Carlisle.

However, this marriage was not successful. McCauley was an irresponsible man, and was the primary cause of Mary’s financial downfall. In August 1794, he was brought before the court on the charge of assaulting Jane Anderson, who was a neighbor of John and Mary's. John pleaded guilty, but claimed he was innocent and he was put on probation for a year.

On 3 October 1806, Mary received two hundred acres of bounty land in Westmoreland County for her late husband's service during the Revolutionary War. Less than a year later, on 15 April 1807, Mary and John McCauley, were forced to sell the bounty property left to her by John Hays for the sum of Thirty Dollars to James Brady of Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Mary's House in Carlisle

John and Mary's son John Hays married Elizabeth Reinhart on 18 November 1802, and they reared a large family in Carlisle. He was a sergeant in the War of 1812, served six months in 1814, and was discharged at Albany, New York.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was known familiarly in Carlisle. She lived on the southeast corner of North and Bedford streets in a house which since has been demolished. Her acquaintances described her as a woman of German ancestry, rather coarse yet honest, friendly, and hardworking. During the later part of her life, she was described as homely in appearance with a defective eye. She was not refined in manner or language, but she was ready to do a kind act for anyone. She was of average height, muscular, strong and heavy set. She wore a short gown, white or calico, a linsey striped skirt which was very short and full, woolen stockings, heavy brogans and a broad white cap with wide, flaring ruffles. It was also said that she "drank grog and used language not the most polite."

What became of John McCauley is not known, but by the 1810 Census, Mary was once again a widow. She would earn money by washing and scrubbing the court house, and cleaning, washing and whitewashing public buildings. In 1814, Mary, along with her son John L. Hays and his wife Elizabeth, sold the house and part of lot #257 on South Street. Thereafter, Mary is said to have lived as a domestic in other homes.

Mary eventually applied to receive a pension from the State of Pennsylvania as the wife of a soldier. On 21 February 1822, the Pennsylvania State Legislature awarded Molly a yearly pension of $40. The initial bill, Senate No. 265, was entitled "An act for the relief of Molly McKolly, a widow of a soldier of the Revolutionary War." The phrase "widow of a soldier" was struck and "for services rendered" was inserted as a deliberate change to the bill and Mary thus received the pension in her own right. Although the services were not specified, the annual grant was unusual and implied that she did something of significance during the American Revolution.

Mary probably spent the last years of her life living with her son and his family.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley died in Carlisle on 22 January 1832 at the age of 87. She was buried in Carlisle's Old Public Graveyard with military honors. A company of soldiers fired a salute.

The American Volunteer ran the following notice on 26 January:

Died on Sunday last, in this borough, at an advancecl age, Mrs. Molly McCauley. She lived during the days of the American Revolution, shared its hardships, and witnessed many a scene of "Blood and carnage." To the sick and wounded she was an efficient aid, for which; and being the widow of an American hero, she received during the latter years of her life, an annuity from the government. 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.

The Carlisle Herald ran the following obituary on the same day:

Died on Sunday last, Mrs. Mary McAuley (better known by the name of Molly McAuley) aged 90 years. The history of this ·woman is somewhat remarkable. Her first husband's name was Hays who was a soldier in the war of the Revolution. It appears she continued with him in the army and acted so much the part of the heroine as to attract the notice of the officers. Some estimate may be formed of the value of the service by her, when the fact is stated that she drew a pension from the government during the later years of her life.

The local newspapers treated her kindly in the obituary notices but refrained from intimating in the slightest degree that she ever fired a cannon at the Bartle of Monmouth. The editors of both papers had long resided in Carlisle, had long known Mary, and presumably would have been glad to have placed that incident to her credit had she possessed any claim for such a distinction.

When Mary's son John L. Hays died twenty four years later on 20 March 1856, his obituary included the note that he "was a 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." He was buried with military honors. His descendants, for the most part, stayed in Carlisle.

On 4 July 1876, the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the citizens of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, erected a white marble monument inscribed: Molly Pitcher, the heroine of Monmouth, over her grave. Molly’s actual grave is behind the monument marked with an 1876 grave marker. The gravestone says that she died at the age of 79 in 1830, which seems to contradict the typical information of her death at the age of 87 in 1832.

The statue of Revolutionary War Heroine “Molly Pitcher” was erected in 1916 by the State of Pennsylvania. J. Otto Schweizer, a prominent monument sculptor from Philadelphia was commissioned to design the statue. Mary’s likeness was based on a composite of features from her female descendants. On the sides of the platform are two reliefs, one that shows her bringing water to soldiers and another that shows her manning a cannon. In front of the statue, there is a replica of a Revolutionary War cannon and several plaques that tell the story of her life.

A battlefield monument at Monmouth commemorates Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley for her heroic contribution to American independence.

It is quite likely that Molly Ludwig Hays McCauley was indeed at the Battle of Monmouth and may have helped to pass the ammunition, or carried water to the troops in battle, or done anything related to any other follower of the artillery. One cannot say whether she definitely did or did not do these things; there is simply a lack of evidence. However, she did leave a reputation of unusually faithful and useful service with the soldiers, and with that one must be content. But that is a good deal, and enough to justify a statue in memory of her life and whether we call her Molly Pitcher or Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, she was a true heroine and an American Patriot. She was a typical woman for her time, but her bravery and dedication to her country is nothing but exceptional. It is a story that belongs to us all; a story of fortitude, determination and true patriotism.

Have a safe and thoughtful Memorial Day!


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