The battlefield commission of Mary Ludwig Hays, June 28, 1778
Mary Ludwig Hays fought as an artillery soldier in the American Continental Army in the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, during the American War of Independence.
A 33 year old German woman from Pennsylvania, Mary Ludwig Hays became famous as “Molly Pitcher” among soldiers of the American Continental Army as a result of her conspicuous bravery during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778.
Like other soldiers’ wives, Mary followed her husband on campaign, performing everyday tasks in camp like cooking, carrying water, and washing clothes.
During the bitter winter of 1777, Molly Ludwig Hays was with her husband, William Hays, a soldier in the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery, and his fellow soldiers of the Continental Army in their winter camp at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. At Valley Forge, Mary was one of a group of women, led by Martha Washington, who washed clothes and blankets, and cared for sick and dying soldiers.
In February 1778, King Louis XVI of France joined the fight for American independence, and completely changed the strategic balance of power in favor of the Americans. The French King’s signing of a single document forced he British King George III to doubt all hope of a military victory in the American colonies. General Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in North America, was ordered to evacuate Philadelphia, consolidate his army in New York, and adopt a defensive strategy in the northern colonies.
That following summer, the Battle of Monmouth (New Jersey) was fought on one of the hottest days of summer, June 28, 1778.
During the back and forth slugfest of the bitter fight, Mary’s husband, William Hays, a soldier of the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery, was struck to the ground due to heat stroke (some accounts say he was wounded).
As William Hays was carried from the battlefield, Mary Ludwig Hays immediately jumped into action, taking her husband’s place as a member of his gun crew. She continued to “swab and load” the cannon using her husband’s ramrod.
Artillerymen needed a steady supply of water to soak the sponges used to quench sparks and clean burned gunpowder out of the barrels of the bronze cannons after each shot, before loading new powder and shot for the next round.
Continental artillery gunners would shout, “Molly! Pitcher!” whenever they needed a new bucket of fresh water.
In colonial America, the Irish name “Molly” was a common nickname for women named Mary, and during the Revolutionary War, the term “Molly Pitcher” referred to women who carried wooden buckets of water for swabbing cannon barrels and for bringing drinking water to soldiers on the battlefield.
At one point during the battle, a British cannonball flew between Mary’s legs and tore off the bottom of her skirt. She supposedly said something to the effect of, “Well, that could have been worse,” and went back to loading her cannon.
Continental soldier and diarist, Joseph Plumb Martin, attested to Mary’s valor that day. Martin wrote in his diary that during the battle “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 battle, the British army retreated to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Later that night, General George Washington inquired about the remarkable woman seen by the whole army that day, steadfastly working as a gunner of the 4th Pennsylvania Artillery. Hearing of her inspiring behavior and exceptional bravery under heavy British artillery fire, General Washington awarded her a battlefield commission, promoting Mary Ludwig Hays to the rank of “non-commissioned officer.” Although Mary did not serve directly in battle again, she was ever after known as “Sergeant Molly” for the rest of her life.
Over time, it appears that the term “Molly Pitcher” has been applied to the heroics of many other colonial American women. Some historians believe that the legendary name “Molly Pitcher” is a composite name for many thousands of brave American women who fought for the independence of the United States during the Revolutionary War.
In fact, thousands of colonial women did serve in the Continental Army throughout the American War of Independence, as wives, girl friends, daughters, camp followers, nurses, spies, and women who disguised themselves as men to enlist in the Continental Army for pay. It seems that the exploits of many brave American women are the true inspiration for the famous legend of “Molly Pitcher.”
After the war, Mary’s husband, William Hays, died in 1786, leaving his wife 200 acres of bounty land in Pennsylvania granted to veterans of the American War of Independence. Mary’s second husband, John McCauley, wasted her inheritance, impoverished her family, and disappeared sometime after 1807, leaving Mary a poor, but very well respected resident of Carlisle, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.
It may be that the residents of Carlisle petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature on Mary’s behalf, because in 1822, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Mary Ludwig Hays a veteran’s pension of $40 per year.
Born October 13, 1744 in Trenton, New Jersey, “Sergeant Molly” died on January 22, 1832 at the age of 87, a highly regarded and a well loved resident of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She is buried in the town’s Old Graveyard under the name “Molly McCauley.”
A bronze statue of “Molly Pitcher” and her cannon marks the final resting place of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley — warrior woman — heroine of the American War of Independence — she who represents thousands of other warrior women — all heroines of the American War of Independence, every one.