Thursday, February 18, 2016

Margaret "Captain Molly" Corbin

You know who thought Margaret Corbin was a badass? The U.S. Congress, that's who. She was the first woman in United States history to receive a government pension for military service. She's also believed to be the first woman wounded in battle during the American Revolution.

Margaret, better known to history as Captain Molly, had a troubled past. Born in western Pennsylvania to an immigrant from Northern Ireland, she was raised in what passed for "frontier" at the time. At age five, she and her brother went to visit their uncle. While they were gone, Native Americans raided her cabin and killed her father. They kidnapped her mother and carried her off to who-knows-where (she was never seen again). Margaret spent the rest of her childhood with her uncle, who took over raising her and her brother.

When she was 21, she met a handsome southern farmer, John Corbin of Virginia. When hostilities broke out between England and her American colonies, Corbin was one of the first to enlist, joining the First Company of Pennsylvania artillery. Like many women of the time who were married to soldiers, Margaret went with her husband as a "camp follower." She, like others, helped the cause by cooking, cleaning, tending to the wounded, and generally playing "Mother Hen" to the soldiers.

Corbin would lose his life, however, and Margaret would become a hero in one of the most costly and humiliating defeats of the American Revolution - the surrender of Fort Washington.

The fort, commanding high ground in northern Manhattan, was one of several that General George Washington hoped would prevent the British from taking control of the Hudson River and the waterways around New York. The short version of the story is that it didn't. Once the British invested the rivers with heavy gunships, Washington decided it would be best to move the entire army north to White Plains.

However, he left it to his subordinates whether Fort Washington should be abandoned, or whether those men should be left behind to hold out and harass the British. The fort's commander, Colonel Magaw, believed he could hold out until the end of the year (this was mid-November). Washington was going through a period of great indecisiveness at this time, telling General Nathaniel Greene that he should decide whether the men in the fort should stay or go. Filled with false confidence, Greene and Magaw decided to stay. About 2,000 men were available for defense.

But the fort was not as impregnable as it looked, high on its rocky bluff. There was no source of fresh water, for one thing, and there were at least two places where highly disciplined troops could expect a reasonable chance of success if they attacked.

General Howe, commander of the British, decided to call in his big guns - not the gunships in the river, but the dreaded German mercenaries known as Hessians. Under the command of the very capable General Knyphausen, some 4,000 Hessians attacked the fort early in the morning on November 16 (just four days after Margaret celebrated her 25th birthday).

The American defensive lines outside the fort had some success holding off the attack - at first. But they were inexperienced and undisciplined compared to the Hessians. They were also woefully under-gunned. Even still, with just one 18-pound cannon (that is, one that fires 18-pound balls) and about 150 men, Americans on a ridge of high ground were able to hold off about 800 Hessians who tried to storm their position (in what today is Fort Tryon Park).

Manning that gun was John Corbin. Long after the other American guns outside the fort were silenced, his group fought on. Suddenly he was struck by a Hessian musket-ball, and died almost instantly. Margaret took no time to grieve, but immediately took his place at the gun. She made sure it was fed with ammunition, and fought on even though she was struck three times with musket-balls. Finally the Hessians fired a canister of deadly grape-shot that tore into Margaret's shoulder, mangled her chest, and lacerated her jaw. Her fellow-soldiers abandoned their position and fled to the fort, dragging her along to receive what scant medical attention there was. By this time all the outlying defenders who could fled back to the fort - Fort Washington was, in fact, barely big enough to hold them all.

By this time Colonel Magaw realized he'd miscalculated. There was no way to hold the fort. Knyphausen demanded surrender, but Magaw asked for a half-hour to think about it. No one wanted to surrender to Hessians - they had a bad reputation for stabbing people with bayonets after they'd surrendered. One Hessian, in this battle, beheaded a Colonial soldier and put his head on a pike. But the British General Howe offered terms for surrender: that is, surrender and we won't kill you. Magaw made the hard choice.

The British took some 2,000 prisoners in one fell swoop. It was a terrible blow and had half of Congress thinking maybe they'd chosen the wrong fellow in General Washington. Nevertheless, British military honor was somewhat more humane than German, and the troops who surrendered were not run through with bayonets. Some might have wished they had been, however. Over the course of that winter most of them died from disease, starvation, or freezing in hastily erected prisons.

The British weren't interested in caring for the wounded, however, and most of them were paroled and allowed to seek medical attention where they could. Margaret was one of them. A few of her companions rowed her across the Hudson River to seek medical care at Fort Lee in New Jersey. After being stabilized, she and a few others were transported via bumpy wagon ride to Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, Margaret never fully recovered. For the rest of her life, she was without the use of her left arm. It was difficult for her to bathe and dress herself. Three years later, through the influence of General Henry Knox (a true hero of the revolution), Pennsylvania awarded her $30 for the "relief of her present difficulties." Later, again with Knox's influence, Congress granted her a lifetime pension - that is, half the monthly pay of an active soldier - and a one-time cash award to purchase a new set of clothes. Margaret was the first woman ever so honored. She was enrolled in the Corps of Invalids, who were stationed near West Point.

Margaret was cared for by a family friend, Mrs. Randall, and retired to Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) near West Point. Sadly, however, Margaret had a very tough time integrating herself into the community. The "laidies" of the town looked down on her and snubbed her socially, partly because of her "uncleanliness" and partly because of her "disagreeable temper." Margaret spent most of her time with the invalid soldiers, smoking her pipe in the sunshine all day long when she could.

Luckily, those same townsfolk who snubbed Margaret saved her story from historical oblivion. They told stories about her to their children and grandchildren. Margaret died in 1800, just a few days shy of her 50th birthday. She was buried near her home, but within a generation the grave site was overgrown and lost.

But there's a nice coda to the story. Thanks to the persistent folk tales about her, the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1900s tried to confirm her identity. They used the recently edited treasure trove of papers left by General Knox. With the help of a riverboat captain who claimed his grandfather helped bury Margaret, they located and exhumed her body. A physician confirmed it was her, from the obvious signs of her wounds that lingered even in death. She was reburied in 1926 with full military honors at West Point - one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers so honored.

Today, a scenic drive in Fort Tryon Park (where the battle took place) is named for her, and there's a monument plaque at the entrance to the drive. Her memory lives on, of course, not only as a heroic symbol of equality-under-fire, but as a Badass Chick of History.

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