Margaret Corbin's heroics in the Battle of Fort Washington in New York City on November 16, 1776, were such that the ladies of the Philadelphia Society of Women planned to erect a monument in her honor. Then they met her. She was poor. She smoked, drank too much and hung out with soldiers. The ladies quickly abandoned their project.
Which is just as well. The real honors for her would come 150 years after her brave action in battle.
Born on November 12, 1751, along Pennsylvania's western frontier, an Indian attack killed her father and took her mother when she was 5. An uncle adopted her and her brother. At age 21, she married John Corbin in 1772. He enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery as a matross. That is the person who loads the cannon. Like many wives at the time, she accompanied him in battle, doing the laundry and making the meals while their men fought the war. People often call these women "Molly Pitcher," as they brought water to the men in the field, which was very brave.
During the Battle of Fort Washington, the Hessians killed her husband's gunner. He took over firing the cannon, while she loaded it. The Hessians killed him and she took over the operation. The Hessians eventually shot her, leaving her with a grapeshot wound that tore up her left side, her chest and her jaw.
Despite her sex, the British treated as another wounded soldier and transferred her to Fort Lee along with the other wounded soldiers. From there, they made the bumpy journey to Philadelphia. She had lost the use of her left arm.
Back home in Pennsylvania, other soldiers vouched for her value. The state gave her a small monthly allotment. Eventually, on July 9, 1779, the Continental Congress gave her half a man's pension, as they considered her a soldier in the Continental Army. She was officially the only woman in the army. Some women may have disguised themselves as men to fight, but she was the only woman in women's clothing officially to serve in that war. The military assigned her along with 1,000 other wounded soldiers to the Invalid Corps under Colonel Lewis Nicola, which performed non-combat duties. Eventually, they moved the unit to West Point, which was not a military academy at the time.
In 1782, she married a fellow wounded warrior, but he died within a year. She petitioned for a rum ration, which the other soldiers received and Congress came through, giving her some rum rations in back pay as well. Secretary of War General Henry Knox was well aware of her and her case. He saw to it that someone came to help bathe her and tend her needs.
After the war ended, the unit disbanded but she remained in the West Point area. She died at age 48 on January 16, 1800, in Buttermilk Falls, New York. Her story was passed down over the years by local villagers. There was something endearing about the lady.
As the sesquicentennial of the nation's birth neared in 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution were able to track down her remains, which were buried in an obscure cemetery. A doctor was able to verify the bones based on her severe wounds. She was re-interred in the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point where they also erected a monument to her. She is one of only two Revolutionary War veterans buried there, the other being Ensign Dominik Trant of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, who died in 1782 at the age of 19, while serving at West Point. His is the oldest grave there and pre-dates the academy itself. Three plaques honor her heroics in New York City.
If she were a man would we remember her? Probably not. But she wasn't a man, she was a woman -- one who smoked and drank and hung out with soldiers. Given the pain of her wounds and the pain of watching her husband die, drinking made sense.
She earned every honor.
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