There are so many different legends to Molly Pitcher that some historians believe her story is folklore or a composite of several people. Though there has been ample research done mostly by her decedents, independent review of the documents and the conclusion suggested more research is needed. Most sources identify her birth name as Mary Ludwig, daughter of Maria Margaretha and Johann George Ludwig. Most sources identify her first husband as William Hays (also sometimes referred to as John Hays), who was in the artillery and fought at the Battle of Monmouth.
Mary Ludwig, who would go down in history as Molly Pitcher, was born circa October 13, 1754, near Trenton, New Jersey. In 1768, she moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she met William (also known as John) Hays, a local barber. They married on July 24, 1769.
Battle of Monmouth Heroics
During the American Revolutionary War, Hays enlisted as a gunner in the Continental Army. As it was common at the time for wives to be near their husbands in battle and help as needed, Pitcher followed Hays back to New Jersey during the war’s Philadelphia Campaign (1777-78).
Hays fought in the Battle of Monmouth in Freehold, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, a brutally hot day. His wife was present as well, and she made countless trips to a nearby spring to fill pitchers of cold water for soldiers to drink and to pour over their cannons to cool them down.
As legend has it, the soldiers nicknamed her Molly Pitcher for her tireless efforts. But the legend only began with her new name. According to accounts, Pitcher witnessed her husband collapse at his cannon, unable to continue with the fight. She immediately dropped her water pitcher and took his place at the cannon, manning the weapon throughout the remainder of the battle until the Colonists achieved victory. According to the National Archives, there was a documented witness to Pitcher’s heroic acts, who reported a cannon shot passing through her legs on the battlefield, leaving her unscathed:
“While in the act of reaching a cartridge … 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. … She observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher… and continued her occupation.”
With her actions on that day, Molly Pitcher became one of the most popular and enduring symbols of the women who contributed to the American Revolution.
Pitcher remained with the Continental Army until the war ended, then moved back to Carlisle with Hays in April 1783. Following her husband’s death, she married a war veteran named John McCauley and worked in the State House in Carlisle. She was honored by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1822 for her wartime services, receiving an award of $40 and an annual commission of the same amount for the rest of her life.
She died on January 22, 1832, in Carlisle, where a monument commemorates her heroic acts in battle.