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An act of extraordinary bravery on the battlefield made a colonial American wife and homemaker legendary. But it was her willingness to create a home for her family under extraordinary circumstances that made Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley truly heroic.
When my second grader announced that she was writing a report on a famous American, I waited expectantly as she unfolded a slip of paper that contained the name of her subject. I considered a few possibilities—George Washington, Sacagewea, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart–as her little fingers smoothed out the paper and her brow furrowed in concentration as she studied the typed name before her. With some effort, my daughter read aloud, “Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley,” then looked up at me expectantly and asked, “Who is that? Is she super famous?”
I had to admit right then that I didn’t know what made Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley a famous American. Luckily, a quick Google search revealed the fact that my daughter’s famous American was known by another, more familiar, name: Molly Pitcher. As my daughter and I together learned more about this great American, we discovered that she was a homemaker and Revolutionary War hero of legendary proportions.
Little is known of Mary’s early life. She was born in 1754 on a New Jersey dairy farm, and went to work at the age of 13 as a domestic servant. Soon after that, while still 13 years old, she married a barber named William Hays. Less than 10 years later, the Revolutionary War began, and William joined the Continental Army as a gunner. Soon after, Mary joined him in the field as a campfollower.
As a campfollower, Mary was one of a surprising number of women—including Martha Washington—who joined their soldier husbands at the battlefront. These women played an important role in the welfare of the Army, taking care of laundry, mending, cooking, tending the wounded, and even performing more skilled tasks such as correspondence and hospital management. The only requirement for these volunteers was that they be married to a member of the military. They were expected to keep up with the marching army as they carried cookpots, personal belongings, and even children.
We can assume that Mary and William must have enjoyed a happy relationship if she was willing to endure the hardships of military life to try to provide him with some of the comforts of home during wartime. Her devotion to William is especially touching when historical evidence reveals that Mary stayed alongside her husband even during the infamously difficult winter at Valley Forge.
After that long, hungry winter, Washington’s troops were retrained at his request by a celebrated German general, Baron Von Stuben. As the men trained in the warm spring sunshine, campfollowers like Mary were tasked with bringing the soldiers water for drinking and for cooling the hot cannon barrels. A common nickname of the time for the given name Mary was Molly. The soldiers in her husband’s artillery unit would shout “Molly! Pitcher!” whenever they needed Mary to bring them water. The soldiers were grateful for her attention and the cool spring water she provided, and it is said they endearingly called her Molly Pitcher from that time forth.
It was at the Battle of Monmouth on a hot July day when the story of Molly Pitcher became one for the history books. With temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Mary had been hard pressed to provide the artillery with enough water. When she saw her husband collapse at his cannon, overcome by heat exhaustion, Mary dropped her pitcher of water and came to his aid.
A witness of the scene said later, “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 stemp, 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.”
As legend has it, Mary supposedly looked down at her torn petticoat at that moment and said, “Well, that could have been worse,” then went back to loading the cannon. Mary maintained her position at the cannon until the battle was won. Mary’s husband recovered from his injuries, and both continued their service in the Army until the end of the Revolutionary War. It is said that she was even awarded the title of sergeant by George Washington, in recognition of her courageous service.
The story of Molly Pitcher has since been told for generations to American school children, and has captured the hearts of people world wide. Several historic markers, a naval ship, a highway, a commemorative stamp, and a historic inn bear her name.
It was an act of exceptional bravery that brought Molly Pitcher out of obscurity, but I find that her story is about so much more than that scene on the battlefield. It’s the story of a woman whose love for her husband was enough to make her leave the comfort and security of their peacetime home and join him in conditions that were anything but comfortable and secure. It’s the story of a woman who supported her husband during times of great stress. It’s the story of a woman who found herself and took her place in history even as she served in the humble duties of wartime wife and homemaker. Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley’s willingness to make a home for her family under extraordinary circumstances is what makes her a heroine in my eyes.
An act of extraodinary bravery on the battlefield made a colonial American wife and homemaker legendary. But it was her willingness to both create a home for her family and stand beside her husband under extraordinary circumstances that made Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley truly heroic.
I have a husband, four children, a dog, a house, a big lawn, a really old sewing machine, a minivan, a long to-do list, and a degree in English. I like to write about all the adventures I have with those people and things. Blogger by hobby, writer by trade, and a homemaker by choice, my name is Ruth. You can learn more about my life at A Trip to Holland and more about my work at Windmill Words.