2001 Searching for Molly Pitcher

Monmouth County Library, Manalapan
October 2001

Play the Molly Pitcher History Game

Molly Pitcher is a nickname for a woman well known today for her heroism at the Battle of Monmouth near Freehold, New Jersey, on June 28, 1778, although it is less than certain who she really was and what she really did.

Little appeared in writing about Molly Pitcher until the 1850s, when the first images of her began to be produced. Although the earliest known published reference to her as “Molly Pitcher” appeared in 1837, most writers and artists first referred to her as Captain Molly or Sergeant Molly. Around 1860, the names “Moll Pitcher” or “Molly Pitcher” became widespread in reference to the belief that she brought water to cool the cannons and to refresh the soldiers.

Early published accounts confused Molly with another Revolutionary War heroine, Margaret Corbin, who fired a gun at a different battle. Eventually, it became clear that Molly Pitcher was another woman who died in 1832 named Mary (Molly) McCauley. Her descendants and former neighbors and employers provided sufficient oral testimony to establish that Mary McCauley had been at the battle, although exactly what she did there remains speculative.

After being identified as Molly Pitcher, Mary McCauley’s grave in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was marked with a head stone referencing the Battle of Monmouth in 1876. But the search for Molly, and mistakes concerning her identity, were not yet over. McCauley was the surname of Molly’s last husband. In her obituary, it was mentioned that she had been married to a man named Hays who was in an artillery regiment during the Revolutionary War. In searching for records of men named Hays, historians came across a John Hays who was married to a Mary Ludwig. They also found a Casper Hays who was at the Battle of Monmouth. Taking a leap of faith, they concluded that Casper and John were the same person and that therefore Mary Ludwig, a girl of German origin, was Molly Pitcher.

Earlier accounts that Mary McCauley was clearly Irish were ignored.  Many books and articles were published stating that Mary Ludwig was Molly Pitcher.  A statue was placed next to Molly’s grave by German Americans with the inscription, “née Mary Ludwig.”  For decades, no one challenged this information.  Even Mary McCauley’s descendants came to believe she was German.

In 1964, Samuel Stelle Smith of Monmouth County published a book on the Battle of Monmouth and then led an effort to uncover more information about Mary McCauley. With the help of Merri Lou Schaumann in Carlisle, Smith determined that, by the end of the war, Mary McCauley was unquestionably married to a William Hays, not John Hays. William Hays also was an artilleryman during the Revolutionary War. By a remarkable coincidence, there were two men named Hays from Carlisle, both artillerymen, and both with wives named Mary.

But if Mrs. William Hays was not Mary Ludwig, who was she and where did she come from? Although some historians have theories as to her true identity–including, in particular, a woman from Allentown, New Jersey–documentary evidence so far has not been published. The search for Molly Pitcher, therefore, continues.

Even less hard information is available on what Molly Pitcher actually did at the Battle of Monmouth. An early account (discussed below) stated that she fired a gun or a cannon after her husband was killed and that prior to this action, was bringing water to the troops. But William Hays survived the war; he and Molly became parents of a son at the end of the war. This means that something is wrong about the story that her husband died at the Battle. There are several explanations, including 1) Mary McCauley was not Molly Pitcher; 2) Mary McCauley had a husband before William Hays; 3) the story is incorrect and William was just wounded, not killed, or not hurt at all.

Other aspects of the Molly Pitcher story, recounted in books about her, are mostly products of the authors’ imaginations, but some accounts probably do contain the essence of the truth. Joseph Plumb Martin, an eyewitness whose memoir was published in 1830, wrote the first account in print about Molly. He recalled that a woman (whom he does not name) was assisting her husband at a gun. While reaching for an artillery cartridge, she had her legs spread wide apart and a cannonball passed between her legs, taking away some of her petticoats. (I tend to believe this story as it is so strikingly original that it is hard to believe that Martin could have invented it.) Then, in 1840, a Mary Clendenen wrote that her late husband, who had been at the Battle, mentioned that a woman called “Captain Molly” brought water to the troops.

Note that neither of these earliest accounts mention Molly’s husband being killed or even wounded. Also, it may be significant that Martin didn’t mention the water and Clendenen didn’t mention the gun. The combination of the gun and the water, along with Molly’s husband being killed, seems to have first been published by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, in an article, “The Battle of Monmouth,” published in the National Intelligencer, February 22, 1840, and reprinted in his memoirs in 1859. Custis also drew one of the first images of Molly at the Battle and later would use it as the basis for a painting in his home, now better known as the house of Robert E. Lee. In 1844, John W. Barber and Henry Howe included a similar story in Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, 1844, and in 1853, Benson J. Lossing, in an article and sketch in Harper’s Monthly, repeated the account with additional details; the story appeared again in Volume II of his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (1855). Among other sources, including Alexander Hamilton’s aged widow, who confused the story of Molly Pitcher with that of Margaret Corbin, Lossing had been in contact with Custis. Lossing wrote that “Captain Molly” was a twenty-two-year old Irish lass engaged in bringing water to her husband when he was killed. Molly then seized the rammer and, vowing revenge, continued to work the cannon until the end of the battle. The next morning, according to Lossing, she was presented by General Greene to George Washington, who commissioned her as a sergeant (her husband’s rank) and was awarded half-pay for life.

Unfortunately, very little of these early accounts have been verified. No record has been found of any woman, including Mary McCauley, receiving a military title after the Battle of Monmouth, nor is there any record of Molly’s federal pension. Mary McCauley did apply for, and receive, a pension from the State of Pennsylvania in 1822 for her war service (not her husband’s).

Whatever the truth of these accounts, artists soon seized on them as the basis for paintings which spread the fame of Molly Pitcher. In 1848, Nathaniel Currier did a painting, “Molly Pitcher, The Heroine of Monmouth,” the earliest known instance in which the heroine was called by this sobriquet, combining Captain Molly of the gun and the woman bringing water into one nickname. In the mid-1850s, she was depicted by Dennis Malone Carter in two famous paintings, one at the cannon and the other when she was presented to Washington by General Greene. The latter painting is now at the Monmouth County Historical Association, across the street from the Battle Monument, which features a plaque depicting Molly Pitcher. Other artists soon followed in Carter’s footsteps and, by 1860, reproductions in the form of engravings were labeled, “Molly Pitcher.” It is these images, along with theatrical performances and poetry, even more than the written accounts, that have spread the legend of Molly Pitcher. The use of the name, “Molly Pitcher,” did not appear in an article or book until 1862, in Dr. James Thacher’s Military Journal.

The Molly Pitcher Exhibit

The Molly Pitcher exhibit is intended to be an educational experience that probably brings together more images of Molly than ever seen publicly in one place. At one extreme Molly is depicted as a rough, heavy Irish woman (similar to accounts of Mary McCauley); on the other, a dainty, shapely maid, delicately firing off her cannon. These images, made over the past 150 years, show how Americans have interpreted and reinterpreted the past in order to serve their patriotic needs, influenced by the changing ideal American woman and evolving styles of art. The exhibit also includes examples of juvenile literature, to show how Molly has helped fulfill a need for heroines in American history texts for children.

The large W.P.A. mural painting of Molly Pitcher by Gerald Foster hanging in the library hallway is an integral part of this exhibit, although it has been here on loan from the Freehold Post Office since 1992. It is the probably the best known 20th century painting of Molly Pitcher.

Hopefully, this exhibit will spur future researchers and stimulate discussions in New Jersey schools of Molly Pitcher, the significance of the Battle of Monmouth, and the Revolutionary War.

Every nation needs heroes and heroines, especially when threatened. We don’t need a reminder that America is worth fighting for, but we do need inspiration to be courageous. Molly Pitcher continues to be a powerful role model and a symbol of patriotism at the highest level. Whatever she did and whoever she was, she was there and she didn’t run away in the midst of a terrible and bloody conflict, fought on an incredibly hot day in Monmouth County on June 28, 1778.


The Monmouth County Archives brought the materials for the exhibit together. The portion of the exhibit on the curved wall was designed and installed by the Monmouth County Art Department under the direction of Roberta Ohliger. In the early stages, staff members Carmen Triggiano, Laura Smothers, and Nabila Hai were particularly helpful. The following other individuals made important contributions to the exhibit, providing advice, encouragement, and materials: Donald F.X. Finn, Elsalyn Palmisano, James Raleigh, and Carl Steinberg. Other essential contributions were made by Ellen McCallister Clark, John Fabiano, Lisa Fox, David G. Martin, Barbara Mitnick, Stacy Flora Roth, Garry Wheeler Stone, and Carla Tobias.

The Monmouth County Archives is under the direction of the County Clerk, M. Claire French, without whose support this exhibit would not be possible.

Gary D. Saretzky, Monmouth County Archivist (revised July 18, 2003)

Note: The compiler of this bibliography makes no claim to the accuracy of any of these works. It also does not pretend to completeness but is intended to provide a starting point for those interested in Molly Pitcher.

American Association of University Women. The Battle of Monmouth: A Woman Goes to War: A Narrative of the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, and Its Aftermath. American Association of University Women, Northern Monmouth County Branch, 1998.

Barber, John W. and Henry Howe. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey. NY: S. Tuttle, 1844.

Brown, Henry Armitt. The Battle of Monmouth. An oration…1878… Philadelphia: Christopher Sower Co., 1913.

Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1976.

Commager, Henry S. & R. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six as Told By Participants. NY: Harper & Row, 1967.

Fisher, Aileen Lucia. Bicentennial Plays and Programs:A Collection of Royalty-free Plays, Playlets, Choral Readings, and Poems for Young People. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1975.

Gilman, C. Malcolm B., Col., M.D. Huguenot Migration in Europe and America, Its Cause and Effect. Red Bank, NJ: Arlington Laboratory for Clinical and Historical Research, 1962.

Gilman, C. Malcolm B., Col., M.D. Monmouth: Road to Glory. Red Bank, NJ: Arlington Laboratory for Clinical and Historical Research, 1964.

Gleiter, Jan and Kathleen Thompson. Molly Pitcher. Milwaukee: Raintree Publishers, Inc., 1987.

Hall, Marjory. Hatful of Gold. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964.

Landis, John. A Short History of Molly Pitcher: The Heroine of the Battle of Monmouth. Carlisle, PA: Cornman Printing Co., 1905.

Lossing, Benson J. “Arlington House, The Seat of G. W. F. Custis, Esq.,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 7:60 (September 1853).

Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution; Or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the War for Independence. Vol. II. NY: Harper & Bros, 1855.

Lossing, Benson J. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by his Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of the Author, by His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes. NY: Derby & Jackson, 1860.

Lucky, Joan J. The Battle of Monmouth: A Work Book. Freehold, NJ: Junior League of Monmouth County and Monmouth County Historical Association, 1978.

Markham, Edwin. The Real America in Romance. The Age of Independence, 1763-1783. Volume IX. NY & Chicago: H. Wise & Co., 1912.

Martin, David G. A Molly Pitcher Sourcebook. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 2003.

Martin, David G. The Story of Molly Pitcher. 2nd. Edition. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House, 2000.

McDonald, Constance. “Molly Pitcher: Who Was She?” Field Artillery, August 1990, 38-40.

“Molly Pitcher,” Monmouth County Historical Association Newsletter, 2:2 (January 1974).

Monmouth County, New Jersey, Library. Two Hundredth Anniversary-Battle of Monmouth June
28, 1978. Freehold, 1978.

Murrin, Mary R. and Richard Waldron. Conflict at the Monmouth Courthouse: Proceedings of a Symposium Commemorating the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth, April 8, 1978. Trenton, NJ: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1983.

New Jersey in the American Revolution: An Exhibition from the Library and Museum Collections of the Society of the Cincinnati. Washington, D.C.: Society of the Cincinnati, 1999.

Raum, John O. The History of New Jersey, From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. Vol. II. Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., 1877.

Salter, Edwin and George C. Beekman. Old Times in Old Monmouth; Historical Reminiscences of Old Monmouth County, New Jersey, Being a Series of Historical Sketches Relating to Old Monmouth County, (Now Monmouth and Ocean), to Which Is Appended the History of the Centennial of the Battle of Monmouth. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.

Smith, Samuel Stelle. Battle of Monmouth. Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1964.

Smith, Samuel Stelle. A Molly Pitcher Chronology. Monmouth Beach, NJ: Philip Freneau Press, 1972.

Smith, Samuel Stelle. “Molly Pitcher’s Well Discovered.” Monmouth County Historical Association Newsletter, 6:2 (Winter 1978).

Smith, Samuel Stelle. “The Search for Molly Pitcher,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, April 1975.

Stevenson, Augusta. Molly Pitcher, Girl Patriot. Indianapolis/NY: Bobbs Merrill, 1952, 1960.

Stevenson, Augusta. Molly Pitcher: Young Patriot. NY: Aladdin Books,1983, 1986.

Stryker, William Scudder and William Starr Myers, eds. The Battle of Monmouth. Princeton University Press, 1927, reprinted by Friends of the Monmouth Battlefield, 1999.

Thacher, Silas James. Military Journal of the American Revolution. Hartford: Hurlbut, Williams & Co., 1862. [Earlier editions did not include the Molly Pitcher story.]

Thayer, Theodore. Making of a Scapegoat: Washington and Lee at Monmouth. Port Washington, NY/London: Kennikat Press Corp., 1976.

Thompson, D.W. and Merri Lou Schaumann. “Goodbye Molly Pitcher,” Cumberland County History, 6:1 (Summer 1989), 3-26.