Captain Molly Corbin: America's first female veteran
Updated: Feb 17
Women’s History Month brings forth a great display of groundbreaking women from different times, all worthy of our admiration. Aviators and astronauts, researchers and teachers, role models all. Sometimes if we reach just a little further back, dig just a little deeper, think just a little more about what got us to where we are in the first place, we find the most amazing women.
One such woman is Margaret Cochran Corbin, who came to be known as Captain Molly Corbin: wife, camp follower, first woman to receive a soldier’s pension from the U.S. government, thereby becoming our first official female veteran, and American Revolutionary War hero.
I had developed an interest in Corbin during my time as a Department of the Army civilian Public Affairs Officer. Each year, as I wrote articles or command messages about special emphasis programs or observances, the name Margaret Cochran Corbin would show up in my research for Women’s History Month or other events recognizing military women. I was struck by her extraordinary courage under fire, and saddened by her short and difficult life of physical impairment and loneliness due to lack of family. Little did I know that I would someday belong to a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution named after her. *
If you have any romantic notions of life in Colonial America, put them aside when thinking about Corbin. Her life was nothing like that. She was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1751, and orphaned at five when her father was killed during a Native American raid. Her mother was taken captive, never to be seen again. She and her brother were raised by an uncle.
She married John Corbin in 1772 and three years later, when he joined the Pennsylvania militia, she went with him, since they had no children, and she had no other family. Like many other women, she became a camp follower, earning money cooking and doing laundry for the soldiers, and helping with the sick and wounded. Some of these women also watched their husbands at drills, learned that too, and helped with the fighting. Corbin was one of them.
Her time to serve in that capacity came on Nov. 16, 1776, at the Battle of Fort Washington in the Hudson Valley of New York. John Corbin’s battery was stationed on a ridge at the northern end of Manhattan, which the British and the Hessian mercenary troops had to take before approaching Fort Washington. John Corbin was manning a cannon when he was killed during the Hessian advance.
With no time to grieve, she stepped up and continued loading and firing the cannon by herself. Some reports say that, because of her aim and accuracy, her position drew the attention of the ten field cannons of the Hessians, and they soon trained their guns on her. But she continued until she was hit, wounded by grapeshot which tore her shoulder, almost severing her left arm, mangled her chest and lacerated her jaw.
Fort Washington fell to the British. Corbin never fully recovered from her injuries and was unable to use her left arm for the rest of her life. An invalid, left to support herself alone, Corbin struggled financially. Finally, in recognition of her valor and service to the American Revolution, she received a lifetime disability pension of one-half pay in 1779 from the Continental Congress, making her the first woman to obtain such a commitment from the government.
Margaret Cochran Corbin died in 1800 near West Point, New York. She was only 48 years old. She was buried in the highlands above the Hudson River. Local villagers, who had taken to calling her “Captain” because she wore military jackets over her dresses, passed her life story down through the generations.
Then in 1926, the New York Daughters of the American Revolution sought to recognize this hero from the Battle of Fort Washington. They verified her records that recognized her heroism and service to the United States. What was thought to be her overgrown grave was found with the help of what records existed and local legend. That, along with the concurrence of a physician who said that the skeletal remains were consistent with the injuries that Corbin sustained in battle, led the DAR to work with the U.S. Army to have what they thought were Corbin’s remains moved from the obscure grave and re-interred with full military honors at the cemetery of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where they also erected a monument to her.
But what was thought to be a final fitting tribute to this American hero was not to be.
In 2016, an excavation near the monument accidentally disturbed the grave, resulting in modern high tech forensic tests on the exhumed remains. These tests showed that the skeletal remains belonged to a male, probably one who lived in the 19th century.
The male remains were buried in a cemetery at West Point, and Corbin’s monument was rededicated. But the question as to where Captain Molly Corbin's remains are cannot at this time be answered, and the search continues.
In many ways, she is still with us and will remain so as long as we continue to tell her story. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point conducts the Corbin Leadership Forum, named after her, to facilitate discussion of gender diversity and inclusion. The DAR presents the annual Margaret Cochran Corbin Award for distinguished women in military service and outstanding volunteers for veterans. Most important, her steadfast dedication through a life that immersed her in violence, grief, and pain surely is one that has a lesson for us all, and reminds us of these words from America the Beautiful:
Oh, beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
The Revolutionary War brought us great thinkers, political philosophers, state builders--our Founding Fathers. They were necessary to provide the framework for our new republic. But many of our Revolutionary War heroes were local, people like you and me. That’s the way I see Captain Molly Corbin. Though not a Founding Father, she paid dearly for our nation’s independence, and it was through sacrifices like hers that we enjoy the freedoms that we have today.
*Though I am a member of the Captain Molly Corbin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, this article is not endorsed by the DAR and does not necessarily reflect the organization's views. All content and opinions are my own.
Many thanks to Tracy H. Sugg for the use of photos of her stunning sculpture of Margaret Cochran Corbin (Captain Molly Corbin). All poses can be seen on her website at https://www.tracyhsugg.com/margaret-corbin