Molly Pitcher

Mary Hays McCauly, Revolutionary Heroine

Mary McCauley Fights In Battle Of Monmouth
Mary McCauley Fights In Battle Of Monmouth. Kean Collection / Getty Images

About Molly Pitcher (Mary Hays McCauly)

Known for: taking her husband's place loading a cannon in the battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, during the American Revolution

Occupation: domestic servant

Dates: October 13, 1750 (or 1754 or 1745 or 1744) - January 22, 1832

Also known as: Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly, Mary Hays, Mary Ludwig (or Ludwick), Mary McCauly (various spellings), Sergeant Molly, Captain Molly.

Molly was a common nickname for Mary.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Gretchen
  • Father: John George Ludwig, German immigrant, dairy farmer
  • Siblings: included three brothers

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: William or John Casper Hays (sources -- see below -- disagree, and some even speculate these were two different husbands); married 1769; barber, lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
  • one son: John L. Hayes, 1780-1856

More About Molly Pitcher and Mary Hays McCauly:

Molly Pitcher was a fictitious name given to a heroine of the battle of Monmouth. The identification of Molly Pitcher, earlier known in popular images as Captain Molly, with Mary McCauly, didn't come until the centennial of the American Revolution.  Molly was, at the time of the Revolution, a common nickname for women named Mary.

Much of Mary McCauly's story is told from oral histories or court and other legal documents correlating with some parts of the oral tradition.

Scholars disagree on many of the details, including what her first husband's name was (the famous husband who collapsed and whom she replaced at the cannon) or even whether she is the Molly Pitcher of history. The Molly Pitcher of legend may be completely folklore, or may be a composite. I've tried here to summarize a reasonable interpretation of the available information and general historical consensus.

Molly Pitcher's Early Life

Mary Ludwig's birthdate is given on her cemetery marker as October 13, 1744.  Other sources suggest her birth year was as late as 1754. She grew up on her family's farm. Her father was a butcher. She is unlikely to have had any education, and was likely illiterate.  Mary's father died in January of 1769, and she went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to be a servant to the family of Anna and Dr. William Irvine. 

Molly Pitcher's Husband

A Mary Ludwig married a John Hays on July 24, 1769. This may have been a first husband for the future Molly Pitcher, or it may have been a marriage of her mother, also named Mary Ludwig as a widow.

In 1777, the younger Mary married William Hays, a barber and an artilleryman.

Dr. Irvine, for whom Mary was working, had organized a boycott of British goods in response to the British Tea Act in 1774. William Hayes was listed as one helping with the boycott. On December 1, 1775, William Hays enlisted in the First Pennsylvania Regiment of Artillery, in a unit commanded by Dr. Irvine (also called General Irwin in some sources). A year later, January 1777, he joined the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment and was part of the winter camp at Valley Forge.

Molly Pitcher at War

After her husband's enlistment, Mary Hays first stayed in Carlisle, then joined her parents where she was closer to her husband's regiment.

Mary became a camp follower, one of the many women attached to a military camp to take care of support tasks such as laundry, cooking, sewing and other tasks. Martha Washington was another of the women at Valley Forge.

In 1778, William Hays trained as an artilleryman under Baron von Steuben. The camp followers were taught to serve as water girls.

William Hays was with the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment when, as part of George Washington's army, the Battle of Monmouth was fought with British troops on June 28, 1778. William (John) Hays' job was to load the cannon, wielding a ramrod. According to the stories told later, Mary Hays was among the women bringing pitchers of water to the soldiers, to cool the soldiers as well as to cool the cannon and soak the rammer rag.

On that hot day, carrying water, the story told is that Mary saw her husband collapse -- whether from the heat or from being wounded is not clear, though he certainly was not killed -- and stepped in to clean the ramrod and load the cannon herself, continuing until the end of the battle that day.

In one variation of the story, she helped her husband fire the cannon.

According to the oral tradition, Mary was nearly hit by a musket or cannon ball that sped between her legs and ripped her dress. She is said to have responded, "Well, that could have been worse."

Supposedly George Washington had seen her action on the field, and after the British retreated unexpectedly rather than continuing the fight the next day, Washington made Mary Hays a non-commissioned officer in the army for her deed. Mary apparently began calling herself "Sergeant Molly" from that day forward.

After the War

Mary and her husband returned to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They had a son, John L. Hayes, in 1780. Mary Hays continued to work as a domestic servant. In 1786, Mary Hays was widowed; later that year, she married John McCauley or John McCauly (various spellings of names was common in a society where many were not literate). This marriage was not successful; John, a stonecutter and a friend of William Hays, was apparently mean and did not adequately support his wife and stepson. Either she left him or he died, or he otherwise disappeared, about 1805.

Mary Hays McCauly continued to work around town as a domestic servant, with a reputation for being hard-working, eccentric and coarse. She petitioned for a pension based on her Revolutionary War service, and on February 18, 1822, the Pennsylvania legislature authorized a payment of $40 and subsequent annual payments, also of $40 each, in "An act for the relief of Molly M'Kolly." The first draft of the bill had the phrase "widow of a soldier" and this was revised to "for services rendered." Specifics of those services are not noted in the bill.

Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly -- who called herself Sergeant Molly -- died in 1832. Her grave was unmarked. Her obituaries do not mention military honors or her specific war contributions.

The Evolution of Captain Molly and Molly Pitcher

Popular images of "Captain Molly" at a cannon circulated in the popular press, but these were not tied to any specific individual for many years. The name evolved into "Molly Pitcher."

  • Example: Molly Pitcher engraving, 1859

In 1856, when Mary's son John L. Hays died, his obituary included the note that he "was a son of the ever-to-be-remembered heroine, the celebrated 'Molly Pitcher' whose deeds of daring are recorded in the annals of the Revolution and over whose remains a monument ought to be erected."

Connecting Mary Hays McCauly with Molly Pitcher

In 1876, the American Revolution centennial sparked interest in her story and local critics in Carlisle had a statue of Mary McCauley created, with Mary described as "the Heroine of Monmouth." In 1916 Carlisle established a three-dimensional representation of Molly Pitcher loading a cannon.

In 1928, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth, pressure on the Postal Service to create a stamp showing Molly Pitcher was only partially successful. Instead, a stamp was issued that was a regular red two cent stamp depicting George Washington, but with a black overprint of the text "Molly Pitcher" in capital letters.

In 1943, a Liberty ship was named SS Molly Pitcher and launched. It was torpedoed that same year.

A 1944 wartime poster by C. W. Miller depicted Molly Pitcher with a ramrod at the battle of Monmouth, with the text "America's women have always fought for freedom."

See also: Molly Pitcher Images

Source Information About Molly Pitcher (Mary Hays McCauly):

To see some of the original research and disputes over the identity and life of the woman who came to be known as Molly Pitcher, I recommend finding the following articles:

  • John Todd White. "The Truth About Molly Pitcher." in The American Revolution: Whose Revolution? edited by James Kirby Martin and Karen R. Stubaus. 1977.
  • John B. Landis. A Short History of Molly Pitcher, the Heroine of Monmouth. 1905. Published by the Patriotic Sons of America.
  • John B. Landis. "Investigation into American Tradition of Woman Known as Molly Pitcher." Journal of American History 5 (1911): 83-94.
  • D. W. Thompson and Merri Lou Schaumann. "Goodbye Molly Pitcher." Cumberland County History 6 (1989).
  • Carol Klaver. "An Introduction into the Legend of Molly Pitcher." Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military 12 (1994) 52.