Margaret Cochran Corbin (November 12, 1751 – January 16, 1800) is an interesting and unique character in the American Revolution, though she certainly didn’t set out to be. Her natural bravery and dedication to her country made her the first woman to be awarded a soldier’s pension in the new United States, at a time when women weren’t permitted to join the military. How she came to that amazing place of distinction is a fascinating story.
Born in western Pennsylvania in what is now Franklin County (named after fellow patriot, Benjamin Franklin), Margaret was the daughter of Scots-Irish immigrant Robert Cochran and his wife, Sarah. When Margaret was five years old, in 1756, her parents’ farm was raided by Native Americans. Her father was killed in the melee, and her mother was kidnapped by the Natives, never to return to her children. Most likely, her mother was sold to the French in Canada, a common thing for European captives of Native Americans at the time. Some captives did eventually return to their homes in the English colonies, but most did not, especially if there was no one left at home to ransom them. They stayed in Canada, many of them becoming servants, while others (especially women and children) were allowed to convert to Catholicism and gain their freedom by marrying a Canadian citizen. This is likely what happened to Margaret’s mother.
Margaret had a brother named John, and the two children escaped the raid. After, with both parents gone, they went to live with their uncle for the remainder of their childhoods. When Margaret was twenty-one, in 1772, she married a farmer from Virginia named John Corbin, which was perfectly in line with her expectations and prospects as a middle-class farmer’s orphan. The Revolution began in earnest four years after her marriage.
At the war’s beginning, John Corbin enlisted, wanting to be of use to his country. He became part of the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery and served on the cannon crew. Margaret, being very concerned for her husband’s safety, followed him to war. It wasn’t uncommon at the time. Many such women accompanied male relatives to war, and they became known as camp followers; Martha Washington was the most famous camp follower and an example of the countless other women who followed her example. The camp followers did the cooking, washing, and other domestic chores in the soldiers’ camps, and also acted as de facto nurses, tending to wounded soldiers, as well.
As many of the other camp followers did, Margaret began being referred to as “Molly Pitcher.” It was a common camp follower nickname and one given to women who fetched water for the camp and for thirsty soldiers as their primary contribution to the camp. Water was always needed, both to drink and to cook, to wash things, to tend and clean wounds, and to cool down cannons. Women brought water to the camp for these purposes, so the men could be free to fight the war.
Margaret’s fame began on November 16, 1776, at Fort Washington in Manhattan. This was where her husband’s company was stationed at the time, and he was part of a small garrison George Washington left behind to guard the island while he and the rest of the Continental Army retreated to White Plains, NY. Once Washington was gone, the British began an assault on Fort Washington. Margaret’s husband was in charge of firing a cannon at the top of a ridge in what is today known as Fort Tryon Park. During the battle, he was killed, and this left his cannon unattended. Margaret had been by his side the whole time during the battle and witnessed him fall beside her. Putting aside horror, shock, and grief for another time, Margaret knew that cannon needed to be manned. She had watched her husband use it enough for her to know how it worked, so she jumped right into the battle and started firing the cannon at the British herself.
It was a very brave act for a woman of the time to do, and she did it well. In fact, she stayed at the cannon, taking wound after wound from enemy fire, until she was too wounded to keep doing it. Ultimately, Margaret Corbin was wounded in the arm, chest, and jaw during her tenure manning her husband’s cannon. The British won the battle of Fort Washington, and Margaret had to surrender along with the other male soldiers. Because she fired on the British, she was considered an enemy combatant. Once Margaret and her husband’s company surrendered, the last place in New York City held by Americans temporarily fell to the British. Because Margaret was essentially a wounded soldier, even if she was not officially part of the army, she was treated as such and released on parole by the British, as was customary to do with wounded prisoners of war at the time.
Margaret went to Philadelphia after being paroled, completely disabled because of her wounds, and she never fully healed from them. This made remarriage impossible, as she had a hard time caring for herself, and men of the time wanted a wife who could care for a household. Needless to say, Margaret had a hard time of it for a while after the Revolution. However, the new government of the United States recognized her contribution to the patriot cause, and the Executive Council of Pennsylvania granted her a gift of $30 to take care of her current financial needs. On July 6, 1779, the Board of War of the new Congress learned of her case and was impressed with her bravery and service to her country. The Board granted Margaret a pension that was equal to half that of a male soldier. The pension was paid monthly and included either a new set of clothes or its equivalent in cash, her choice. With this act, Congress made Margaret Corbin the first woman in the new nation to receive a military pension from the United States.
Margaret was included on Congressional military rolls after this and until the end of the war. Congress enrolled her in the Corps of Invalids, which became part of the garrison at West Point in 1781. Margaret received her official discharge from the Continental Army in 1783. She received her military pension from Congress for the rest of her life.
In 1926, the New York State Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution recognized Margaret’s service to her country and verified her military records. They located her neglected grave, had her body exhumed, and examined by a physician, who confirmed it was hers. This conformation was done based on the injuries on her skeleton, which were consistent with the reports of the injuries she received while manning her husband’s cannon. She was re-interred on April 14, 1926, this time with full military honors, and at a new location, in the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point, becoming one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers to be buried there. The Daughters of the American Revolution erected the Margaret Corbin Monument over her new gravesite, to commemorate the bravery and patriotism of this remarkable colonial woman.