War Used to be a Family Affair

by Larry Sunderland

On this day when we honor our military families, I find it interesting to look back at the role wives played in our country’s earlier wars. The women who followed Continental Army camps during the Revolution were called "Molly Pitchers," and they were indeed commonplace. There was no such person as Molly Pitcher. Its just what they were all called.

Molly Pitchers served as cooks, nurses, water carriers, seamstresses, and fought on occasion. History, in large part, has ignored their heroic contribution. Unlike today where women may join the military as do men, the Molly Pitchers were not recognized as soldiers.

Probably the most famous of the Molly Pitchers was Margaret Corbin. She was with her husband as the British laid siege to Fort Washington. When the smoke cleared after a massive artillery barrage, she saw her husband lying dead next to his cannon. With tears in her eyes she fired his cannon and then began reloading it.

Her bravery inspired the other artillerymen and, as a result, they rejoined the fight. She was soon hit by an incoming cannonball and was severely injured. She remained an invalid the rest of her life. Upon her death, she was buried with full military honors at West Point.

Another Molly Pitcher heroine was Mary Hays, who distinguished herself at the Battle of Monmouth. She ran through a hail of gunfire to get ammunition to the soldiers. As she ran, a cannonball ripped part of her dress away, just missing her legs. She was undaunted and continued to deliver ammunition to the soldiers who cheered at her bravery.

Deborah Gannett disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army. She distinguished herself in combat but was wounded in battle at Tarrytown, New York. As a result, her secret became known. She went on to be the first woman on the lecture circuit. When she died, her husband was given a pension by a vote of Congress as the surviving spouse of a Continental soldier.

There were camp followers in the Civil War as well and 400 or more women disguised themselves as men to join both armies. Union Army Colonel Elijah H. C. Cavins once wrote, "A corporal was promoted to sergeant for gallant conduct in the Battle of Fredricksburg, since which time the sergeant has become the mother of a child."

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmunds, a Canadian, joined the 2nd Michigan Volunteers as "Franklin Thompson." In her memoirs entitled Nurse and Spy, she described he physical examination as "... a firm handshake." Her secret was soon discovered but she nonetheless completed numerous dangerous missions behind enemy lines.

Rose Rooney joined the Confederate Army as a woman. She was the cook and laundress for Crescent Blues Volunteers which eventually became Company K of the 15th Louisiana Infantry. During the First Battle of Bull Run, she ran onto the field of battle to tear down a rail fence so the Confederate artillery could race through and stop a Union charge. She was credited with turning the tide of the battle.

But my favorite story is when in 1989 Lauren Cook Burgess dressed herself as a Union soldier during a reenactment of the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Seeing her exit the women’s restroom, National Park Service authorities stopped from participating saying they wanted to preserve the authenticity of the battle.

Burgess sued the NPS for discrimination as won, proving in court that five women actually fought in that battle posing as men. Two were wounded and one was killed.