“Molly, pitcher!” The cry could be heard repeatedly on any Revolutionary War battleground. It was not a plea for water from thirsty soldiers; it was a command from gunners who needed the water to swab their cannons. The nickname was given to any woman whose job was to supply water for the cannons. Universally, the phoneme “ma” is feminine: Mom, Madre, Mary, Molly, mammary, etc. The word ‘pitcher’ resounds much more clearly on a battlefield than would the more specific ‘pot’, ‘pan’, or ‘bucket. So ‘Molly Pitcher’ were the words used to communicate the need for a woman – any woman – to bring water in anything available. Succinct if not exactly precise.
Well, now that the name has been defined, take a closer look at one of the most famous Molly Pitchers – Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. Defining names again -- Mary (first name), Ludwig (maiden), Hays (first marriage), and McCauley (second marriage). Mary, for the purposes of brevity in this article – was born Oct. 13, most likely in the year 1754 to German immigrants who ran a dairy farm somewhere between Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey. When Mary was about 13, she was hired as a house maid (1768) and married John Casper Hays the next year. She may have married William Hays, references did not concur. But on July 24, 1769 at the age of 13 (or 14), Mary became Mrs. Hays. All sources found did list Mr. Hays as a barber and state he lived until after the war.
Mary followed her husband into the Philadelphia Campaign and supposedly wintered at Valley Forge. Supposedly. But definitely, Mary and her husband were at the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778 where Mary served as a Molly Pitcher and her husband as gunnery. During the battle, he was wounded and Mary took over as gunnery so magnificently that George Washington (but it could have been General Greene) made her a non-commissioned officer. She was called “Sergeant Molly” thereafter.
Mr. Hays survived (well, he did die later of ‘cancer and shortness of breath’) and the Hays moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania after the war. As a widow, Mary stayed in the Carlisle barracks as a cook and laundress.
Mary then wed John McCauley (or George McCauley by other accounts) – a war veteran by all accounts – and lived at the corner of North and Bedford streets in Carlisle, New Jersey. This was probably the same Carlisle listed as Pennsylvania in other sources. They lived there until John or George died in 1813.
The Pennsylvania Legislature honored Mary for her services during the Revolutionary War by granting her an annual commission of $40 for life. They granted this in 1822 (44 years after her acts of heroism) which she gathered for the remainder of her life (10 more years.)
The story of Molly Pitcher took on the quality of folklore, embellishing deeds here, slipping away from the facts there. But Molly Pitcher epitomized the bravery of women who fought for their country’s freedom:
1854 – Immortalized in a portrait named “Molly Pitcher and the Battle of Monmouth” by Dennis Malone Carte
July 4, 1876 – citizenry of Carlisle put a monument on her grave on which was engraved the poem “Molly Pitcher – The Heroine of Monmouth” by Laura E. Richards
1928 – (After a fierce and fascinating battle of political strategies) the Molly Pitcher 2 cent US postal stamp
1943 – WWII Liberty ship was christened the SS Molly Pitcher (torpedoed and sank the same year)
There are locations which bear the name of Molly Pitcher:
- A section of US Route 11 between Shippensberg and Chambersburg, PA
- The Pennsylvania – Maryland State Line
- A rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike southbound at mile marker 71.7
- A hotel in Red Bank, New Jersey (near the Battle of Monmouth)
Plus, the American Legion Post in Englishtown is called the Molly Pitcher Post 04.
“Molly, Pitcher!” was a battle cry; a battle cry that was answered by many women – one of whom was Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. Maybe it is right to let the individual names fade with history, as long as the spirit of Molly Pitcher lives on.