Margaret Cochran Corbin has been immortalized as the first woman to receive veteran’s benefits. What a thin epitaph to put on a woman whose entire life was a battle from which she never faltered.
Margaret began her life during the time of the United States’ birth. She and her family were farmers at the edge of European colonialism. Her father was killed and her mother kidnapped by enemy combatants who no doubt believed they were protecting their homeland from invading hoards. So orphaned, she and her brother were adopted by an uncle. For the next fifteen years, history makes no mention of her. At 21 – a veritable ‘old maid’ in the late 1700’s – Margaret married John Corbin and became a farmer’s wife, battling the soil and weather to provide sustenance for her family. It seems unlikely that she and John owned the land they farmed, for when John signed up for the First Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery in the Continental Army at the beginning of the American Revolution, Margaret left everything behind to accompany him.
She was a camp follower. Of the hundreds of references I found for her, almost every author took a paragraph to explain how being a camp follower was actually a noble and normal position for a soldier’s wife. Why this needed to be explained lays bare one of the persistent battles women in the military have had to face. Of course Margaret Cochran Corbin was a camp follower. Where else would she be but at her husband’s side? She was ‘flesh of his flesh’ and she fought beside him during the war just as she had fought beside him during their battle to farm and live and exist.
The story follows that on Nov. 16, 1776 during the four hour-long Battle of New York at Fort Washington, John was a matross, whose job was to sponge out and load the cannon. The gunner fell, so John took over with Margaret taking over as matross. John was killed and Margaret took over for him. Anyone who has been in battle can attest to the rush of adrenalin, utter fear, and desperate bravery which Margaret Cochran Corbin faced in this situation.
But her battle does not end here. Horribly wounded and disfigured by grapeshot and musket balls, Margaret is taken prisoner, paroled, and transported to a Pennsylvanian hospital. When the Continental Congress formed the Invalid Regiment in June 20, 1777, Margaret Corbin was enrolled as one of the disabled soldiers and moved with it to West Point.
In June 28, 1779, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania awarded Mrs. Corbin $30 and suggested she receive a pension. A year later, Mrs. Corbin was given this pension (one-half soldier’s pay) and a set of clothes.
Imagine the societal battles Mrs. Corbin had to face during that time. Her left arm was unusable, her face disfigured, and she was a war widow. Accounts state that the Philadelphia Society for Women had planned to erect a memorial in her honor; until they met her and saw face-to-face the reality of what impoverishment does to soldiers and their widows. She still lived a soldier’s life style – she drank and smoked and lacked a genteel way of speech. Despite this, Margaret remarried in 1782.
But her battle does not end there. The Invalid Regiment was disbanded and her second husband, also a disabled veteran, died within the year. She was moved from West Point to Buttermilk Falls and placed in the care of a Mrs. Randall.
Again Margaret Corbin seems to fade from history’s gaze until her death in 1800. But her battle does not end there. In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution, in an effort to recognize Margaret Cochran Corbin’s pivotal role in US History, exhumed her body and had it re-interred behind the Old Cadet Chapel at West Point with full military honors.
Encyclopedias and school books recognize Margaret Cochran Corbin as the first women to receive a military pension. I choose to recognize her as a woman born to battle. Mrs. Corbin’s valor in each and every battle of her life – orphan, frontier wife, camp follower, widow, wounded, disfigured, disabled, widowed again, impoverished, dependent on the benevolence of others, buried in a pauper’s grave – was finally met – one-hundred-fifty years later – with the proper honors due such a hero. Margaret Cochran Corbin was a soldier who epitomized the role of women in the US military.