Saturday, June 15, 2013

Margaret and Deborah

Margaret Corbin -- the other Molly Pitcher, as one might say -- was wounded in battle when she took over the cannon from her husband.  That was in 1776.  As remarkable as her feat of bravery was, the really remarkable moments (and the reason why she is interesting to compare to Deborah Samson) come afterwards.

I haven't been able to find out concrete information as to where she went in 1777 and 1778, but by 1779, people were petitioning on Margaret's behalf and the Continental Congress responded.  In fact, their response was remarkable: she was granted a pension of a soldier's half-pay as well as clothes.  With this gesture, the Congress recognized Margaret as a soldier -- at least in some sense -- they recognized that she had served and been injured in the line of duty.

Even more remarkable, she was allowed join the Invalid Corps at West Point.  This regiment provided for soldiers who were disabled and -- when possible -- got them to perform some military duties (such as standing guard or doing light labor).  Margaret remained a presence in and around West Point well past the end of the war.

There's a great online text that records some correspondence between General Knox and General Fleming about what to do with this woman. The notes make clear a few things: the army was still paying for her upkeep and she was a well-known (notorious, even!) individual.  Of particular interest to me is the fact that General Fleming mentions that she is called "Captain Molly" and that (while requesting more shifts for her to wear) she regularly is seen about wearing an artillery-man's cloak, and (my favorite) she is "brusque, coarse, red-haired, and wholly wanting in feminine charms" as well as a person who swears regularly.

This is a problematic heroine and a complicated story.  It starts so similarly as the other one: a fallen husband, a brave gesture.  It has a middle with a mix of tragedy and triumph: her injury and also her recognition by the Congress.  And the end... such ambivalence: it is clear that even as General Fleming wants to take care of her (he mentions shifting her from the house of a woman who wasn't treating her well) he also is made uncomfortable by some of her behavior and appearance.

It does make me wonder how Margaret Corbin lived all those year in and around West Point.  "Captain Molly," swearing, wearing an artillery-man's coat... was she "just one of the boys" and if so, was that a reflection of her life-long personality or how she adapted to her situation after being injured?  Unlike the other Molly Pitcher, she doesn't fade back into married life.  She becomes a soldier, of a sort, for the rest of her days.

There are several points of contact with Deborah Samson: the achievement of winning a pension as a woman soldier is one of them.  The second is the ambiguity of gender roles after the war.  Yes, Deborah did go back to life as a woman, but she also then went on the road and performed as a soldier.  The third is, perhaps, the most important one.  Like Deborah Samson, Margaret Corbin was an unknown for many years -- her story wasn't widely told until the early twentieth-century, when the Daughters of the American Revolution did research on her that led to the discovery of her unmarked grave and her reburial at West Point (a remarkable tribute).

Like Deborah, Margaret is a heroine that doesn't easily fit within the bounds of expected feminine behavior of the time. She was unacceptable, too much the soldier.  Her heroism was no less than the other Molly Pitcher, but society tends to like its heroines neat and clean.  Just as Deborah's story was "marred" because of how others perceived her act as deceitful or dishonest, Margaret's "brusque and coarse" behavior (other sources speak of how she smoked a pipe) makes her problematic.  It is a shame that it is so difficult to celebrate these women in the full complexity of the characters and identities.  

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