Who Was Molly Pitcher?
Interestingly, this name was a generic term, almost a title, given to many women who served in a similar capacity. And what capacity was that? Well, in the Revolutionary War, many women followed men (be they husbands, sons, or brothers – though husband was the most typical) to wherever they served in the war. Why would a woman do this, given that the life on the lines must be tough and unpredictable? There might be a variety of reasons, ranging from the romantic to the practical. But for many of these women, as tough as life might be following the army, life without that would be even harder.
The reality for the 18th century lower classes was not a pretty one. For a woman left alone to tend a farm or manage a workshop of some sort while her husband fought, life could be nearly impossible. Some of these women – even those with children – found it necessary to trail along after their husbands. Indeed, there were at times so many of these camp followers that Generals, Washington included, had to thin their ranks. In 1777, he wrote:
"the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement."
A census of sorts would be conducted and those women who were found to be single or not performing a necessary service were sent away. The married women who could work for the army were permitted to camp nearby and were often given some quantity of rations and even, on occasion, drew pay for their work.
And work they did. These women most frequently did laundry for the soldiers. Sometimes they cooked or cleaned. On rare occasions they had a formal occupation as a servant for an officer. Though they maintained a separate camp, these women were frequent visitors to the army post and some of them labored alongside their husbands. This was the role of “Molly Pitchers,” who brought water to the lines. Sometimes the water was intended to relieve the soldiers, but often it was used to cool the cannons down and to wash them out between shots, keeping the barrel clear of debris and sparks.
Without question, camp followers were brave. They transgressed gender boundaries of the time. During the eighteenth century, the proper sphere of woman was home and hearth. Even though Martha Washington went to visit George at Valley Forge, she left and went back where she “belonged.” But the other women didn’t... mostly because they couldn’t. Perhaps some, though, didn’t want to and followed not only out of personal obligation but out of a patriotic desire to serve.
Next up... a look at the woman commonly believed to be “the” Molly Pitcher.