It’s July and fitting that this month’s history posts be about Margaret Cochran Corbin, born November 12, 1751 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. A U.S. Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin was the first woman paid a soldier’s pension by the Continental Congress.
Born to Robert Cochran, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Sarah, Margaret was orphaned at the age of five. While she and her brother were away from home, Native Americans raided her home. Her father died, and they kidnapped her mother. Her mother’s brother adopted her and her brother.
Twenty-one-year-old Margaret married John Corbin from Virginia in 1772. Presumably they moved to Pennsylvania.
The Revolutionary War
Her husband joined the Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775 or 1776. A matross, an artilleryman, John served on a cannon crew.
Margaret, like many other wives at the time, became a camp follower. Camp followers cooked, cleaned and repaired clothes for the soldiers to earn money. They also cared for the sick and wounded. And camp followers brought the soldiers water to drink and to cool the cannons. The soldiers called these women, Molly Pitcher.
John manned one of two cannons at Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, when George Washington retreated with the Continental Army to White Plains, New York. John and about 600 other soldiers remained to defend the fort against the Hessians (German soldiers hired by the British to help the war effort). During the battle, John was killed.
Margaret Turns Soldier
After the enemy killed her husband, Margaret took over his role at the cannon. If she had not, the cannon crew could not have continued to fight.
Other soldiers commented on “Captain Molly’s” steady aim and sure-shot.
During the battle, Margaret took enemy fire. It severely injured her left jaw and breast and nearly severed her left arm at her shoulder.
The commander of Fort Washington surrendered to the British. Margaret and the surviving soldiers became prisoners of war. Because of her injuries, they released her on parole a few days later.
After the Battle of Fort Washington
After her parole, Margaret went to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, NY. She never fully recovered from her injuries. Her left arm remained useless for the rest of her life.
On June 29, 1779, the State of Pennsylvania granted her $30 to help her and passed her case on to the Continental Congress’s Board of War.
The Board of War approved a continuing allowance for her. It equaled half the amount her male counterparts received. They also gave her clothing to replace the ones damaged when she’d been injured.
The Board’s decision made her the first woman to receive a pension from the United States. It also put her on military rolls until the end of the war.
She joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point in 1777. She helped care for the wounded.
In 1782, Corbin married a wounded soldier, but he died a year later.
She was formally discharged from service in 1783. The story of the rest of her life is unknown.
She died in Highland Falls, New York, on January 16, 1800, at 48.
Honoring Margaret Corbin
In 1925 the New York State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and other local historians, began extensive research to locate and identify Margaret Corbin’s burial site.
A year later, they found her burial site. On March 16, 1926, they exhumed Margaret Corbin’s body. They re-interred her body at West Point Cemetery with full military honors. DAR donated a monument to honor her.
Every May since 1926, DAR honors Margaret Corbin with Margaret Corbin Day, which includes ceremonial wreath-laying at her Monument at West Point Cemetery.
A Surprising Discovery
In October 2016, West Point Cemetery extension project Included placement of a retaining wall near Margaret’s grave. The digging disturbed Margaret’s grave. They recovered Margaret’s body to determine if the digging had damaged it.
Forensic analysis of the body determined it belonged to a male, not Margaret.
Legacy of a Revolutionary War Hero
Though little more has been found out about Margaret Corbin’s life and death and her grave remains undiscovered, the DAR and the Army continue to honor Margaret’s sacrifice.
In 1976, women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of women at the United States Military Academy in West Point. That same year, the Margaret Corbin Forum was created. The Forum’s purpose is to educate the Corps on women’s roles in the military and to resolve issues integrating women into the Academy.
Each year since, the DAR presents the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award to a distinguished woman in military service.
In May 2018, DAR held a rededication ceremony honoring Margaret Corbin for her service and legacy. The DAR continues to search for her grave and documentation of the life of our Revolutionary War Hero, Margaret Corbin.