October 13th marks the birthday of one of America’s most famous folk heroes- Molly Pitcher. Mary Ludwig Hays, as she was really named, is remembered for her alleged actions at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey during the American Revolution. How did Hays get her nickname, and why is Monmouth one of the war’s most important battles?
In June 1778, the British army under General Sir Henry Clinton had been ordered to move its troops to New York after spending the winter camped in Philadelphia. After the defeat at Saratoga, the British wanted to secure a position in the north again. Seeing their opportunity, Generals George Washington and Harry Lee launched an attack on the rear of Clinton’s force in Monmouth, New Jersey, on June 28th. The blazing sun beat down on the Continental troops who had been training at Valley Forge to compete as an army on the open field thanks to assistance from Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian officer. Heat was estimated at 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) with high humidity, no weather to fight a battle in.
Lee was ordered to lay in wait along the Middletown Road for the British column to pass by. This would have allowed Washington to assault Clinton’s main force while the reserves were preoccupied. However, Lee’s attack was poorly coordinated and the Americans were smashed back by British forces, outraging Washington. The rest of the Continental troops arrived to support Lee’s broken forces, rallying on the high ridge next to Monmouth Court House. Washington placed Lee’s troops in command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Generals Greene, Wayne, and Sirling’s divisions held the heights while the British forces prepared to attack.
The American artillery stunned the British troops advancing to attack Stirling’s division and they were soon beaten back in a counterattack. An assault on Greene’s troops failed, but Wayne’s division broke. The heat quickly winded many soldiers on both sides as artillery and musketry whizzed back and forth.
As the story goes, William Hays, a member of the 4th Continental Artillery, collapsed of heat exhaustion. His wife, Mary, stepped up and immediately filled his position at the gun, continuing to fire the cannon in his place. Mary was nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” as she and the Continentals kept the battle raging on. A British musket ball zipped through her skirt, missing her body, and she resumed firing. Joseph Plumb Martin, whose diaries survived and recounted the events of an average soldier in the continental army, confirmed the incident. Molly Pitcher went down in history as one of America’s most important and recognizable women.
By 6PM, the British decided to end the day and fall back. Though a few generals wanted to chase them, George Washington refused and held the heights in case of British attack the next day. The Americans had suffered about 700 casualties and the British, the same number. Washington’s trust in Lee severely deteriorated after the battle, and many called for his sacking. Cries of treason tainted Lee’s reputation.
The question arises who actually won the Battle of Monmouth. While the Americans drove the British from the field, they suffered heavy casualties and their line broke in the centre. The early morning failure of Lee did drag in Washington to fight a different battle that intended, and tainted one of the more important generals in the Continental Army. The British suffered as many casualties, and were forced to march off the field. However, they still made their way towards New York and and also managed to defeat Lee’s initial attack. The battle is certainly up for debate, but most credit the victory to the Americans, as this was their first open battle against the British.