At the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the 100-degree heat killed as many soldiers as bullets, blades and artillery fire combined. The sun slew about half of the 400+ Patriot soldiers who died that day in New Jersey.
General Washington would have lost even more men had it not been for the heroism of the women attached to the Continental Army.
Members of the fairer sex were not permitted to serve in uniform during the Revolutionary War, but they were allowed to serve men in uniform.
These women — camp followers, in the parlance of the day — were soldiers’ spouses and single women who supported the troops as cooks, servants, medics, and prostitutes.
Like most military leaders of his time, Washington recognized the value of those services, but he worked to limit the number of camp followers because he believed that they made his forces less mobile.
Most of these women sensibly steered clear of actual battles, but there were exceptions. Some of the bravest camp followers supported artillery units by bringing pitchers of water to douse overheating cannons.
One of those women at Monmouth was Mary Ludwig, born today in 1744 to a German family in Philadelphia. In 1769, she married William Hays, a barber who became a Patriot and then an artilleryman in the Continental Army.
Nicknamed Molly, she braved heavy British fire relaying pitchers from a nearby spring to cool her husband, his comrades and his cannon.
Late in the day, William collapsed — it is not clear whether wounds or the heat or both felled him — and Molly took her husbands’s place in the crew, using his ramrod to swab and load the cannon, firing volley after volley at the British.
A witness, Private Joseph Story, remembered, “While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could stemp, a cannon shot from the enemey passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation."
They continued to fight until nightfall, when the British retreated to Sandy Hook.
After the war, Molly and William went home to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He died in 1786, shortly after the birth of their son.
In 1793, she married John McCauley, an abusive veteran who financially ruined her and then disappeared.
“Sergeant Molly” remained in Carlisle, doing odd jobs to support herself and her son. She reputedly “cursed like a soldier.”
In 1822, the Pennsylvania General Assembly granted her a pension for her heroism. “Molly Pitcher” died in 1832.