LOCAL HISTORIC PROFILE: Margaret Cochran Corbin, Revolutionary War heroine

Illustration by Sabina Mollot

By Sabina Mollot

Last December, Manhattan Congress members announced legislation aimed at renaming the Manhattan VA Medical Center after Margaret Cochran Corbin, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was the first woman to receive a veteran’s pension.

While the fate of the East 23rd Street hospital’s name is still up in the air, the legislation is expected to be reintroduced in Congress this year.

Corbin is remembered for her bravery during an attack by the British and Hessians  (German troops hired by the British) on Fort Washington in Upper Manhattan on November 16, 1776.

Her involvement in the military began when her husband John enlisted in the Continental Army’s First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery. Corbin, then 25, joined him. Working alongside the soldiers was what many wives and sweethearts did at the time and were tasked with things like cooking, washing and sewing. But when John was killed in the battle at Fort Washington at the cannon he’d taken over for the gunner who’d also been killed, his wife was standing at his side. Not stopping to grieve, Corbin quickly took John’s place, loading and firing the cannon as she had seen him do. Then suddenly, she too was struck by a grapeshot, a cluster of metal balls in a sack that had been fired from a cannon. Seeing her fall, other soldiers carried Corbin away to where the wounded were being tended. The Revolutionaries ended up losing this battle and the survivors were taken prisoner, including Corbin. However, they were released.

After recovering from her injuries to her chest, jaw and left arm, Corbin joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point and tended to the wounded there. She was never able to regain use of her left arm.

Becoming widowed and disabled at once was hardly her first hardship, however. Born Margaret Cochran in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1751, she was essentially orphaned at the age of five, when Native Americans killed her father and kidnapped her mother, who Corbin never saw again. She and her brother had only escaped being killed because they weren’t home at the time, and they went on to be raised by an uncle. She married John Corbin in 1772.

Sadly, Corbin’s life ended as tragically as it began. While she remarried another veteran in 1782, he died a year later. She also, unable to care for herself due to the extent of her injuries, became an alcoholic. In her later years, she was living in Highland Falls, not far from West Point, and was referred to as “Dirty Kate” by residents there who didn’t know her disability was the result of being wounded in action. Corbin died at the age of 48.

Prior to this, she was awarded a pension as a disabled veteran for her services by Congress, albeit “half the pay and allowances of a soldier in service,” the 2005 book Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin notes.

Berkin, a now-retired presidential professor of history at Baruch College, wrote about Corbin as well as other women who fought alongside men in the war for America’s independence.

While Corbin was said to have been gruff and unfeminine, according to a profile on womenshistory.com, and a smoker who preferred the company of fellow veterans to other women, Berkin noted that Corbin wasn’t unusual for a woman of her day for those reasons.

In fact, with the exception of the wealthy, Colonial women were expected to slaughter pigs and chickens and heft heavy pots and kettles. Smoking pipes, drinking beer and cursing weren’t uncommon.

Obedience to men was certainly expected, but “No one wanted a wife who was fragile and went, ‘eek, a mouse,’” Berkin said.

The historian also suspects that like many veterans today, it’s likely that Corbin, in her later years, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

“She was known as Dirty Kate, because she was drunk all the time and in the gutter, but the parallels to veterans of the Iraq War who are in New York City begging or are alcoholics are really striking,” Berkin said. “All the people drank on all levels of society, but she apparently was not able to function.”

Few women revolutionaries have been formally recognized, but according to Berkin, between the Continental and the British Armies, there were thousands of women involved in the war effort in some fashion, if for no other reason than it seemed more attractive than dying of starvation while their husbands were absent from the home. It may have also seemed safer, by comparison, than being confronted, alone in their homes and shops, by invading troops.

While General Washington wasn’t pleased about his camps being lousy with females, he allowed it, knowing that many of the men would have simply deserted otherwise.

“Washington hated having these women around. He wanted a professional army like the British did, so he put them all to work,” Berkin said.

It may have been inevitable that women, initially relegated to washing lice-ridden uniforms, cooking and tending to the ill, would eventually be called upon to do more, like scavenge boots and other items from slain soldiers on the field and fetch water to cool down the cannons (hence the name eventually given to female camp followers doing this type of job, “Molly Pitcher”).

“Sometimes they would be killed by cannons,” Berkin said, adding that Corbin seeing action wasn’t unusual. Some women also became messengers, spies and saboteurs, “when no man would volunteer to do it. It was a home front war that lasted for eight years. Of course it involved the whole population.”

In some cases, women, like another to receive a veteran’s pension, Deborah Sampson, would disguise themselves as men and join the military because the pay was better than what they’d get otherwise as a domestic servant. As Berkin notes in her book, women soldiers were begrudgingly accepted in the soldiers’ camps, but not always. Sometimes they’d be punished for minor infractions in extreme ways like public lashings and camp followers were typically derided as ugly for their ragged appearances. There were some women who’d joined under the guise of being men and were kicked out after being discovered. Like Corbin when fighting at Fort Washington, some wore men’s clothing (typically taken from slain soldiers).

Folk hero Molly Pitcher, who is now widely believed to be a composite of different women, has a story similar to Corbin’s in that she was a camp follower who took over her husband’s cannon when he collapsed in battle. Pitcher was also known as Sergeant Molly. Before eventually being derided as “Dirty Kate,” Corbin was called Captain Molly.

Corbin’s name has been on the entrance and drive of the Upper Manhattan Fort Tryon Park since 1982, five years after the City Council voted for that dedication. Additionally, in 1982, a plaque honoring Corbin was placed at 190th Street and Fort Washington Avenue.

When she died, her grave in the Highlands above the Hudson River was obscure. Then in 1926, the New York Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) had her remains moved to the cemetery of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where they also erected a monument to her.

However, the remains believed to be Corbin’s turned out to be those of an unknown male, it was discovered during an archaeological study following a construction disturbance at the site. On its website, the DAR says it hasn’t given up the search and will “hopefully one day find her remains in order to give her the burial she deserves.”

The idea for the bill for the hospital renaming was brought to Congress by the NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group.

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