A heroine of the Revolutionary War, Molly Pitcher was the nickname of a woman said to have carried water to American soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, before taking over for her husband on the battlefield after he was no longer able to fight. 

While there’s no definitive proof about who Pitcher was—and there’s debate about whether she even existed at all—most commonly she’s been identified as Mary Hays McCauley. Born in Pennsylvania in 1754 (or possibly 1744), Mary may have worked as a servant before marrying William Hays, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During the war, Hays served as a gunner in the 4th Artillery of the Continental Army while Mary became part of the group of women, later referred to as camp followers, who traveled with the army and took on such duties as cooking, washing and caring for sick and wounded soldiers.

At the Battle of Monmouth, which took place on a sweltering summer day in Monmouth County, New Jersey, Continental forces under General George Washington faced off against British troops under General Henry Clinton. Mary brought water to the parched American troops until her husband collapsed, either from the heat or after being wounded, after which she supposedly took his place and helped operate the cannon for the rest of the battle.

A soldier who witnessed the action later wrote about in his diary, without referring to the woman involved by name: “While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat.”

The longest single day of fighting of the American Revolution, the Battle of Monmouth ended in a tactical draw. Following the war, Mary and her husband returned to Carlisle, where he died several years later. Mary went on to wed John McCauley, about who little is known. In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania awarded her an annual pension of $40 “for services rendered during the war.” 

Following Mary’s death in 1832, newspaper stories noted her bravery during the war but offered no details about which battle she served in. In the ensuing decades, accounts spread about Molly Pitcher, an unnamed woman who manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth. Mary Hays McCauley became formally linked with the Revolutionary War heroine in 1876 when residents of Carlisle decided to mark her grave as that of Molly Pitcher.

HISTORY Vault: The American Revolution

Stream American Revolution documentaries and your favorite HISTORY series, commercial-free.