Margaret Cochran Corbin is celebrated as one of the first women to serve in combat in the defense of our nation, having taken over her husband’s cannon during the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776. This act resulted in her becoming the first woman to receive a pension from the United States and being forever immortalized by her nickname “Captain Molly.”
Margaret Cochran was born in Franklin County, Pa., November 12, 1751, but by the age of five she was orphaned when her father was killed during an Indian raid and her mother taken captive. Margaret and her brother were away from home when the raid occurred and afterwards were raised by an uncle. She married John Corbin, originally from the colony of Virginia, in 1772, and he joined the Pennsylvania militia three years later as an artilleryman.
When John left for war, Margaret accompanied his regiment as a camp follower, as many wives of soldiers did during the time, likely helping to cook, do laundry and nurse wounded soldiers. But her duties soon exceeded those common tasks of the camp wives. While they were stationed in Fort Washington on Manhattan Island, N.Y., on November 16, 1776, the fort was attacked by British and Hessian troops. During the battle, as others were dying around them, Margaret assisted her husband as he helped to repel ferocious British attacks. When John died in action by her side, Margaret took his place on the firing line and continued to work the artillery without any time to mourn, until she too was severely wounded. She was captured by the British following the battle but was soon paroled and assigned to the Corps of Invalids at West Point.
We know of Margaret’s significant action at the battle as a combatant based on details from a Congressional resolution dated July 6, 1779. It was at that time that officers from her regiment successfully petitioned Continental Congress on her behalf and it was resolved that Margaret receive compensation for her service, making her the first woman to be awarded a lifelong pension from the United States for her military service.
Her wounds were so severe that she likely lost use of her arm and had to live with caregivers for the rest of her life due to her debilitating injuries. Margaret died at the age of 48 in 1800 in Highland Falls, N.Y., about three miles south of West Point.