A contractor tasked with constructing a new retaining wall for the Molly Corbin Enhancement Project at the West Point Cemetery disturbed Corbin’s burial in October of 2016. Captain Margaret “Molly” Corbin is the Revolutionary War hero who took over her husband’s canon when he was killed during the Battle of Fort Washington. She is considered one of the inspirations for folk hero Molly Pitcher. The bones recovered from Corbin’s grave were analyzed by a forensic anthropologist and the results surprised a lot of people.
Michael “Sonny” Trimble, Ph.D., the chief archaeologist for the Army Corp of Engineers, supervised the excavation of mortuary artifacts and skeletal remains from the burial in 2016. Then forensic anthropologist Elizabeth DiGangi, Ph.D., from Binghampton University-State University of New York (SUNY), examined the bones. DiGangi announced, almost a year later, that the bones “were biologically consistent with a tall, middle-aged man alive between the colonial period and 19th century. Therefore, the remains are not that of Corbin, but rather an unknown male.”
So how did the bones of a tall, middle-aged man end up in the grave of Captain Margaret Corbin? To understand how this mix up happened, let’s start at the beginning.
Margaret “Molly” Cochran Corbin (12 November 1751 – 16 January 1800), followed her husband’s, John Corbin, artillery regiment from camp to camp doing duties like cooking and cleaning to support the Army. When John was killed in action during the Battle of Fort Washington, on 16 November 1776, Margaret immediately took his place at his cannon and fought bravely throughout the rest of the skirmish. She suffered wounds to her left shoulder that were so bad that her left arm was reportedly almost severed. Corbin was captured by the British but was eventually released, then sent to the corps of the invalids at West Point.
Margaret Corbin was one of two women to receive a pension for her military service during the Revolution. When she died on 16 January 1800, at 48-years-old, she was buried in a small neighborhood cemetery in Highland Falls, NY.
Some historians argue that Margaret Corbin is one of the women who inspired the folkloric hero Molly Pitcher. According to legend, Molly Pitcher followed her artilleryman husband into battle and was tasked with delivering water to the soldiers. But when her husband was either injured or killed, depending on the story, she took his place on the firing line. Although Corbin’s story does match nicely with the Molly Pitcher legend, Molly Pitcher is considered to be a composite story of a handful of other women who also fought during the Revolution.
Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley is considered to be the main inspiration for the story. She accompanied her husband, William Hays, into the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June 1778. When he was injured, she continued to fire his canon. Mary died on 22 January 1832 and his buried at the Old Public Graveyard in Carlisle, PA. Her grave is marked with a prominent “Molly Pitcher” statue and canon.
Unlike the grave of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, the location of Margaret Corbin’s grave was lost when the British burned down Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) set out to relocate Corbin’s grave to West Point, they had to rely on local tradition for its location.
The approximate site was recounted in the 1915 annual report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, “Her grave had never been marked otherwise than by a cedar tree which grew beside it, and which, in recent years, had been cut down. The stump, however, yet remained.”
In March of 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution located a grave in the Highland Falls Cemetery near an old cedar stump and unearthed the contents. The coffin and clothes of the individual had rotted away and all that was left were the bones. The attending surgeon said the skeletal remains belonged to a woman between 45 and 50-years-old and the bones of the left shoulder “showed evidence of wear by a wound or disease.”
Believing they had Molly’s remains, DAR reburied the bones at the West Point Cemetery in a grave marked by a large monument. This mistake would not be discovered for another 90 years when the grave marked with Corbin’s name was accidentally disturbed.
The bones of the unknown man unearthed from Captain Molly’s West Point crypt in 2016 were reinterred elsewhere at the West Point Cemetery. Captain Margaret Corbin’s remains are likely still in the Highland Falls Cemetery. The Daughters of the American Revolution continue the search for Molly’s real grave.
Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc. (2017). Archaeological recovery on behalf of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Alexandria, VA: Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.
Public Affairs Office for West Point (2017). Army honors Revolutionary War heroine in memorial re-dedication after grave disturbance. West Point, NY: United States Military Academy West Point.