There is not a wealth of available information about Mary Ludwig’s life prior to the events of the late 1770s, but what is known is that she was the daughter of a New Jersey dairy farmer, and in 1777 she married William Hays, a barber working in eastern Pennsylvania. With the eastern seaboard gripped with anti-colonial fervor, William enlisted in the Continental Army, serving as an artilleryman – Mary joined him at Valley Forge for the infamously miserable winter the Army spent there, helping a group of women led by Martha Washington in tending to sick or injured soldiers.

Then came Monmouth. The battle took place on a scorchingly hot day, June 28, 1778, following a string of resounding British victories, and Hays started out the day in typical fashion, rushing water to soldiers under fire from the Redcoats.

Whether from the heat or injury, William Hays fell on the battlefield, and one of the lone surviving firsthand accounts of the war from a rank-and-file soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin, says it all:

“A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece the whole time. 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,” Martin wrote. “Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher … and continued her occupation.”

Another source quoted Hays as instead saying “well, that could have been worse,” before returning to operate her cannon – the activity she would be seen performing in countless drawings, sculptures, engravings, and lithographs made since.

The vivid description was almost lost to history entirely. Martin’s memoir, today cited by experts as a superb historical reference and firsthand account of the day-to-day realities of the war, was published anonymously in 1830, but he died in 1850, and the surviving copies slowly disappeared. But a first-edition copy was found and donated to Morristown National Historical Park in the mid-1950s, and by 1962, it was back to being published.

According to legend, after the battle, General George Washington asked about the woman he had seen loading a cannon on the battlefield, and in recognition of her courage, he reportedly issued a warrant for her as a non-commissioned officer – she was affectionately called “Sergeant Molly” for the rest of her life, a nickname she relished.

There is no surviving historical record of that warrant, but no one disputes the historical significance of the Battle of Monmouth – while tactically inconclusive, it marked one of few instances to that point of the war that the Continental Army retained possession of a battlefield following a skirmish. It also silenced what few critics General Washington had left, marking the first instance he was referred to as “the father of our country.” The British forces involved in the battle retreated to Sandy Hook under the cover of darkness that night, were evacuated to New York City, and surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia three years later.

The name “Molly Pitcher” stuck simply because “Molly” was a common nickname for “Mary” in colonial times, and the cry “Molly! Pitcher!” was said to have been heard incessantly at virtually every battlefield where Mary Ludwig Hays was present. Some have pointed out through the years that it’s far more likely that Hays carried water to thirsty soldiers in buckets, but others have helpfully noted that “Molly Bucket” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Hays an annual pension of $40 ($778 in 2020 dollars) for her service in 1822, and she died a decade later. It wasn’t until the year of the nation’s centennial, 1876, that a marker for her war service was finally placed on her grave.

Yet, as noted, the legend is recalled far better than the individual – a brewery, a New Jersey Turnpike Service Area, and a fine inn in Red Bank are testament to that notion. But at least this serves as a reminder that even more than 140 years before they won the right to vote, untold numbers of women were contributing mightily to the nation’s independence and welfare from the very beginning.