he tensions surrounding women’s armed patriotism are nicely contained by the fictional female soldier who remains the most famous of all American armed women. According to the legend, which was late in developing, Molly Pitcher was a Revolutionary War soldier’s wife who took over her husband’s artillery position when he fell in battle. As many historians have pointed out, Molly Pitcher was not a real person, but a composite of several Revolutionary-era women. [i] As Linda Grant De Pauw writes, “The woman memorialized on posters, postage stamps, and a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike was not a real woman at all but a mythic figure constructed by artists and writers many years after the war.” Molly Pitcher had not been identified as anything more than “Captain Molly” until 1848, when Nathaniel Currier produced the first print of her: the first written mention of Molly Pitcher does not appear in a book until 1859.[ii] But from 1876, when a Carlisle, Pennsylvania man published a genealogy identifying a local woman as “the heroine of Monmouth,” the Molly Pitcher cult grew and grew.
Molly Pitcher was never pictured as a cross-dresser, but instead as a heroic, properly feminine helpmate. Margaret Corbin and Mary McCauley, the women on whom the character of Molly Pitcher was purportedly based, were far from models of feminine deportment: Corbin was known as “Dirty Kate” and “died a horrible death from the effects of a syphilitic disease” after the war, and McCauley was remembered as “a very masculine person…[who] could both drink whiskey and swear.”[iii] However, the idealized Molly Pitcher—who grew more perfect over the years—had none of the sexual ambiguity or unseemly independence of actual female Continental soldiers.