Want a sneak preview of my new book, Pilgrims to Patriots, A Grandfather Tells The Story? Here’s Chapter 1 in draft form.
1 Molly Pitcher, Revolutionary War Cannoneer
It was the Fourth of July, in the afternoon. My grandchildren, Hannah, 11, and Carter, 9, plopped down on the sofa on either side of me. Their grandmother, Peach, was in the kitchen.
“Hi, Gomps. We’re bored,” Hannah announced.
“So, I see,” I replied, “and you’d like me to do something about it, I take it.”
“We thought maybe you could tell us a story,” Carter said.
“What kind of story?” I asked.
“Something exciting,” Hannah replied.
“How about a story from the history of our country?” I said.
“Aw, history is boring,” Hannah groaned.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “The word ‘history’ is kind of the same as ‘story,’ don’t you think? What makes for an exciting story to you?”
They thought for a moment, and then Hannah blurted, “The people are interesting and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“How about you, Carter?” I asked. “What makes a story exciting for you?”
“The people are in like a scary place and something bad could happen, but they get out of it at the end.”
“OK,” I said. “What if I told you that the early history of our country has all that and more? Would you give it a try?”
Both kids thought for a moment. Then Hannah said, “OK, but a short one.”
“Carter?” I asked. “Are you good with that?”
“Yeah, I’m good, but make sure it’s short.”
“All right, then,” I said, “I’ll tell you the story about a woman in the Revolutionary War.”
“Her name was Molly Pitcher. At least, that was her nickname. By the end of this story, she becomes Sergeant Molly Pitcher.”
“Sergeant?” Hannah asked. “A woman could be a sergeant back then?”
“This one did,” I replied. “But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let me tell you a little bit about her first.
“Her real name was Mary Ludwig. She was born to German parents in the Pennsylvania countryside in 1754. As soon as she could work, she did chores on her parents’ farm. She carried hay bales and water buckets when she grew big and strong enough. Then, at 13, she married William Hays, a local barber.”
“13?” Hannah blurted. “That’s too young to get married, Gomps.”
“Today it is,” I replied, “but back then it wasn’t. Both boys and girls grew up faster, married younger, and they often died younger, too.”
“Yipes,” she said. “I didn’t know that. So what happened next?”
“In 1777, William joined the Continental Army to fight in the Revolutionary War,” I continued. “He was put in an artillery regiment and became an artilleryman.”
“What’s artillery?” Carter asked.
“Cannons,” I replied.
“Cool,” said Carter, “and, what did he do?”
“He was a rammer,” I replied. “He stood at the mouth of the cannon with a long wooden pole called a ramrod. He twisted rags on the end, called a sponge, and cleaned the barrel. Then he loaded the cannon. Get the idea?”
“Cool!” Carter said.
“So what about Molly – or Mary?” Hannah said impatiently.
“In those days some wives followed the troops, to help them with their clothing and cooking and tend to their sicknesses and wounds. They set up their own camps at a safe distance from the troops and Mary was one of them. She went with William’s regiment from place to place.
“In the winter of that year, General George Washington had the Army’s camp set up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The weather was bitterly cold and the troops were suffering. General Washington’s wife, Martha, set up a wives’ camp to help the troops deal with their misery. Since William’s regiment was there, Mary served with Martha’s group.”
“Then Mary knew Martha Washington!” Hannah exclaimed.
“We don’t know for sure, but she probably did,” I replied.
“In February, William’s regiment trained for the fighting that would start again in the spring. He practiced with the ramrod to clean the embers and dirt quickly from the cannon barrel with the sponge, a job that needed lots of water to do. And since artillery was hot work, even in winter, he and the other artillerymen needed drinking water, too.
“Mary volunteered to bring the water to him in buckets. The women who did this were called ‘water girls.’”
“That sounds hard. Was she strong enough, Gomps?” Hannah asked. “I thought she was only 13.”
“By now she was a young woman of 23,” I reminded her, “and I’m sure she was strong enough. Remember, she had worked on her family farm doing the same kind of thing.
“When spring came,” I continued, “the Army left Valley Forge to take up the fight against the British where they’d left off the year before. William’s regiment fought on one battleground after another. In each battle, Mary and the other water girls were right in the middle of the action, running up to the cannons with their buckets.
“In June, the Continentals and the British fought a major battle in Monmouth, New Jersey. The temperature soared to 100 degrees, and the heat from the cannons made it even hotter. The fighting continued through the day, with one side and then the other gaining ground.
“Then, William went down – he was hit! Without missing a beat, Mary put down her buckets, grabbed William’s ramrod and took over for him. She had seen how to do it in the training at Valley Forge.
“First, the sponge to clear the barrel. Then, the gunpowder – ram it in. Then the hay wad – ram it in. Then the cannonball – ram it in. Then she stood back, held her ears, and BOOM!
“She kept up the firing for the rest of the day. The smoke stung her eyes and the smell of gunpowder burned her nose. Musket shot and cannonballs were whistling past her left and right, and one went right between her legs!”
“Oh, no,” Carter exclaimed. “Did she get hurt?”
“Nope,” I replied, “but part of her skirt was torn away. Still, she kept on firing, and in the end . . . we beat the British.”
“Yay!” both kids shouted.
“Gotta say,” Hannah said, “that was pretty good.”
“Ah,” I said. “But that’s not the end of the story.
“During the battle, General Washington had seen what this brave water girl was doing. When it was over, he made her a sergeant. From then until her death many years later, she was known as Sergeant Molly.”
“Wow,” exclaimed Hannah. “She was brave. And strong. But how did she get the name Molly Pitcher?”
“Good question,” I replied. “In those days, Molly was a common nickname for Mary. So she was already called Molly.
“‘Pitcher!’ was what William and the other artillerymen called out when they needed a drink – a pitcher of water. They yelled, ‘Molly, pitcher, pitcher!’ At least, that’s how the story goes.”
“What happened to her?” Carter asked.
“After the war,” I replied, “she had a big family back in Pennsylvania and lived a long life.”
“How about William?” Carter asked.
“He healed completely from his wounds and went back to Pennsylvania with Molly.”
“Is that the end of the story, Gomps?” Hannah asked.
“Of that story, yes,” I replied.
“I gotta admit,” she said, “maybe history isn’t so boring after all. Thanks.”
“Yeah, thanks, Gomps,” Carter added. “Could you tell us another story like that some time?”
“You just name the day,” I replied.
And with that they went back out to play before leaving for the fireworks.