Women's History Month: Honoring Revolutionary War Heroine "Captain Molly" Margaret Corbin and Troy Collar Laundry Union Leader Kate Mullany

Making herstory: It’s Women’s History Month, and these two local ladies are worth celebrating



margaret corbin
Female fighter: This sketch of Margaret Corbin by Herbert Knotel is part of the West Point Museum collection
Photograph courtesy of West Point Museum Collection, United States Military Academy

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous maxim now adorns T-shirts, coffee mugs, fridge magnets, and other inspirational tchotchkes, but it’s far from a frivolous idea. Indeed, as the nation honors women during Women’s History Month, you could name plenty of well-known females from the Hudson Valley who behaved badly and made history (I’m looking at you, Eleanor). Of course, there are even more relatively unknown history makers. Here are two we’d like to thank for their bad behavior.

Margaret Corbin

If you’ve ever driven into Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan, you took Margaret Corbin Drive and looped around Margaret Corbin Circle to get in and out. Corbin earned her naming rights there, in blood, during the Revolutionary War. Severely wounded in battle, she became the first woman to receive a military pension from Congress, and the only female veteran of the War for Independence buried at West Point.
That much is known. Much of the rest of her life is harder to confirm, says Frank Licameli, an independent historian who works at West Point. “It’s hard to sort the fact from the fiction,” he says, “but legends are important to our image of who we are.”

Although Licameli, who researched her extensively, has been unable to prove it convincingly, Corbin’s legend probably begins with her birth, as Margaret Cochran, on November 12, 1751, in Pennsylvania. It is believed that her father was killed and her mother captured by Native Americans when she was five years old; she was away visiting a distant uncle, who subsequently raised her, at the time of the attack. She married John Corbin in 1772, who enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery. She joined her husband in the war effort — as did many wives of soldiers, who did the cooking, washing, and nursing of the wounded. Many of these women were nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” for bringing pitchers of water to cool the hot cannons during battle. As a result, her story may be confused or conflated with other Molly Pitchers, including a famous one present at the battle of Monmouth, Licameli says.

Following the battle of White Plains, British General William Howe planned an attack on Fort Washington, the last American stronghold in Manhattan. About 3,000 soldiers — including Corbin and his wife — were stationed at the artillery outpost of that fort, the hilly area that is now Fort Tryon Park. On November 16, 1776, Hessian regiments attacked the redoubt. John Corbin, a cannoneer, was killed. Margaret, who had been cleaning and loading the cannon, took over. She managed to fire at the enemy for some time, until she was shot in the arm, chest, and jaw, and then taken prisoner. She was released after the British won the battle and, severely disabled from her arm wound, went to Philadelphia.

corbin memorialMaverick’s memorial: Corbin’s grave at West Point
Photograph courtesy of U.S. Army

She couldn’t work, and life was a struggle until after the war. In 1779, Pennsylvania granted her $30 and passed her case on to the Continental Congress’s Board of War. Later that year, the board granted her half the monthly pay of a soldier in the Continental Army and a new set of clothes, or its equivalent in cash, every year. The deal included becoming part of a newly created Invalid Corps, in which wounded vets served and supported the military to whatever degree their abilities allowed. The corps was consolidated at West Point, and Corbin moved and lived there — she was known in the area as “Captain Molly” — until her death, around 1800.

Mostly forgotten, her story resurfaced during the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “Many veterans started to write their memoirs, and that’s where she may have become confused with other Molly Pitchers,” Licameli says. “People in the area, though, remembered her. There is one record of a child eyewitness who recalled a stout, red-haired woman, and called her Captain Molly.”

In the 1920s, the Daughters of the American Revolution looked harder into her case and even found her grave, on what had become J.P. Morgan’s estate in Highland Falls, Licameli says. In 1926, the DAR moved her remains to West Point, where forensics confirmed, from the wounds, that it was indeed Corbin. She was buried in the West Point Military Cemetery, next to a monument erected by the DAR.

Like other women of history, Captain Molly may not have been the most polite person around. According to the National Woman’s History Museum, the Philadelphia Society of Women had planned to erect a monument honoring Corbin soon after the battle. “However, when they met with her they discovered that she was a rough woman who was poor and drank too much and decided to cancel the monument,” the museum notes.

“It appears that when she was younger, she was a favorite among a lot of people,” Licameli says. After the war, she became well-known in the army at the administrative level, thanks to her heroic actions and unique injuries. General Henry Knox may have assisted in getting her pension, including a ration of alcohol, which was usually denied to women. “She was given a soldier’s rations, was treated like a soldier, not a woman,” says Licameli. “Later on it appears she was pretty surly, maybe had an alcohol issue, though there is nothing definitive on that.” People who were paid by the government to care for her had difficulty, he says, both because of her personality and because payments slowed down. “Somebody who was severely disabled and had to rely on others for years — it’s not very surprising she was a little on the surly side.”

But that’s to be expected of history makers. “She is pretty unique,” Licameli says. “There is nobody like her.”

kate mullany house
Home of the brave: The Kate Mullany National Historic Site in Troy
Photograph courtesy of Kate Mullany National Historic Site

Kate Mullany

Born in 1841 to Irish parents living in England, Kate Mullany and her family sailed to New York in 1850 and settled in Troy in 1853. Like most immigrants, she endured a harsh life, and went to work at an early age. In Troy, in the 1860s, that meant working in a shirt collar factory.

Troy produced about 90 percent of the nation’s detachable collars, a fashion fad that earned it the nickname it still bears today: the Collar City. At its height, the industry employed 3,700 women who worked exhausting, 14-hour days in stifling heat for pay as low as three dollars a week. When factory owners installed new scalding-hot machines that increased production but made working conditions more dangerous, Mullany, just 23, stepped in, forming the Collar Laundry Union along with about 300 other workers. At noon on Wednesday, February 23, 1864, the women went on strike against 14 commercial laundry establishments, demanding a 20 to 25 percent wage increase. The business owners denied the union’s requests, and the strike lasted six days. But on February 28, a few owners gave in; the following day, the others did, too.

At the time, most unions lasted just long enough for a particular issue to be addressed; once it was resolved — one way or the other — the unions disbanded. But Mullany’s Collar Laundry Union remained in force for six years. “She led the first bona fide woman’s union,” says Paul Cole, executive director of the American Labor Studies Center in Troy. “It had staying power. This union became institutionalized.” The fact that a young, female, Irish immigrant would lead such a union was remarkable at the local level — but Mullany wasn’t done. “The collar union saw themselves as part of the broader labor movement,” Cole says. “They worked closely with the iron molder’s union and other unions, and helped them out with contributions. I think that’s very significant — they looked at themselves as an important cog in the labor movement.”

At an 1864 Fourth of July picnic that year, Mullany presented an embroidered banner to William H. Sylvis, president of the Iron Molders’ International Union in Troy. The banner showed the interior of a furnace on one side, and a depiction of “Justice” with an eagle on the other. Mullany sought out Sylvis at the picnic, introduced herself, and gave him the banner.

That gesture paid off a few years later. After another strike in 1866 — from which the Collar Laundry Union negotiated a pay increase from $8 to $14 per week — and a successful 1868 ironers strike (which she led), Mullany attended the National Labor Congress meeting, headed up by Sylvis, in New York. During the conference, she was nominated for and elected to the post of second vice president. When she declined to serve because the first vice president was also from New York State, Sylvis appointed her assistant secretary. Mullany became the first woman elected to a national labor union post, and the first appointed to a national labor union office.

At the time, most unions lasted just long enough for a particular issue to be addressed; once it was resolved — one way or the other — the unions disbanded. But Mullany’s Collar Laundry Union remained in force for six years

In 1869, Mullany moved into a three-story brick double row house (pictured above) on Eighth Street in Troy. She lived there until 1875. She also led another strike in 1869, but this time the laundry owners opposed the union and effectively killed it: The Collar Laundry Union dissolved in February 1870. By then Mullany was married to ironworker John Fogarty; after 1875, however, she just about disappears from the records. She may have moved with Fogarty as he found work in the burgeoning iron industries of Buffalo.

Kate Mullany died, back in Troy, on August 17, 1906 and was buried in the city’s St. Peter’s Cemetery. Her house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998, and became a National Historic Site in 2005. In 2000, Mullany was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And in May, Don’t Strike While the Iron is Hot — a musical about her life — opens at Russell Sage College (see katemullanynhs.org for more details). All of which would probably astonish her.

“One could speculate that she had some sense she was more than just a local labor leader, but most people then just saw themselves as doing a job,” Cole says. “If she were to come back, I think she’d be pretty surprised at the attention we are giving her.”

If you go:

Kate Mullany National Historic Site
350 Eighth Ave., Troy
518-331-4474; www.katemullanynhs.org

 

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