UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE
POSTAGE STAMP PROPOSAL
MARGARET CORBIN: AMERICA’S FIRST HEROINE
Margaret Corbin, born in America in 1751, joined the fight for freedom along with her husband John. The couple fought valiantly, side-by-side at the Battle of Fort Washington in New York City on November 16, 1776. During the battle, John fell to Hessian troops. Margaret continued the fight until the surrender of the fort.
Margaret (Molly) Cochran Corbin, first heroine of the American Revolution
NEW YORK CITY AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
By 1776, the rebels had become the Continental Army under General George Washington. After initial clashes between the Patriots and the British, Americans began to fortify the City of New York. The city stood between New England, the driving force behind the revolution and the south, their supply base. The battle for New York would make or break the struggle for freedom. Around 28,500 men had gathered in New York to oppose the British. The patriots were determined to hold the city in spite of the overwhelming Tory population.
FORT WASHINGTON & THE PATRIOT DEFENSE OF NEW YORK
The British, who had both English and German troops under their command, felt that the waterways surrounding the city would play to British naval supremacy. The patriots had constructed Fort Washington along the western side of Manhattan commanding heights opposite Fort Constitution (late called Fort Lee) on the New Jersey shore across the Hudson. The placement was designed to allow Washington to catch British ships in a crossfire if they attempted to sail up the Hudson. Sunken hulks were added to the river to impede British ships. But British naval supremacy showed the forts were no obstacle to their ships when two British ships, the Phoenix and the Rose, sailed up the Hudson.
Fort Washington on the western edge of Manhattan on the Hudson River
Major-General Nathaniel Greene opposed defending the city. He wrote to Washington on September 5, 1776:
Two-thirds of the property of the City of New York and the suburbs belong to the tories. We have no very great reason to run any considerable risk for its defense…I would give it as my opinion that a general and speedy retreat is absolutely necessary, and the honor and interest of America require it. I would burn the city.”
On October 16, 1776, Washington finally decided to leave Manhattan Island. He decided to leave a garrison of 2,800 men and a large amount of supplies at Fort Washington under Colonel Robert Magaw. He believed that if necessary, the fort could be quickly evacuated. Magaw wrote to Nathaniel Greene on November 8, 1776:
If we can not prevent vessels passing up, and the enemy are possessed of the surrounding country, what valuable purpose can it answer to hold a position which the expected benefit can not be had?
…as you are on t he spot, [I] leave it up to you to give such orders as to evacuating Mount Washington as you judge best.
Greene was convinced that evacuation from Fort Washington could be easily achieved. He wrote back:
I cannot conceive the garrison to be in any great danger…the men can be brought off at any time….I was over there last evening; the enemy seems to be disposing matters to besiege the place, but Colonel Magaw thinks it will take them till December expires before they can carry it.
British General William Howe now prepared an attack on Fort Washington designed to hit the Americans from three different directions with an overwhelming force. The troops attacked the triple line of defensive works that Washington’s men had constructed in September. Hessians advanced from the north under Von Knyphausen. British troops made a landing from the Harlem River to the east under Cornwallis and Mathew. Their landing was covered by guns on Fordham Heights. From the south side, Percy led two columns against the Americans: one British and one Hessian. From the Hudson to the west, the Pearl bombarded American positions.
Among the American defenders at Fort Washington was John Corbin, a farmer from Virginia. John had married Margaret Cochran in 1772. Margaret had been born in Pennsylvania on November 12, 1751. Robert Cochran and Sarah Cochran were her parents. Her father, Robert Cochran had been killed and her mother, Sarah Cochran was kidnapped by Native Americans in 1756. Margaret and her brother John were raised by their uncle.
When the Revolution started John enlisted with Margaret Corbin in the Continental Army. John loaded and fired cannons, and Margaret took care of the soldiers like the other women did.
On November 15, 1776, Howe stated he would put the garrison at Fort Washington to the sword if they did not surrender. Washington had one more chance to evacuate his troops across the Hudson to Fort Lee but he delayed and enemy troops began their advance and the Americans quickly moved back as Howe advanced.
John Corbin was among the American defenders of Fort Washington. He was a sapeur, a man who swabbed the barrel of the cannon after it had been fired. This action was necessary to clean out excess gunpowder that might explode prematurely and to cool down the cannon barrel. During the action against the defenders at Fort Washington, John Corbin was hit and killed. Immediately, Margaret ran to take her husband’s place at the cannon.
Molly Corbin in action at the Battle of Fort Washington
As the fighting continued, Margaret was hit. She suffered serious wounds to her arm, chest and jaw.
British troops inflicted 150 casualties before the Americans surrendered. The remainder of the garrison were taken prisoner. They were marched down to the infamous prison ships at the foot of Manhattan. Here, most of the men would die of disease and starvation.
The Hudson River with Fort Lee on the NJ bank and Fort Washington on the NY bank
Margaret was evacuated from the city on a horse-drawn cart. It took three days along bumpy roads for her transport to the patriot stronghold of Philadelphia.
The campaign for New York was over. The city was lost. Howe, newly knighted, would spend the winter in New York before resuming action in the spring. That spring, a small force under Governor Tryon was all that was needed on the Hudson. Today, the beautiful park where Margaret Corbin and the patriots fought is named after the last English Civil Governor. Margaret Corbin has a traffic circle and a drive through that park named in her honor.
The sign marking the entrance to Fort Tryon Park at Margaret Corbin Circle
Margaret never recovered fully from her wounds. She was disfigured and disabled The Executive Council of Pennsylvania gave her thirty dollars as aid on June 29, 1779.
A plaque, describes Margaret Corbin’s heroic actions during the Battle of Fort Washington.
A plaque commemorating the heroism of Molly Corbin in Fort Tryon Park
Later the Congress’s Board of War also recognized Margaret’s bravery and loyalty. They gave her a pension which was half the income of a soldier in the Continental Army on July 6, 1779. The Continental Army discharged her in 1783. Margaret was the first woman to have a military pension in the United States.
On January 16, 1800 Margaret died in New York at age forty eight. The Daughters of The American Revolution had Margaret reburied in West Point Cemetery. She is one of the only soldiers of The American Revolution to be buried in West Point.
Margaret Corbin’s grave marker at West Point
Margaret died without descendants. In 2011, her name was finally added to the role of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She continues to be an unsung daughter of the American Revolution, commonly confused with Molly Pitcher, also of Pennsylvania.
A United States Postage Stamp honoring Margaret Corbin will allow with American daughter, the first patriot of our country, to receive long-overdue recognition to the fight for freedom.
Hakim, Joy. From Colonies to Country 1731-1791: The History of US. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
McEvedy, Colin. The Penguin Atlas of North American History to 1870. London, England: Penguin Group, 1988.
Palmer, David Richard and James W. Stryker. Early American Wars and Military Institutions: The West Point Military History Series. Wayne, NJ: Avery Publishing Group, 1986.
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the Revolution. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003.
Smith, David. New York 1776: The Continentals’ First Battle. Oxford, UK: Osprey Press, 2008.