6 Women Whose Military Service Made History

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, engraving by J.C. Armytage, c. 1859
Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, engraving by J.C. Armytage, c. 1859. (National Archives)

This article by Christina Wood originally appeared on the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) website.

The Defense Department opened all U.S. military roles to women in January 2016. According to DoD's 2016 Demographics Report, there are 204,628 women in uniform -- that's nearly 16% of the DoD active-duty force, which does not include data for the U.S. Coast Guard.

However, women have fought alongside men in battle since the Revolutionary War days. Some did it openly; others concealed their identities until their death.

There were women who washed clothes, cooked food and tended wounds. There were women who accompanied their husbands onto the battlefields. There also were women who cut their hair, changed their names and enlisted.

“Women put their lives at risk in service for their country long before it was possible for them to become part of the military,” Librarian of Virginia Sandra Gioia Treadway said. “They found a way to contribute.”

Mary Ludwig Hays (aka Molly Pitcher) — Revolutionary War

As was customary at the time, Mary Ludwig Hays accompanied her husband, William Hays, when he enlisted as a gunner in the Continental Army. On June 28, 1778, they found themselves in Monmouth County, N.J., battling redcoats and searing temperatures.

Under the ongoing barrage of British fire at the Battle of Monmouth, Mary is said to have carried spring water to the men on the artillery line to quench their thirst and cool their overheated cannons. When her husband collapsed in the blistering 100-degree heat, she apparently took over for him, competently firing his field piece.

“While the documentation of Mary's actions at Monmouth is thin, it is consistent and plausible,” Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler Stone, authors of Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), told experts at Mount Vernon.

Deborah Sampson — Revolutionary War

Engraved portrait of Deborah Sampson. (Massachusetts Historical Society)

In April 1781, Deborah Sampson enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of Foot as Pvt. Robert Shurtliff. During her service, she witnessed Lord Cornwallis' capture at Yorktown, was wounded at Tarrytown, skirmished with Tory loyalists, dug trenches, helped storm a British redoubt, endured cannon fire and fought the Iroquois League in New York. When she was shot in the thigh during an ambush, she treated the wounds herself rather than risk having her gender discovered by doctors.

Her secret eventually came out, however, and on Oct. 23, 1783, “Shurtleff” received an honorable discharge.

Sampson went on to marry a farmer named Benjamin Gannett. After her death, Gannett petitioned Congress for a pension as the survivor of a wounded veteran. A letter from the Congressional Committee on Revolutionary Pensions dated Dec. 22, 1837, granting his petition, described Sampson as “a female who took up arms in [defense] of her country, who served as a common soldier for nearly three years, and fought and bled for human liberty.”

In May 2017, Rep. Elizabeth Esty introduced the Deborah Sampson Act, which would require the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of a three-year pilot program to expand assistance to women in the process of separating or who have separated. The bill remains in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Anna Maria Lane — Revolutionary War

Like many women of the day, Anna Maria Lane most likely accompanied her husband when he joined the Continental Army in 1776. Known as camp followers, these women provided necessary services not furnished by the military, such as laundry, cooking and nursing. At some point, Lane put aside these traditional female roles to put on a uniform and fight alongside her husband.

In 1808, the Virginia General Assembly granted Lane an annual pension of $100 on the grounds that she, “in the Revolutionary War, in the garb and, with the courage of a soldier, performed extraordinary military services and received a severe wound at the Battle of Germantown."

“What we don't know with Anna Maria Lane is what happened at the Battle of Germantown that caused her to be wounded and caused her to be recognized for her heroism after the war,” Treadway said. “She had to have been close to the front lines, doing whatever she was doing, for that to be the case.”

The amount of her pension -- more than double the normal rate awarded to men at the time -- also indicates she made a significant contribution.

Margaret Cochran Corbin (aka Captain Molly) — Revolutionary War

Margaret Corbin's husband was killed in November 1776 during the Battle of Fort Washington. When he died, she took his place on the firing line and fought on until the fort fell. She was taken prisoner by the British, along with the other soldiers, but she was paroled when her identity was discovered.

After her release, Captain Molly was assigned to the corps of invalids at West Point. According to Emily Tiepe, a history professor at Fullerton College in California, Corbin's name also is listed on the discharge rolls of the invalid regiment rolls for April 1783.

“These events demonstrate that the military recognized Margaret Corbin as a regular soldier and treated her as such,” Tiepe said in an article for the National Archives and Records Administration. “Furthermore, officers from her regiment petitioned successfully for Corbin to receive both state and federal pensions the same year.”

Jennie Hodgers — Civil War

Albert D.J. Cashier, aka Jennie Hodgers (Wikipedia)

According to records in the Illinois Adjutant General's Office, a 19-year-old Irish immigrant named Albert D.J. Cashier enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry on Aug. 3, 1862. Cashier, who had blue eyes and auburn hair, served until Aug. 17, 1865, when the regiment was mustered out of the federal army.

Along with the regiment, Cashier marched thousands of miles during those three years, taking part in more than 40 skirmishes and battles -- including the Siege of Vicksburg.

In a deposition recorded in January 1915, J.H. Hines remembered Cashier as the shortest member of the company, someone who was very quiet and not easy to get acquainted with. Hines was surprised when he learned Cashier was, in fact, a woman named Jennie Hodgers.

After the war, it was Cashier -- not Hodgers -- who went to work, claimed a pension and eventually took up residency in the Veterans' Home in Quincy, Illinois. In the final years of her life, Hodgers' true identity was revealed. She was moved to an insane asylum and forced to wear women's clothing. But when she died in 1915, she was buried in her Civil War uniform.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman — Civil War

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman (Public Domain)

In a letter dated Dec. 23, 1862, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman -- known to her fellow soldiers as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman -- told her father, “The weather is cold and the ground is froze hard, but I sleep as warm in the tents as I would in a good bed. I don't know the difference when I get asleep. We have boards laid down for a floor and our dishes is tin … I like to be a soldier very well.”

In March of the following year, life in the Union Army became more challenging for Wakeman. She and her regiment were forced to march hundreds of miles through swampy bayou country to Louisiana. It's not Wakeman's experiences that make her story unique, though. It is the fact that the letters she wrote to her family during her service were preserved.

“I don't know how long before i shall have to go into the field of battle,” she wrote. “For my part i don't care. I don't feel afraid to go. I don't believe there are any Rebel's bullet made for me yet."

She was right. Although she and her regiment repeatedly saw action in 1863, it wasn't Confederate fire that brought Wakeman down. After being hospitalized with chronic diarrhea, she died on June 19, 1864, and was buried as Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, taking the secret of her true identity to the grave.

This article originally appeared on the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) website. MOAA is the nation's largest and most influential association of military officers.

Christina Wood is a freelance writer based in Florida. 

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