Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 on the frontier of western Pennsylvania, in what is now Franklin County. When she was only four years old, the French and Indian War broke out, plunging her community into chaos. The local Delaware and Shawnee tribes allied themselves with the French and attacked English settlements in Pennsylvania. They hoped to reclaim territory they had lost to English settlers in the last few decades. In 1755, Margaret and her brother were sent to live with their uncle, away from the attacks. Shortly after they left, native warriors attacked Margaret’s childhood home. Her father was killed, and her mother was kidnapped and never seen again. Margaret’s uncle adopted and raised his niece and nephew.
In 1772, when Margaret was 21 years old, she married a farmer from Virginia named John Corbin. When Pennsylvania started recruiting soldiers for the Continental Army in 1775, John joined. This left Margaret, like so many wives of Revolutionary soldiers, with a difficult decision. She could stay behind, where she would have to care for herself, and might fall victim to poverty, starvation, or attack by hostile British troops, or she could travel with John and endure all the hardships and dangers of life in in the Army. Margaret chose to march with John, and joined the ranks of the Continental Army’s camp followers.
“Camp follower” was the American term for all the women and children who traveled with the Army throughout the war. There is no official number for how many camp followers there were during the American Revolution—some historians estimate there may have been as many as 20,000 over the course of the war, although others think the number was much smaller. What is known is that the camp followers were women who had no other options, and life for these women was very difficult. Most were the wives or daughters of soldiers. They were paid small wages to cook, sew, and do laundry for the troops. They received meals from the Army’s rations and slept in the Army’s camps. The reputation of the camp followers was dismal. Rumors circulated that the women were sex workers. Like the soldiers they followed they were considered dirty, rough, and too prone to swearing and drinking. General George Washington did everything he could to limit the number of followers who traveled with the Continental Army, but even he recognized that their work was necessary to the health of his army and that their presence kept many of his soldiers from deserting.
In 1776, the Corbins’ regiment marched to New York and was stationed at Fort Washington in northern Manhattan. When the British took control of the city in September, Fort Washington became the only American stronghold left on the island. On November 16, 1776, the British attacked the fort. Margaret, like many camp followers, followed her husband into battle to assist with carrying water and caring for the wounded.
John was a matross, responsible for loading cannons. His team fired upon the British ships as they moved up the Hudson River. The British brought Hessian mercenaries, who were renowned for their skill and deadliness in battle. As the Hessians moved up the hill toward the fort, John and most of his team were killed. Rather than retreat to a safer location, Margaret took over firing the cannon. Her aim was so excellent the Hessians stopped their advance to focus on trying to stop her. She was hit with three musket balls and grapeshot. Her left arm was nearly severed from her body, and she had terrible wounds in her jaw and chest. Her cannon was the last to fall silent before the fort was abandoned.
When the British took the fort, they found Margaret by her cannon in critical condition. British doctors were able to save her life, but her left arm was paralyzed. When she was well enough to travel, Margaret was paroled along with the other wounded prisoners, and she joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point, where she helped care for other wounded soldiers.
Margaret was now in a very bad position. Her injuries meant she could not work to support herself. Even simple tasks, such as dressing and feeding herself, were impossible. Her husband was dead, and she had no other family she could live with, leaving her without the familial protection that colonial society expected women to have. Margaret was also difficult to get along with. Women at West Point rejected her for her rough manner and drinking habit, and even a commanding officer who respected her described her as “such an offensive person that people are unwilling to take her in charge.”
On July 6, 1779, Congress awarded Margaret a lifelong pension in recognition of her service. It was the first time the new government officially recognized the military service of a woman, but they only awarded her half of what a man would receive.
But the soldiers she fought with remembered her courage at the Battle of Fort Washington, and stories about her actions that day made their way to the Continental Congress. On July 6, 1779, Congress awarded her a lifelong pension in recognition of her service. It was the first time the new government officially recognized the military service of a woman, but they only awarded her half of what a man would receive. A few years later, at the urging of officers who knew her plight, Congress awarded her an additional clothing and rum allowance. General Henry Knox, the commander of the Continental Army’s artillery, personally supplied her with a servant to help her bathe and eat. She died in 1800 at the age of 49.
Margaret Corbin did not receive full military honors upon her death. It wasn’t until the New York State Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution verified Margaret’s record in 1926 that remains believed to be hers were reinterred with full military honors at the West Point Cemetery. However, more recent research has proven that the remains are not hers.