DAR Speech 2006 - LTC Minus
It would be an honor to serve as Margaret Corbin Day Chairman under any circumstances, but it is particularly special to do so this year, when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of Margaret Corbin Day here at West Point. We gather here in this historic chapel at this historic place to remember the historic contributions of the first woman to receive a pension from the United States military - and to recall the foresight, the determination and the boldness of the patriotic women who ensured that the burial site of Margaret Corbin was a dignified and appropriate final resting place deserving of the Heroine of Fort Washington.
The story of Margaret Corbin's life and heroism is one that we have carried forward since 1926 during the tradition of these annual ceremonies. She was born November 12, 1751, in what is now Franklin County, Pennsylvania. At an early age she was orphaned during an Indian attack - an attack in which her father was killed and her mother was carried away; she was raised by an uncle and at age 21 married John Corbin of Virginia.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, John Corbin enlisted in the First Company of the Pennsylvania Artillery. Like thousands of other wives and women, Margaret followed her husband into battle to serve as laundress, cook, nurse, seamstress, etc. She was 25 years old.
Her husban was a maross, a soldier who swabbed, cleaned, and prepared a gun for firing. In the darkest days of 1776, when Washington's army was in retreat after defeat in New York, the Corbins foud themselves in Fort Washington - a fortress that one of its builders recognized as the weakest link in the chain of forts along the Hudson. Situated on the flat top of Mount Washington, (near what is today the Cloisters) it was accessible only from the gradual southern slope of the hill, the other three sides being rugged and steep. Four acres in size, Fort Washington was really nothing more than a large crude earthwork, open to the sky and without proper barracks or magazines. Water had to be drawn 230 feet from the Hudson below because the fort had no well. To the back of the fort, a hill allowed the enemy to fire into the redoubt at will. An estimated 2,800 souls were crowded into the fort, which was designed to hold half that number.
On November 15, the adjutant general of the British army, Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson, approached with a white falg and drummer, requesting the fort's surrender. Some 8,000 British and Hessian soldiers demanded the rebels give up the fort. The American commanding officer concluded his reply, "...(G)ive me leave to assure his Excellency that actuated by the most glorious cause that mankind ever fouth in, I am determined to defend this post to eternity."
The fighting began at dawn, and more than an additional five thousand of his majesty's troops arrived during the course of the morning. Fierce fighting ensued, during which, John Corbin fell to a mortal wound. His wife Margaret rose to his cannon, and continued to fire with such accuracy that her position drew especially heavy fire from the Hessian field pieces. She was struck three times, one wound nearly severing her shoulder. Yet Margaret Corbin walked out of Fort Washinton that day - aalong with 2,600 other soldiers and 230 officers, all taken as prisoners of war. She was paroled to the Americans at Fort Lee, across the Hudson, and taken with other sick prisoners by wagon all the way to Philadelphia.
Margaret Corbin became a member of the corps of invalids; by 1779, the Supreme Court of Philadelphia granted her thirty dollars and recommended her to the Board of War for a regular pension - which was granted on July 6, 1779, to e valued at a soldier's half pay and a new suit of clothes each year.
As the Invalid Regiment in which she was enrolled was quartered at West Point, Margaret Corbin came to the Hudson Highlands. As the lone female in a male corps, she was eventually quarted out to live with local residents and she was officially mustered out of service in 1783.
The Heroine of Fort Washington became something of an eccentric figure; poorly clothed, lonesome, and called Captain Molly by locals. She died in january of 1800, never having reached even the age of 5, and was buried in a modest spot near the river; a cedar tree stood at the head of her grave and a crude stone marked MC marked the foot. And there she lay for more than 100 years.
In 1922, Arthur Abbott of Highland Falls wrote to the State Education Department, questioning if the grave of Captain Molly was indeed that of the heroine of Fort Washington. Three years later, the State Historian of the State Board of Education, contacted Mrs. Charles White Nash, founding President of the New York State Officers Club and then State Regent of the DAR to seek her assistance; within just a month, she had appointed a committee to first confirm and then investigate moving the grave to a more suitable site.
It was determined that per capita assessment of 10 cents would be asked of the then 16,000 New York Daughters to fund the project, which would become the first commemorative marking the New York State organization.
The original papers of Major General Knox were uncovered in Boston to document that Captain Molly was indeed Margaret Corbin; on March 16, 1926, the grave was opened and the remains removed toa silk-lined casket. Four army officers carried the flag-covered coffin to a waiting hearse, which drove to this hallowed graveyard, which had already accepted the remains of hundreds of patriotic Americans. Interestingly enough, the nails from the original coffin were forwarded to the DAR memorial Continental Hall Museum.
The granite monument at which we will shortly lay our memorial wreath, was designed by Brytham Jones and dedicated on April 14, 1926; behind the monument, the New York State Officers Club planted cedar trees - as the cedar tree had been the marker at her original gravesite. Those trees are now gone, but from the original cedar stump, at least six gavels were made and mounted with silver; they were provided to the New York State Organization, the the New York State Officers' Club, to the New York Historical Association, to J. Pierpon Morgan (the owner of Cragston, where Captain Molly had lain for more than a century), to Mrs. Alton Brooks Parker (the State Historian), and one to Mrs. Nash, who had appointed the commited and started the club that has carried forward this solemn duty to recall the courage and sacrifice of America's first female pensioner.
But our services today must also remember the courage and sacrifice of brave American women who have carried forward Margaret Cochran Corbin's sense of duty in every conflict since - from the nurses of the Civil and Spanish American wars, to the WACS of World War II, and the dedicated female Americans who traveled to Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps especially - the thousands of women who are today deployed in the global war on terror.
Here at West Point, officials are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the admission of the first female cadets to the United States Military Academy. Since those first female additions to the long gray line in 1976, some 28 hundred women have graduated from West Point - at today, about 15 percent of the incoming classes are composed of women, some of whom we are delighted to welcome here with us today. How inspiring to know that these brave, honorable owmen are sacrificing so much to protect and serve, as did Captain Molly.
It was indeed an honor for me to preside over this 80th anniversary of Margaret Corbin day...but it is equally fulfilling to realize that brave and patriotic American women carry forward the legacy of Margaret Corbin and her devoton to duty - ensuring the blessings of liberty endure for our children and our children's children.