Margaret Corbin's Legacy Lives On

Written by: Jennifer Minus, President, New York State Officers Club
December 5, 2017

NOTE: Please reference President General Ann Dillon’s message “A New Chapter in the Story of Revolutionary Heroine Margaret Corbin”

One Revolutionary War patriot who holds a special place in many DAR members’ hearts is Margaret Cochran Corbin – nicknamed by her contemporaries and known in perpetuity as “Captain Molly.” DAR highlights her enduring legacy every year during Continental Congress when presenting the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award to a distinguished woman in military service. The award honors both historic efforts of this female patriot and a contemporary woman whose own military service carries on the selfless spirit of Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Corbin’s husband served as an artilleryman during the Revolutionary War and she accompanied his regiment as a camp follower. During the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776, her husband was mortally wounded and she took his place on the firing line and worked the artillery with the other soldiers. A Congressional resolution dated 6 July 1779 suggests that Margaret saw significant action at the battle as a combatant. She sustained debilitating wounds to her shoulder and breast and was captured by the British following the battle. Paroled shortly after her capture, she was assigned to the Corps of Invalids at West Point. Her wounds were so severe that she likely lost use of her arm and remained disabled and in pain for the rest of her life. 

In 1779, after officers from her regiment successfully petitioned Continental Congress, it was resolved that Margaret would receive compensation for her service, making her the first woman to be awarded a lifelong pension for her military service by the United States. She lived with caregivers for the rest of her life due to her debilitating injuries. Margaret died at the age of 48 in 1800 in Highland Falls, N.Y., about three miles south of West Point, and was buried on the grounds there.

In 1925, the DAR New York State Organization determined that if her grave could be located, Margaret should be reinterred in a place of honor at West Point. New York State Regent Mary Francis Nash directed Amelia Parker, the New York State Historian, to begin extensive research to try to identify the grave of Margaret Corbin. The research led them to Highland Falls where a grave on the Cragston estate of JP Morgan had reportedly been well known to the locals as that of Captain Molly. Through information assembled by Mrs. Parker and her research team, as well as through the recollections of a local resident, they established the location of Margaret Corbin’s original gravesite.

The remains from the grave identified as Margaret Corbin were exhumed on March 16, 1926. At the exhumation were members of the research committee, the New York State Regent and Historian, an undertaker, local historians and the West Point Hospital Surgeon and Dental Surgeon. As noted in a 1926 report prepared by Mrs. Parker who was present at the exhumation, the two surgeons examined the remains and verified they fit the description of Margaret Corbin by being the skeleton of a female and including evidence of a wound on the left shoulder. The bones were then transferred into a new casket and transported to West Point where they were reinterred in a grave beside the Old Cadet Chapel. The DAR had a monument made for Margaret and donated it to West Point. A ceremony dedicating the Margaret Corbin Monument was conducted by the DAR New York State Organization and U.S. Military Academy officials on April 14, 1926, honoring Margaret’s legacy as well as the nation’s 150th Anniversary and the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Fort Washington.

Immediately after this ceremony, the New York State Officers Club was formed, in part, to perpetuate the legacy and selfless service of Margaret Corbin with a memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony at the site every May. The Margaret Corbin Monument placed by the DAR in 1926 remains the only monument to a woman veteran on the grounds of West Point.

In 1976, women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of women at the United States Military Academy. That same year, West Point formed the Margaret Corbin Forum to educate the Corps on women’s roles in the military and to resolve issues integrating women into the Academy. Today, the Forum’s Motto is “Educate. Empower. Inspire.” and the New York State Officers Club is proud to host many of those women cadets at the West Point ceremony in May every year.

I personally first learned about Margaret Corbin as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy when I joined the Margaret Corbin Forum. Today, all cadets are taught about Margaret Corbin when taking part in the “Inspiration to Serve” tour of the West Point Cemetery. Now that I have learned so much more about her story through my DAR membership, it makes me so proud to know that if it were not for the Daughters of the American Revolution, Margaret Corbin’s legacy might not be taught and celebrated at West Point.

While we now know that Margaret Corbin’s remains are not interred at West Point, it does not diminish the immense presence and respect she has at the Academy and in the consciousness of those who have learned about her in large part due to the DAR. 

The Executive Director of the Army National Military Cemeteries, Karen Durham-Aguilera, requested a meeting with President General Ann Dillon last week, which I was invited to attend, so she could formally inform the NSDAR of the discovery made at the Margaret Corbin Monument. She and her team explained in detail about the West Point Cemetery expansion project around the monument site that resulted in a construction contractor getting too close to the burial section around the gravesite, which disturbed the casket and remains. Work around the monument was immediately stopped. The remains were carefully recovered by the Army Corps of Engineers Chief Archeologist.

The recovered remains were then fully examined by one of the nation’s top forensic anthropologists for analysis. After months of thorough research and scientific testing of the bones (including DNA), it was concluded that the remains were biologically consistent with a tall, middle-aged man alive between the colonial period and 19th century. Therefore, the remains once thought to be Margaret Corbin’s are not, and, rather, that of an unknown male, which have now been reinterred elsewhere in the West Point Cemetery with an “unknown” grave marker.

The Army National Military Cemeteries team answered our many questions during the meeting. We learned that the skeletal remains were recovered from within the casket in which they had been reinterred 90 years prior and that there was a scan of the entire surrounding area where no other skeletal remains were found. They also explained that the evidence of a shoulder wound that had been identified during the 1926 exhumation was determined to actually have been post-mortem damage to the bones from the original casket deteriorating and caving in on the bones. In discussing how the West Point Surgeon could have been mistaken in identifying the bones in 1926, they explained that very few people at that time had the training to accurately identify skeletal remains. Additionally, the many decades of advances in technology now provide much more information than could have been extracted in 1926.

The U.S. Army’s complete forensic report related to the archaeological recovery around the Margaret Corbin Monument will be available on the website of the U.S. Military Academy at www.usma.edu/news

We are grateful that, at the request of Ms. Durham-Aguilera, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution will join with the Army National Military Cemeteries and U.S. Military Academy to plan a re-dedication ceremony in conjunction with our annual DAR wreath-laying ceremony which will take place May 1, 2018, to honor the valor and celebrate the legacy of Margaret Corbin.

These new revelations about the remains once thought to be Margaret Corbin’s now raise the question: Where’s Margaret? The original burial site identified in 1926 at the Cragston estate in Highland Falls was believed to have had a few other graves in the same area. Could Margaret’s remains have actually been mere feet away from the burial plot that was exhumed? Could advances in anthropological forensic technology over the past century aid in discovery of Margaret’s true remains? Or does the more than 200 years since her burial present insurmountable challenges to ever being able to find her remains? DAR will certainly continue to look into these questions and seek guidance from experts in this fascinating story. 

This new mystery in the story of the final resting place of Margaret Corbin may never be completely solved, but, regardless, the DAR will continue to spread awareness and celebrate the legacy of this Revolutionary heroine.

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