Sunday, November 30, 2014

A cool drink of water: stumbling onto Molly Pitcher's spring

If you grew up in New Jersey, or driven on the Turnpike for that matter, you've heard of Molly Pitcher. Young history buffs first learn of her as a hero of the Battle of Monmouth during the American Revolution, bravely staying on the field of battle as cannons roared around her. Fought in the area outside Freehold on June 28, 1778, the conflict was one of the largest of the entire war and certainly the biggest in New Jersey. As we learned from a recent visit, the day's weather put a woman with a pitcher in a good position to become a legend.

Molly's feats vary, depending on which account of the day you hear. One story has her repeatedly bringing water to her husband and his fellow soldiers on the oppressively hot, humid summer day, keeping the Pennsylvania artillerymen hydrated as many troops on both the American and British sides succumbed to heat stroke. Another version has her taking the place of her injured husband in a gun crew of the 4th Continental Artillery Regiment. She may also have been fetching water for the cannons themselves. Their barrels needed to be swabbed after firing to clear errant sparks and spilled gunpowder, a task especially important during what was to be the most extensive use of artillery in the entire Revolutionary War.

Molly herself is commonly assumed to be a woman named Mary Ludwig Hays, whose husband was part of a large gun crew. She was among the many women who accompanied the troops, cooking, repairing clothes and caring for injured and sick soldiers. Given the hectic nature of battle, it's entirely possible that she stepped in to help when a gunner was injured or suffering from the heat.

We weren't thinking much about tracking Molly down when we set out to explore the battlefield's trails and interpretive markers. Portions of the battlefield are still used as farms and orchards the way they were back in 1778, leaving an impressive viewshed for you to consider from the back side of the visitor center. Miles of hiking trails, roads and field edges offer places to get some perspective on the battle.

The weather was a bit raw on the day we visited, so we decided to check out the park's almost 3000 acres by car. A few roads traverse the area to make it easier to explore, but there are still plenty of wooded sections and farm fields to help you envision what Washington and his troops came upon when they marched into the area. There aren't a lot of interpretive markers along the roads, but the park map showed one not far from a small parking area just off Wemrock Road, near a rusting railroad overpass.

The gravel lot was only large enough to accommodate a couple of cars, but we were the only ones there. Looking around for the interpretive sign, I saw something unexpected: a stone flanked with small faded and aged American flags. The side closest to the car clearly said "MOLLY PITCHER," with some additional printing below it. A closer examination revealed the word "SPRING" painted closer to the bottom of the stone. On the other side was more printing; though chipped by age, it manages to still say "THIS MARKER PLACED BY ALEXANDER JAS___ AND _____M D. PERRINE."

Several steps away, a bramble-covered area was divided by a series of wooden planks across a small running stream. Its source was obscured by vegetation, but it seemed we might have stumbled upon the spring where Mary fetched the water that sustained several American troops during the heat of battle.

I'm always a little wary of unofficial markers, but this one got me curious, especially given its condition. While the stone has seen better days and the state apparently hasn't seen fit to replace it, the presence of the flags, however weathered, led me to believe that someone's been paying at least cursory attention to it.

Turns out it's been there for more than 75 years. According to the Red Bank Daily Register of July 6, 1966, the stone and an interpretive sign were placed there by William D. Perrine and Alexander Jasco, Sr. in 1938, well before the state purchased the land for a park. The sign, now missing but said to be well-maintained 50 years ago, noted "From this spring, Molly Pitcher (Mary Ludwig Hays) carried water to her husband and thirsty soldiers."

What's more, there's another well or spring somewhere on the battlefield that's also claimed by some to be Mary's water source. Neither is marked on the official park map, but I suspect that if we'd wandered a bit more, we'd have found it eventually.

Before we left for the day, we agreed to return to the Monmouth Battlefield once the weather gets warmer. The fields and woods may just be a nice stopover for migrating birds in the spring, and the trails look promising for both good exercise and a ground-level experience on one of New Jersey's great contributions to American independence.

We may even try it on one of the challenging humid days we seem to get in droves in late June and early July. Considering the ordeal our ancestors went through to ward off the British and Hessians that day in 1778, the least we can do is leave the relative luxury of air conditioning to get a deeper understanding of what happened there.

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