Wednesday, September 23, 2015

History, Schmistory

I was always a pretty good student in school, but there was one subject that I always stunk at: history. I just couldn’t make sense of dates and wars and armies and governments. It was too disconnected from my reality. I couldn’t identify with having to fight in a war, with being concerned that my rights were being violated by my government, with being willing to die for something. But there were a few bits of historical knowledge that I did find interesting: the lives of ordinary people. I loved to read biographies of people in historical times – not necessarily people like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, who were making history, but people like Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinore Pruitt Stewart (author of Letters from a Woman Homesteader), who were living through it.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I discovered a magical bookshelf in my school library that was filled with small, orange-bound volumes that were all biographies of fascinating people. Many were quite famous, like Washington and Jefferson and Napoleon; others were recognizable but a bit less famous, like Florence Nightingale and Johnny Appleseed and Susan B. Anthony; but there were many others whose lives had a much more quiet impact on those around them. One of those less well-known subjects was a woman called “Molly Pitcher.”

Molly’s story, as I remember it, was that she followed a family member (I was hazy on the relationship – perhaps it was a brother, perhaps her father?) to the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, and that she brought water to the soldiers as they fought, sometimes even nursing the wounded. I remember a very specific detail that she was so deep in the middle of the fighting at one point that a musket ball flew through her skirt, leaving a hole but not touching her. I don’t remember there being many illustrations in the book, but there was plenty of description, and I remember being able to picture quite vividly a young woman wearing a mobcap, with her skirt tucked into her apron, perhaps some smudges of dirt and sweat on her face, carrying a pewter pitcher, and the dirty, ragtag American soldiers in their motley clothing and carrying their motley weapons, facing off against the perfectly uniformed British soldiers with their matching shiny brass buttons and their perfectly aligned row of bayonets. And I imagined what could have been happening in that young woman’s world to make her willing to step onto a battlefield with musket balls flying all around her, or to make those men willing to leave their farms and their families to fight with little to no training against one of the finest armies in the world.

Molly’s story made history real to me for a moment – not because she was someone who created that history, but because she was an ordinary person who had to live her life while that “history” was swirling all around it.


So when I found a biography of Molly Pitcher at my local library, one that was geared for younger children, I had to bring it home and read it to my son. 


He was not quite as interested as I had been, but he listened to the whole book and asked a few questions. This book had a number of illustrations, so we looked at those together and discussed some of the details. He noticed quickly that the American soldiers had different kinds of weapons: some had flintlocks, some had rifles with bayonets, some had swords, and some didn’t have weapons of their own but fired off the cannons. In this retelling of the story, Molly took over firing a cannon after her husband, who had been firing it, was wounded, and there was no-one else to do it. She had watched the men doing it often enough that she was able to fire it off on her own. My son thought that was pretty impressive. (He was even more impressed when I told him that I knew how to fire a cannon, thanks to an old boyfriend whose National Guard unit manned the cannons for the Boston Pops’ annual 4th of July rendition of “The 1812 Overture.”) He was also impressed to learn that Molly Pitcher was made a sergeant by General George Washington himself, because of her bravery on the battlefield.

I was a bit disappointed, however, to discover that although Mary Hays McCauley, aka “Molly Pitcher,” was a real person, and she really was at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, the story of Molly Pitcher is really a composite story based on the experiences of a number of women who helped out during the Revolutionary War. The name “Molly Pitcher” was apparently commonly used to refer to women who carried water to soldiers on the battlefield during the Revolution. And a woman named Margaret Corbin had taken over firing a cannon when her husband was killed during a battle at Fort Washington, New York, in 1777 – was it mere coincidence that Molly Pitcher was credited with a similar act, or was Margaret’s story given to Molly to make it more interesting?

Whatever the truth of Molly’s story, it made history come alive for me. And after mixing up and frying the kind of corncakes that Molly might have packed for her husband to bring to the battlefield, I think history is starting to come alive for my son, too. 


I guess the way to a (young) man’s mind, as well as his heart, is through his stomach. But if that’s what it takes to get him interested in history, let’s get cooking!

Corn Cakes (from Molly Pitcher, retold by Larry Dane Brimner)
1-3/4 c flour
¼ c yellow cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 c milk
¼ c melted butter
1 cup whole kernel corn (fresh, frozen, or canned)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat the eggs and milk together. [Since Molly wouldn’t have had an electric mixer, we opted to do this step by hand with a whisk. Phew, we both developed much appreciation for the cooks of that era!] Add the egg-milk mixture to the dry ingredients. Stir in the melted butter. Add the corn and stir lightly.

For each pancake, use about ¼ c of batter. Pour onto a hot griddle or nonstick pan that has been lighted coated with vegetable oil spray. Brown the pancakes on both sides, turning when bubbles appear and the edges are set. Serve with butter and syrup [we discussed that honey or molasses would also be authentic choices].

Mmm, history tastes delicious!

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