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Minerva FAQ

If you do not find your question answered here, you may wish to search the Logs of the H-MINERVA Discussion List. All replies on this page are by Linda Grant De Pauw except as otherwise indicated.

Who is Minerva?

Helmeted, golden-haired Minerva was the Roman goddess of war and wisdom. Her presence on a battlefield meant that the contest would be decided by sound strategy, cool courage, and military skill rather than by sheer animal strength and blood lust, the qualities represented by Mars, the god of battle.

Unlike Mars, Minerva took no pleasure in combat and did not exult in victory. In the aftermath of battle, she is always depicted with her sword arm lowered as she remembers those killed or wounded. Her concern for the welfare of warriors was also demonstrated by her invention of plate armor and by her patronage of the medical sciences.

In war and peace, Minerva was kept informed by reports from an owl, a bird with acute hearing and sharp night vision, which flew intelligence-gathering missions for the goddess.

Minerva's broad intellectual interests embraced all the arts and sciences; she brought special inspiration to poets and orators, and took a keen interest in spinning, weaving, and sewing activities symbolic of networking.

Who was Molly Pitcher?

Molly Pitcher is the name of a legendary figure of the American Revolution. She is associated with the Battle of Monmouth and since 1876 has been identified with a woman veteran of the war, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, who lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. As part of the centenary events of that year, an unmarked grave believed to be hers was opened and the remains were reburied with honors under a plaque declaring her to have been the real embodiment of the famous Molly Pitcher.

The central theme of the Molly Pitcher story is of a woman whose husband was wounded or killed while serving at an artillery piece at the Battle of Monmouth. She took his place to the admiration of the other soldiers who admired her courage and devotion to her husband. The story has seemingly endless variations, often including a cameo appearance by George Washington who gives her either a gold coin -- in one version a whole hatful of gold coins -- or a promotion to sergeant or captain. Some books even provide elaborate dialogue said to have passed between the camp woman and the commander in chief. In many of these, she speaks with an Irish brogue, but sometimes she is represented as German.

Often students doing school projects on "Molly Pitcher" ask for details about her place of birth or childhood experiences and education. There are no historical sources that can provide such information about a legendary character -- the appropriate way to find them is to read history and then to write historical fiction. By learning about the lives of children in early America, one can imagine the details for Molly. It is entirely proper to "make up" details about her life as one might do for a report on Santa Claus.

The real woman, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley was awarded a pension by the State of Pennsylvania in1822 "for services rendered" during the war -- this was more than the usual widow's pension which was awarded to soldiers' wives who marched with the army. So one assumes she did something special. But when she died there was no mention of a cannon or the Battle of Monmouth in her obituary. Historical sources do confirm that at least two women fought in the Battle of Monmouth -- one was at an artillery position and the other was in the infantry line. There is no evidence linking either of them to McCauley.

There is another woman veteran of the Revolution who received a pension from the Continental Congress for serving at an artillery piece during the Battle of Fort Washington. Her name was Margaret Corbin, and she is now buried at West Point. Some people believe she should be considered the "real" Molly Pitcher, but few people knew about her until long after the Molly Pitcher story was known to every school child, so she cannot have been its inspiration.

For a readable analysis of all the primary and secondary evidence on Molly Pitcher see Linda Grant DePauw, In Search of Molly Pitcher (Pasadena, MD: Peacock Press of Pasadena, 2007).

Questions about Deborah Samson Gannett (1760-1827), Revolutionary War soldier

How do you spell the name of the famous woman soldier of the American Revolution? I've seen both Deborah Sampson Gannett and Deborah Samson Gannett.

The correct spelling is Samson, without a "p." The primary source documents recording her birth and family history make this quite clear. The misspelling, however, is extremely common. Evidence on this question is developed in an article by Patrick J. Leonard in MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military VI (Fall, 1988).

Was Deborah Samson Gannett an African-American? Pictures and many references represent her as white, but some books list her as an African-American.

The story that Deborah was African-American keeps resurfacing for some reason, but there is no shred of truth in it. Benjamin Quarles, the pioneering historian of The Negro in the American Revolution, which was published in 1961, stated flatly that "The female combatant and former school teacher Deborah Sampson [sic] . . . was not a Negro."

The story first appeared as the result of a misreading of a passage in the book by William C. Nell entitled Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, published in 1855. Nell mentions two black Revolutionary War veterans who were remembered by a man named Lemuel Burr, the grandson of one of them. According to Nell, Burr "often speaks of their reminiscences of Deborah Sampson." This is all Nell wrote; he does not suggest that Deborah herself was black, but apparently some readers jumped to the conclusion that black veterans would not have "reminiscences" about any but other black veterans. Deborah was well known -- indeed notorious -- in her day; she went on lecture tours and her life was the subject of a book called The Female Review. Many of the men who served in her unit no doubt told their "reminiscences" of the woman soldier to their grandchildren.

The picture of Samson that is generally reproduced comes from The Female Review. It shows a white woman with long loose curls. It was drawn from life and since it was sold to people who had seen Samson in her stage appearances, it cannot have been too inaccurate. Indeed, a striking feature, her large chin, appears in the faces of some of her living descendants.

The genealogy of Deborah Samson (which, by the way, is the correct spelling) is quite clear. On both sides she was descended from Mayflower families. There is no possibility of an extramarital affair between Deborah's mother and a black man. First of all in the Puritan town of Plympton, MA, a town of only 1,300 inhabitants, such an affair could not have remained secret. Adultery and/or rape would have had consequences. Second, black skin color is a dominant genetic trait and so would have appeared in at least one of Deborah Samson Gannett's three children by Benjamin Gannet Jr.

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