Deborah Sampson

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Deborah Sampson
Born December 17, 1760

Plympton, Massachusetts, USA

Died April 29, 1827

Sharon, Massachusetts, USA

Spouse Benjamin Gannett
Children Earl, Mary, Patience

Deborah Sampson was a woman that dressed as a man, so that she could join the American soldiers in the Revolutionary War. (The Revolutionary War was a war between Great Britain and the Thirteen Original colonies.) Deborah Sampson came from a poor family. She worked as an indentured servant from the age of eight to the age of eighteen. She worked for no pay for a family, but that family let her study with and spend time with their sons.

Sampson wanted to serve in the war against the British, but the American Army would only take men. She dressed as a man; and she got into the Continental Army.

Army service[change | change source]

In early 1782, Sampson wore men's clothes and joined an Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts, under the name Timothy Thayer.[1] She collected a bonus and then failed to meet up with her company as scheduled. Inquiries by the company commander revealed that Sampson had been recognized by a local resident at the time she signed her enlistment papers. Her deception uncovered, she repaid the portion of the bonus that she had not spent, but she was not subjected to further punishment by the Army.[2] Although her first enlistment attempt is not confirmed by the Massachusetts Archives[3] she apparently did try to enlist as in September 1782 The Baptist church to which she belonged learned of her actions and withdrew its fellowship, meaning that its members refused to associate with her unless she apologized and asked forgiveness.[4]

In May 1782, Sampson enlisted again in Uxbridge, Massachusetts under the name "Robert Shurtleff" (also spelled in various sources as Shirtliffe and Shurtleff), and joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment,[5] under the command of Captain George Webb (1740–1825). This unit, consisting of 50 to 60 men, was first quartered in Bellingham, Massachusetts, and later mustered at Worcester with the rest of the regiment commanded by Colonel William Shepard. Light Infantry Companies were elite troops, specially picked because they were taller and stronger than average.[6] Their job was to provide rapid flank coverage for advancing regiments, as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties for units on the move.[7] Because she joined an elite unit, Sampson's disguise was more likely to succeed, since no one was likely to look for a woman among soldiers who were specially chosen for their above average size and superior physical ability.[8]

Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers to let her die and not take her to a doctor, but a soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to her leg. Fearful that her identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other one was too deep for her to reach. Her leg never fully healed. On April 1, 1783, she was reassigned to new duties, and spent seven months serving as a waiter to General John Paterson.

The war was thought to be over following the Battle of Yorktown, but since there was no official peace treaty, the Continental Army remained in uniform. On June 24, the President of Congress ordered George Washington to send a contingent of soldiers under Paterson to Philadelphia to help quell a rebellion of American soldiers who were protesting delays in receiving their pay and discharges. During the summer of 1783, Sampson became ill in Philadelphia and was cared for by Doctor Barnabas Binney (1751–1787). He removed her clothes to treat her and discovered the cloth she used to bind her breasts. Without revealing his discovery to army authorities, he took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a nurse took care of her.

In September 1783, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, November 3 was set as the date for soldiers to muster out. When Dr. Binney asked Deborah to deliver a note to General Paterson, she correctly assumed that it would reveal her gender. In other cases, women who pretended to be men to serve in the army were reprimanded, but Paterson gave her an honorable discharge, a note with some words of advice, and enough money to travel home. She was discharged at West Point, New York, on October 25, 1783, after a year and a half of service.[9]

An Official Record of Deborah Gannet's service as "Robert Shirtliff" from May 20, 1782 to Oct 25, 1783 appears in the "Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War" series .p. 164.[10]

She served in the Army for a little more than a year. [1] She got injured in a battle. After the war she got a very terrible fever. The doctor that cared for her discovered that she was a woman. He told her that she would have to leave the army and go home.

Yet, she re-entered the war. On the other hand, her doctor gave her a letter to take to General George Washington when she got better. Washington gave her a letter that said that she had to leave. But the letter said that she served in the war with honor.

She later got married. She worked as a teacher. She also spoke in public about her experiences in the war.

Books about Deborah Sampson[change | change source]

  • Ann McGovern and Katherine Thompson, The Secret Soldier: The Story Of Deborah Sampson
  • Alma Bond and Lucy Freeman, America's First Woman Warrior: The Courage of Deborah Sampson

References[change | change source]

  1. Room, Adrian (September 20, 2012). "Dictionary of Pseudonyms: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their Origins, 5th ed". McFarland – via Google Books. 
  2. Wayne, Tiffany K. (2015). Women's Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Review of Issues, Events, and People. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC. p. 163. ISBN 978-1-61069-214-4. 
  3. Thayer surname Listing in the Massachusetts Archives Solders and Sailors of the Revolutionary war Vol 15 printed 1907
  4. Mann, Herman (1916). The Female Review: Or, Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution. New York, NY: William Abbatt. p. 21. ISBN 9781429017220. 
  5. "Deborah Sampson. How She Served as a Soldier in the Revolution—Her Sex Unknown to the Army" (PDF). New York Times. October 8, 1898. Retrieved May 22, 2013. 
  6. Anderson, Dale (2006). Soldiers and Sailors in the American Revolution. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8368-5929-4. 
  7. Soldiers and Sailors in the American Revolution.
  8. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named young. ().
  9. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named bronski. ().
  10. Massachusetts. Office of the Secretary of State (February 17, 1896). "Massachusetts soldiers and sailors of the revolutionary war. A compilation from the archives". Boston, Wright and Potter Printing Co., State Printers – via Internet Archive.