A Soldier of the Revolution
By Renie Burghardt
Deborah Sampson, the first known American woman to impersonate a man to join the army and take part in combat, was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760.
Deborah’s youth was spent in poverty. Her father abandoned the family and went off to sea in search of adventure, where he drowned in a shipwreck. Her mother was ill and unable to support her five children, so she sent them off to live with various relatives and neighbors. Deborah went to live with her mother’s cousin, a Miss Fuller, where she learned to read and was happy for three years. But Miss Fuller died suddenly, and Deborah had no place to live. For a while she ended up living with an eighty year old woman, where she had to feed the woman, carry in the wood to make a fire, do the cooking and washing, until the Minister of Middleborough got eight year old Deborah another position.
The next ten years, Deborah Sampson became a servant in the household of Jeremiah Thomas of Middleborough. Here, she had her own little room above the kitchen, and she had plenty of work to do. She took care of three lively boys, swept, cleaned, cooked, carried in wood, and brought in the water. She was not sent to school like the three boys of the family, so she would read the boys’ schoolbooks at night, until her candle flickered out.
Hard labor developed Deborah’s physical strength, and later in the winter, when there wasn’t much farm work to do, she was allowed to attend school. She learned enough so that when her servitude ended in 1779, she was hired as a teacher in a Middleborough public school.
At the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776, Deborah Sampson was sixteen. George Washington had been chosen to lead the American army. The Declaration of Independence was being signed and approved. Men and boys from all across the area were joining the continental army. Deborah, longing for a life of her own and seeing some of the world before being married, thought about joining the army, too. She thought about it a lot.
Finally, she bought herself men’s clothes, put her hair in a ponytail, deepened her voice, and bound her breasts tightly to look like a male. Then on May 20, 1782, when she was twenty-one, Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental army claiming she was a fifteen year old boy. Because she was 5 foot 7 inches in height, tall for a woman at that time, she did pass as a boy.
Her first test as a soldier came when she had to march to West Point in New York with fifty men. The march took almost two weeks. At West Point, she was given a uniform, gun, and a heavy knapsack. She liked her new uniform, especially the blue coat with the white buttons. She had to go on long marches, and often had to go without food for days, but she never complained, and was well liked by the other soldiers, even though they often teased her about her beardless features.
Back home, rumors circulated about her activities and she was excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Massachusetts, because she was “dressing in man’s clothes and
enlisting as a Soldier in the Army.” However, at the time of her excommunication, her regiment had already left Massachusetts, and her secret was not disclosed.
Deborah Sampson was wounded in the leg in a battle near Tarrytown. She tended her wounds so that she would not be discovered. Her leg never healed properly. Two weeks after she had been shot, she was called to march again. Richard Snow, another sick soldier, who marched beside Deborah, stumbled and fell to the ground one day. Deborah took Richard to a nearby farmhouse, where a man named Van Tassel let them stay in his cold attic, even though he was a Tory. There she tended to her leg and cared for Richard Snow as best as she could. Her own leg improved, but two weeks later, Richard Snow died.
General Patterson had heard about this brave, young soldier named Robert Shurtleff, and chose her to be his personal orderly. She was given a good horse, fine equipment, and a feather bed, and in June sent to Philadelphia on an important mission. However, this was the time a terrible fever was spreading around Philadelphia, and Deborah caught it. Upon landing it the hospital, they discovered she was a female. Deborah Sampson was honorably discharged from the army on
October 25, 1783.
Deborah Sampson returned home, married a farmer named Benjamin Gannett, and bore and raised three children. She also taught at a nearby school. Nine years after her discharge, she was awarded a pension from the state of Massachusetts in the amount of 34 pounds in a lump sum payment. However, after Paul Revere sent a letter to Congress on her behalf in 1804, she began receiving a US pension in the amount of four dollars per month.
In 1802 she began to lecture on her experiences in the military, dressed in military uniform, which she had always loved. So she was also believed to have been the first woman to lecture professionally in the United States.
Deborah Sampson Gannett died April 29, 1827, at age sixty-six. Her children were awarded compensation by a special act of Congress “for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a soldier of the Revolution, deceased.”
Deborah Sampson was an early American hero.
Renie Burghardt is a freelance writer with many credits in magazines, online, and books such as Chicken Soup, Chocolate for Women, Cup of Comfort,God Allows U-Turns and others. She lives in a rural area and is a nature lover.