The recruiting Sergeant of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, must have counted himself lucky. On a May day in 1782, he had managed to sign up a strapping young man, taller than the average solider, nimble of finger;and literate to boot. As far as the 4th Massachusetts was concerned, Robert Shurtliffe was just about the perfect recruit.
But this recruit had a secret: "Robert Shurtliffe" was, in fact, Deborah Sampson. This remarkable young woman kept her gender a secret through daily drills, the heat of battle, and painful hospital treatments. She is quite possibly the first American woman to fight in the uniform of her country’s military. For more of her intriguing story, read on... (This is the first of what will be a continuing series on colonial and Revolutionary-era women, inspired by MKFox’s excellent “Forgotten Founding Fathers” series.)
Deborah Sampson, Farm Worker and Schoolteacher
How did Deborah Sampson (sometimes spelled Samson) successfully pass as a man, and a soldier? It must have helped that she was accustomed to difficult physical labor. As a teen, she served as an indentured servant on the farm of Benjamin Thomas of Middleborough, Massachusetts. There she mastered several skills that the 18th century considered masculine(weaving cloth, ploughing fields, carpentry) in addition to the sewing, spinning, and care of farm animals then considered appropriate for women.
She was could read and write well enough to become a a school teacher in 1780 at age 18. Sampson also began traveling in the region in order to find work that would supplement her meagre income. She disguised herself as a man–for her own safety, she later explained-- and found that she could pass easily. Rough work on the farm (as well as rough talk from farmhands) had taught her how to mimic masculine posture and voice, while her height (around 5' 8") made her taller than many of her male peers (the average male height during the Revolution was about 5' 4"). Word of this may have contributed to her being excommunicated from her Baptist church in 1782. (Cross-dressing, for any purpose, was considered un-Biblical and a sign of lewdness.)
Deborah Sampson, Massachusetts Soldier and Successful Cross-dresser
After a failed first attempt, Sampson successfully enlisted for a three year term on May 20, 1782. She was accepted as one of many young beardless boys serving in the army.
Sampson avoided undressing in front of others, and even went so far as to lie about a thigh wound in order to avoid detection by a physician. From all accounts, Deborah proved an able soldier, and was particularly praised for alertness and courage. In addition to her leg wound, she received a serious sword cut on the head during an action near Tarrytown.
Her secret was finally discovered when she came down with one of the fevers that frequently menaced most armies in the pre-antibiotic era. In order to protect her reputation, the physician did not publicly expose her secret (in the eighteenth century many people assumed that female cross-dressers were prostitutes). Instead he wrote a private letter to one of Sampson’s superiors, praising her virtue while revealing her gender. She was honorably discharged in October of 1783. After the war, Sampson married Benjamin Gannett of Sharon, Massachusetts, with whom she had three children.
Deborah Sampson Gannett, Massachussetts Heroine
In 1792, Mrs. Gannett successfully petitioned to receive her back pay. The General Court of Massachusetts wrote that she “exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex suspected and unblemished.”
Even so, Deborah and Benjamin fell on hard economic times, prompting Sampson to take to the stage in 1802, giving lectures around the country about her experiences and thrilling audiences with her demonstrations of military drill, performing with precision and skill. Her finances were still poor, but thanks to the lobbying of her friend Paul Revere, she received a pension from Congress in 1804. After her death in 1827, Benjamin Gannet successfully petitioned to receive a “widower’s pension.” This is believed to be the first military spousal pension ever paid to an American man.
On May 23, 1983, Governor Dukakis declared Deborah Sampson Gannet to be the official heroine of the State of Massachusetts.
The Secret Soldier is a biography of Deborah Sampson appropriate for young readers. Adults may enjoy the scholarly-but-lively biography by eminent historian Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Samson, Continental Soldier.
This is the first in a continuing series about interesting women of the colonial and Revolutionary eras. It's also my second diary--thanks for reading!