Stories about women dressed as men who fight as soldiers are common in many wars, so I wasn’t surprised when I found accounts of several women who fought in the American Revolution. Deborah Sampson was the most successful, living and working as a soldier for about 18 months before being discovered. This is her story.
Deborah’s Early Life
Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Massachusetts. Her family was poor and they didn’t have the funds to care for her. She was sent to relatives and was forced to become an indentured servant. At age 18, her service ended and she supported herself by teaching and weaving.
In the Army
In May 1782, when she was 21, she decided to join Continental Army. She was patriotic and a bit of a daredevil, and she was likely looking at making a better living than that possible for her as a teacher.
At this time the Revolutionary War had theoretically ended with the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, but the peace treaty wasn’t signed until 1783. The area where Deborah served was “neutral” ground at this time, a lawless area with both Patriots and Tories (British sympathizers) fighting each other and terrorizing the people living there. George Washington was still commanding troops, 10,000 soldiers guarded the Hudson River, and there were ongoing small military actions and skirmishes.
Deborah joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, disguised as a man named Robert Shurtliff. She was chosen to serve in the Light Infantry Troops, an elite unit that only took certain “men.”
Deborah took part in many of the skirmishes during this time. At one point she was shot in the shoulder, but she didn’t want her disguise to be revealed, so she left the bullet in and continued to fight.
In another skirmish, she was wounded in the thigh, but she dressed her own wounds, to avoid being discovered and to keep from having her leg amputated. Amputation was common with doctors at that time because there were no antiseptics then.
Deborah’s conduct during her service time also helped her to maintain her persona. She was daring and took risks, making her less likely to be suspected of being a woman, and her bravery and courage made it more likely that she would be treated well if discovered.
Life as a Soldier
It’s difficult to imagine the lengths Deborah had to go to in order to keep up her disguise all the time. She said she was younger (age 17) to avoid questions about her lack of facial hair. Every moment carried the risk of being caught out. Imagine sleeping on the ground or in a small tent with up to six other soldiers. At that time, people didn’t bathe regularly, and soldiers slept in their clothes, so she didn’t have to worry about that issue. She couldn’t drink, because that would mean letting down her guard and saying or doing something that would cause her to be questioned.
Alfred Young, author of her “biography,” says she was tall (probably about 5’7″), muscular, and very erect, which would have helped her maintain her disguise. She tied down her breasts with a linen cloth, her voice wasn’t high pitched, and she probably wore her hair short or in a “queue” (ponytail).
Young claims she fought at the Battle of Yorktown, but she didn’t enlist until over a year after the battle!
In October 1783 she was in Philadelphia on an assignment when she became ill and was taken to a hospital. The doctor found out her secret but told no one; he took her to his home and his wife nursed her until she recovered. She was given an honorable discharge in October 1783.
After the Army
Deborah married Benjamin Gannet in 1785 and they had three children. She wrote a book, “The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution, and she went on lecture tours across the country talking about her exploits. She became quite a celebrity during this time.
She died of yellow fever on April 29, 1807.
Why Deborah Sampson Is Important
Deborah’s legacy lives on. Although there were several other women who served in disguise in the American Revolution, she is the bravest and most successful.
She loved being in the army, where she had advantages that could never have been hers if she remained a poor schoolteacher. And the adventures!
In 2017, the Deborah Sampson Act, a bipartisan bill to address gender disparities at the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, was made law by Congress.
May 23, the day she enlisted, is Deborah Samson Gannett Day in Massachusetts.