ONE OF THE most bizarre (and fascinating) stories of the Revolutionary War is that of Deborah Sampson, a New England infantry “man” who fought bravely in George Washington’s Continental Army. Sampson was born in 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. Her impoverished mother was forced to give up the girl while she was still a child, and she grew to womanhood as an indentured servant. By the time she turned 21, Deborah was tall and strong and looking for adventure.
The War for American Independence been raging for six years, and Sampson intended to join the fight. Although most women worked at home, in the hospitals, or in other support roles, Deborah Sampson chose a more dangerous route. In 1781, she made herself a man’s suit of clothes, trekked to a recruiting post, and enlisted under the alias of Robert Shurtleff as a private soldier in the 4th. Massachusetts Regiment! Sampson served her regiment at the strategic military post of West Point and kept her true identity secret by what one historian has called “artful concealment of her sex.” Her fellow soldiers simply thought young “Robert Shurtleff” to be a young whiskerless lad in his teens!
United States military records show that Deborah became a seasoned combat veteran. She was wounded twice in raids along the Hudson, and in a skirmish near Tarrytown she suffered a sword cut to the head. At East Chester she took a bullet in her thigh that left her a permanent scar and painful injury and a permanent scar. Amazingly, Sampson cared for her own wounds in order to prevent detection of her sex. Deborah Sampson’s true identity was not discovered until 1782. When serving as a general’s orderly near Philadelphia, she became sick with a severe fever and lost consciousness. The attending doctor soon learned that the infantryman under his care was actually a female.
Sampson received an honorable discharge from the army in 1782, and soon after married a young farmer, Benjamin G. Gannet. She bore and raised three children before re-donning her army uniform in the 1790’s to become America’s “first woman lecturer.” At a time when it was extremely unusual for a woman to speak before a mixed (male and female) audience, Deborah Sampson traversed early national America and told of her adventures as a woman soldier in the War for American Independence.
Source: Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789 (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 397-398; Lucy Freeman, America’s First Woman Warrior: The Courage of Deborah Sampson (New York: Paragon, 1992), passim.