|The portrait of Deborah Sampson from the front piece of a1797 biography is the only reliable image of her appearance.
After a year and a half of active service in a regular regiment of the Continental Line, Corporal Robert Shurtlieff Sampson was discovered to be a woman—Deborah Sampson and was honorably discharged on October 25, 1783 by a somewhat astonished and amused General Henry Knox who even kindly gave her money for her long trip home.
There have been a handful of documented cases of women posing as men to serve in the armed forces in American history. The Civil War saw such enlistments in both the Union and Confederate armies, the most famous being Sarah Emma Edmonds who served with the Union disguised as Frank Flint Thompson. She served first as a male nurse and later as a spy until she contracted malaria and abandoned the Army rather than be discovered in a military hospital. Edmonds was eventually granted a pension for her service and was the only woman admitted as a full member of the Grand Army of the Republic.
But long before Edmonds was Deborah Sampson who joined the Continental Army under the name of her dead brother, Robert Shurtlieff Sampson and served for a year and a half, much of the time as an infantryman of the Massachusetts Line.
Sampson was born the oldest of seven children on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts into an old colonial family. Through her mother she was a direct descendent of William Bradford, first Governor of Plymouth Colony. Despite the distinguished lineage, the family fell on hard times when Deborah was about seven years old and her father was lost at sea. Her struggling mother soon had to break up the family and send the children to foster with others. Deborah was shuttled between households until she turned 10 years old and was bound and indentured to Deacon Benjamin Thomas, a farmer and Baptist elder in Middleborough who had a large family. There she toiled as a domestic servant and farm laborer until her bondage ended on her 18th Birthday. It was a hard life, but she managed to teach herself to read and write by caging free moments to peruse Deacon Thomas’s small religious library.
There was something else she found on Thomas’s shelves—a militia musters manual with instructions for the complicated use of military muskets, an already antiquated manual of arms, and descriptions of field marching orders. The Revolution was on, although the main theaters of the war had moved on from New England. Amid the drudgery of her life, Deborah longed for the excitement and adventure of a life as a soldier.
After leaving bondage Sampson began teaching school in the summer and weaving in the winter for a meager income. Her mother, with whom she had never lost contact, schemed to rescue both of them from poverty by trying to match Deborah up with a well-to-do landowner. She began to worry that he mother might succeed before she could live the life she wanted.
In 1780 Sampson first disguised herself as a man and enlisted Massachusetts Militia Forces in Middleborough under the name Timothy Thayer. She was soon recognized in the town where she had grown up, was discovered, and forced to return her enlistment bounty. She became an object of scandal and ridicule in town and was expelled from her Baptist congregation for “un-Christian like action.”
Undeterred, Sampson tried again, walking to Uxbridge, a town in Worcester County, on the Connecticut River far enough away from home so that she would not be recognized. At 5 foot, 7 inches tall, Sampson was not only taller than most women of her time, she was not much shorter than the average height of men. She was strong and robust from a life of labor. With her hair cut shorter and tied at the neck in a queue and her breast bound, she had no difficulty in convincing Muster Master Noah Taft that she was Robert Shurtlieff Sampson, her dead brother. It probably also helped, if the rude portraits of her made after the war are any indication, that she was not a delicate beauty, but had a gaunt face and a long, sharp, pointed nose. Sampson’s signature on the muster role is preserved in Massachusetts.
|This contemporary illustration accurately depicts the blue, buff, and red uniform with plumed cap of the 4th Massachusetts. The regiment also wore a tri-corn hat when the fancy caps were not available.
Sampson was assigned to the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Captain George Webb. The sixty-man company was the elite assault unit of the Continental Army regiment of the line. In other words, Sampson was a regular. Her unit was first posted to Bellingham and then to Worcester where the regiment’s companies consolidated under the command of Col. William Shepard.
The regiment was posted to the area around Westchester County, New York, north of New York City where it screened George Washington’s forces along the Hudson from probing attacks by the Red Coats based in the city. She engaged in several sharp skirmishes with English patrols and acquitted herself well under fire. On July 3, 1782 in a particularly sharp engagement near Tarrytown, Sampson was wounded three times, suffered a saber gash to the head and two musket balls to the thigh.
Afraid that medical assistance might expose her secret, Sampson tried to refuse treatment begging to be allowed to die on the battlefield. He comrades would have none of it. They commandeered a horse and carried her six miles to a crude Army hospital. A surgeon treated her head wound but Sampson managed to slip away before her breeches could be cut away to remove the balls. In hiding she tried to do the job herself, probing with a pen knife. She got one ball out, but the other was too deep and she carried it the rest of her life. The stubborn ball also caused her a permanent disability—she walked with a limp ever after. But almost miraculously the wounds did not become infected and Sampson survived.
When she rejoined her unit she was promoted to corporal. She returned to field duty and saw a dust up or two more, but the main action of the War had shifted to Virginia. With little to do in the field and her leg obviously bothering her, she was honored as wounded veteran soldier to be the personal waiter to General John Paterson.
The war was virtually over in June of 1783. The Treaty of Paris was under negotiations and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the remaining English armies sailed away. But at home, deprived of an active enemy, there was unrest. Unpaid officers and troops mutinied and threatened Congress in Philadelphia. Washington ordered the 4th Massachusetts to sail for the capital and protect Congress.
That summer Sampson fell desperately ill with what was diagnosed as malignant fever. She was treated by Dr. Barnabas Binney who discovered her bound breasts while he tried to treat her. The sympathetic doctor decided not to reveal her secret. Instead, he took Sampson into his own household where she was slowly nursed by to health by his wife and daughter.
As soon as word arrived that the Treaty had finally been signed, word came that her regiment, like most Continental Regiments would be mustered out in November. By late October Sampson was better. Dr. Binney decided to send to her back to the army carrying a personal sealed letter to General Paterson. Sampson was sure that it revealed her secret and that she would be cashiered, stripped of pay and rank, and possibly even imprisoned. But she dutifully delivered the letter, never opening it or never sure of its contents.
|Corporal Sampson delivers the sealed letter from her doctor to General John Patterson, who she had served as a personal waiter while disabled, which revealed her sex and true identity.
Whatever the Dr. said in the letter, it impressed General Paterson who forwarded it to General Henry Knox at West Point who summoned her to report. Paterson was surprised to find that the General was sympathetic. After more than 17 months of active service, Knox granted Sampson an honorable discharge, gave her some fatherly advice, and personally gave her money for her return home.
Once again in women’s attire and traveling under her own name, but carrying her precious Continental Army uniform, Sampson boarded a costal sloop in New York City and sailed to Providence, Rhode Island. From there she walked home.
In 1785 Sampson married Benjamin Gannett and settled on his farm in Sharon, Norfolk County. It was the kind of New England stone field farm that yielded a slender living and the growing family was always on the verge of poverty. She gave birth to three children, Earl in 1786, Mary in 1788, Patience in 1790, and adopted orphan Susanna Baker. As years went on Sampson began pursuing various veteran benefits to supplement her family income.
Her story became well known locally and she became something of a minor celebrity.
In January 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay owed her which withheld because she was a woman. The petition passed the Senate and was signed by Governor John Hancock. The General Court of Massachusetts verified her service and cited her for exhibiting “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, unsuspected and unblemished.” She was awarded the tidy sum of £34.
In 1802 at the age of 42 Sampson began to supplement her family income by lecturing about her Revolutionary War experiences. In the first half of the lecture dresses as a respectable farm wife she would tell the story of her experience. She would return in her old Revolutionary uniform—blue and buff with red facing and the distinctive feathered cap worn by her regiment—and execute the complex manual of arms with her heavy musket. Her lectures naturally took her to Boston where she became friendly with fellow patriot Paul Revere who became a patron of sorts often lending her small sums of money.
In 1804 Revere wrote to Massachusetts Representative William Eustis requesting that Congress grant her a military pension, the first such petition ever made on behalf of a woman. Revere’s prestige no doubt helped the case. Revere wrote,
I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender...humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.
The next year Congress granted a pension of $4 a month and instructed that she be put on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll.
|One of several accounts of Sampson's service published for young adults and children.
Her health declining and still in desperate circumstance in 1808 Sampson petitioned Congress to make her Invalid pension retroactive to the date of her discharge in 1783 since she had suffered from her leg wound the entire time. The petition was denied and resubmitted to every new Congress until finally in 1816 approved payment equal to $76 for each year. With that money she was able to pay all of her debts, including those to her aging benefactor Revere and live out her days in relative comfort.
Sampson died on April 29, 1827at the age of 66 of yellow fever and was buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon. Her husband survived her by ten years.
|The Deborah Sampson statue in Sharon, Massachusetts, her post-war home.
Deborah Sampson has become a minor folk hero and has been the subject of both an adult biography and books aimed at inspiring young women. Her farm home in Sharon is a historic site and her life size statue stands outside the Sharon Public Library.