Who Was Deborah Sampson, and Why Should We Care?

There are three words all men and women who join the military are made aware of: Duty, Honor, Country.  Men and women join the military do so for many reasons, but in the end, those who serve fully and honorably understand those words implicitly, and better than any who have never served.  This is not meant as a slight towards those who have not served, but as a point of divergance.  The idea, and ideal, of “duty, honor, country” goes back to April 19, 1775, when a few Massachusetts men bravely said, “no more!”  The knew they would either be hung as traitors to the crown, or heroes of a new country.  In those days we were largely a bunch of poorly trained, poorly armed, and raggedty bunch as has ever been seen.  There was no shortage of fear that our independence, as declared July 4, 1775, would be still-born.   Washington himself, upon arriving at Cambridge Massachusetts to review the tens of thousands of colonial soldier camped there, feared for the future.  They were ill-mannered, dirty, vulgar, and about the furthest things from a group of soldiers as could have been imagined.  But as Washington passed among these fledgeling soldiers, in support of a fledgeling cause, his six foot two frame mounted smartly upon a white stallion, and regaled in as smart a uniform as could be found in the colonies, every men paused to take measure of this man who they knew intuitively to be their new leader.  Each and every one of these men had come to fight the British regulars out of a sense of duty to their America, though such duty was more a feeling than anything yet written in words.

Image from the collections of the Massachusettts Historical Society.

The colonial army, though too oft defeated in singular battles, had clung on tenaciously, in spite of hunger, desertions, quarrels among the colonial officers.  The idea that a woman could fight as a soldier was not even a consideration, let alone a reality.  But on May 20 1782, Deborah Sampson (her image above) of Plympton Massachusetts, her breasts tied tightly to her chest, her hair cut short, and dressed as a New England farmboy, enlisted as Robert Shurtleff in the company of Captain Nathan Thayer of Medway Massachusetts.  Seven months prior to her enlistment, the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, and the October 1781 battle was the last large-scale one.  Guerilla warfare continued, however, and Sampson’s unit, the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, fought several small battles in upstate New York, especially near West Point and Tarrytown.  Sampson proved quite skillful, yet despite her ability in these hand-to-hand skirmishes, she was wounded.  In one skirmish, she received a head injury from a saber and was hit with a musket ball in the upper thigh.  She received medical attention for the head wound, but did not inform the doctor of her thigh wound for fear that her identity would be discovered.  After leaving the hospital, Sampson bravely removed the musket ball herself and went on fighting.

Sampson was one of the special soldiers selected to go to Philadelphia to defend Congress from soldiers who were upset that they had not been paid at the war’s end.  During this time, she grew sick and became unconscious due to a head fever.  The nurse thought that Sampson was dead and went to retrieve the doctor.  While searching for a heartbeat the doctor felt the wraps around Sampson’s chest and unwrapped them to inspect what he thought was an injury.  To his surprise he found that his patient was actually a woman.  Dr. Barnabus Binney decided to take her home to give her better care without revealing her identity.

Dr. Binney kept her secret, and Sampson returned with her regiment to New York.  There, General Henry Knox (who would become the nation’s first Secretary of War) honorably discharged “Robert Shurtleff” at West Point on October 25, 1783.

Sampson continued the ruse in face of talk in Stoughton Massachusetts, where she had returned to, that a woman, she, had fought in the war.  She denied such accusations.  But she was found out eventually.

Deborah Sampson Gannet (she had married Benjamin Gannet in 1785) was recognized by Massachusetts less than a decade after the war was over.  On January 19, 1792, she was awarded 34 pounds, which included the interest accumulated since her 1783 discharge.  A document praising her service was sent with the pension.  The document stated “that the said Deborah  Sampson exhibited an extraordinary instance of feminine 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 and was discharged  from the service with a fair and honorable character.” It was signed by John Hancock.

The call to military service has always been a strange one, attracting one while repulsing another.  That call is no less plaintiff to women, as this relation has shown.  Though they were barred from any form of military service until World War 1.  Women, however, disguised as men, fought in every war until then.  The call to service is a strong one to all who answer.  It defies definition but its existence is without doubt.  Deborah Sampson, and everyone else who has answered the call, has always done so for country, and never for any political predeliction.  While war is an extension of political ambition, service, entirely unrelated, is an extension of ones duty to his, or her country.  Deborah Sampson was the first American woman hero, but far from the last.  She, like most others who have served, did so not because she had to, but because she wanted to, more, the need to.


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