Revolutionary War Historical Article
Our Nation's First Woman Soldier
Compatriot Donald N. Moran's Talk at the February 1997 Massing of the Colors
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the March 1997 Edition of the The Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
Some of you have probably noticed a young lady in the Sons of Liberty Chapter's Continental Color Guard. This is not a effort to be politically correct, a la the nineteen nineties, but rather a deliberate effort to be historically correct. The uniform this young lady is wearing is identical to the one worn by Deborah Sampson, of the Fourth Regiment, Massachusetts Continental Line. Let me tell you her interesting story.
Deborah Sampson was born on December 17th, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was raised by friends and relatives until she was ten years old, then indentured for the next eight years. By the time she was twenty, she had educated herself to become a part time teacher. She stood about 5 foot eight inches tall, was heavy boned and very , strong and of light complexion.
Late in the war, she decided she had to contribute to the war effort, but not in the normal manner available to women of her day. She sewed a man's suit of clothes, left her farm and walked thirty miles to Middleborough, Massachusetts, where she enlisted in Captain George Webb's Light Infantry Company, Fourth Regiment, Massachusetts Continental Line under the assumed name of Robert Shurtleff, a name she made up.
Her first narrow escape from discovery was when she was altering her poorly fitting uniform, and was observed to be very good with a needle. She explained it away by stating there were no girls in her family, so as a youngest she had to learn how to sew.
Shortly thereafter, her Regiment marched to West Point to protect the Hudson Highlands from the British who still occupied New York City. There were numerous engagements between the two opposing forces along "No Man's Land". Near the Tappan Zee she fought her first battle, and gave a good account of herself. But she received a sabre wound across the left side of her head. She refused to go to the hospital, fearing discovery, and tended the wound herself.
Within weeks she was in another skirmish and this time she was hit in the thigh by a musket ball. This time there was no preventing being carried to the hospital. But, once there, she showed the surgeon the lesser wound to her head, and he released her. She tried to dig the musket ball out of her thigh with her pen knife! Failing that, she nursed the wound as best she could. But, having left the ball in the leg was to cause her trouble for the rest of her life.
The Fourth Massachusetts was transferred to Philadelphia, and there Robert/Deborah was assigned to General John Patterson, Brigade Commander, as an orderly. She was then taken ill with a severe fever, rendering her unconscious. Taken to the hospital, where Doctor Barnabas Binney discovered that Robert Shurtleff was really Deborah Sampson. The good doctor decided to cooperate with the gallant lady soldier and conceal his findings. Unfortunately, as Robert was being nursed back to health, the Doctor's niece fell in love with him/her. Nothing could be done at this point but to admit to the deception.
When advised of the situation, General Patterson notified General Henry Knox, who, in turn, advised General George Washington. He ordered Robert Shurtleff/Deborah Sampson to be honorably discharged. General Knox signed the document on October 25th, 1783, and letters of testimony to her gallantry in combat were presented for her by General William Sherpard, Colonel Henry Jackson and General Patterson. She had served for a year and a half. And, finally, wearing the dress given her by General Patterson's wife, she and the General stood on the steps of his headquarters and the entire Fourth Regiment passed in review - - probably wondering who the young lady was with the General.
On April 7th, 1785, Deborah married Benjamin Gannett, a farmer of Sharon, Massachusetts, and bore him three children.
In 1805 she was awarded a pension by the State of Massachusetts in the amount of $4.00 per month, primarily because of her wound to her thigh which was proving debilitating. In 1818 it was doubled.
At the urging of Paul Revere, Deborah went on tour in 1802, capitalizing on her wartime fame.
She lectured in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York and was perhaps America's first women lecturer. She delivered a set of speeches about her wartime experiences, and at the conclusion of her speech she would leave the stage, put on her "regimentals" and return to demonstrate the manual of arms, unheard of from a woman, and usually to the cheers of her appreciative audience.
Deborah died in Sharon, Massachusetts. On her tombstone is inscribed "Deborah wife of Benjamin Gannett, died April 29, 1827, aged 68 years". On the reverse side of the stone it reads "Deborah Sampson Gannett, Robert Shurtleff, The Female Soldier Service 1781-1783" Also, the D.A. R. erected a plaque in her memory, detailing her exploits.
"America's First Woman Warrior" by Lucy Freeman