Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, December 17, 2018

Deborah Sampson, Soldier in the American Revolution

Deborah Sampson, Revolutionary War Soldier (born 17 December 1760)

Born on 17 December 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts, Deborah Sampson (or Samson) had distinguished Pilgrim ancestors. Through her father, Jonathan Sampson, she was related to Myles Standish and to Patricia Mullins Alden, both Plymouth colonists. Through her mother, Deborah Bradford Sampson, Deborah was directly descended from Governor William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth colony. 

Deborah Sampson, frontispiece,
The Female Review 
Despite this lineage, the Sampson family struggled financially. Deborah's father ultimately abandoned his wife and seven children. Although Deborah believed that her father, having decided to follow the "sea-faring business," was lost at sea, Jonathan Sampson seems to have relocated to Maine, where he lived with a another woman, Martha, and had a second family. Whether this is the same Jonathan Sampson isn't certain--but Deborah's father did return to Plympton in 1794 in regard to a property transaction.

Leaving aside Jonathan Sampson's fate, his family suffered as a result of his absence. According to Herman Mann's 1797 "memoir" of Deborah Sampson's life, the family soon experienced "indigent circumstances," and the seven Sampson children were placed out into the households of friends and relatives because her mother could not support them. When Deborah "was scarcely five years old," she was sent, first, to the home of an "elderly maiden," with the surname Fuller, who was a "distant relation" of her mother's.  

When Deborah was eight, the "honest and discreet" relative who had taken charge of the child and her education died, and Deborah's mother sought another place for the girl. Deborah spent two years in the home of a "Mrs. Thatcher," Mary Prince Thatcher, the widow of the Reverend Peter Thatcher. 

By 1770, when she was ten years old, Deborah Sampson had become an indentured servant, working in the home of Jeremiah Thomas, where she "had stronger propensities for improvement, and less opportunities to acquire it." Denied other opportunities, she got what she could from Thomas's sons, who shared what they learned at school with her.

In 1778, when she reached the age of eighteen, Deborah Sampson's term of indenture was over. She had learned enough, by whatever means, that she was able to find work as a teacher during the summers of 1779 and 1780; during the winters, she worked as a weaver.

But Deborah Sampson was restless. And so, hoping to be able to travel, she thought she could disguise herself in order to avoid the limits imposed on her as a woman. But she soon changed her mind--rather than travel, she would she become a soldier. In the story, as relayed by Mann, Deborah Sampson "determined her to relinquish her plan of travelling for that of joining the American Army in the character of a voluntary soldier":
This proposal concurred with her inclinations on many accounts. Whilst she should have equal opportunities for surveying and contemplating the world, [s]he should be accumulating some lucrative profit[,] and in the end, perhaps, be instrumental in the cause of liberty, which had for nearly six years enveloped the minds of her countrymen.
So in early 1782, disguising herself as a man and calling herself Timothy Thayer, Sampson enlisted in a Massachusetts Army unit--though she ultimately failed to join the company after her enlistment because she was recognized, and her identity as a woman was revealed.

But several months later, this time as Robert Shurtleff, Deborah Sampson enlisted in  Captain George Webb's Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. Her military career was significant. As Alfred Young notes in Masquerade, his 2005 biography of Sampson, the light infantry were elite troops--taller, stronger, and more mobile than the soldiers of regular units. 

Herman Mann's 1797 "memoir,"
The Female Review 
Young gives a careful accounting of Sampson's service, distinguishing reality from the stories incorporated into Mann's version of Sampson's military career. Her period of enlistment extended from May 1782 until October 1783. These dates preclude her participation in the battle of Yorktown (which many sources still cite), but she did participate in a number of battles; during her first, in July 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she was wounded in her thigh, extracting two musket balls herself, in order to avoid detection by a doctor.

In June of 1783 she was sent to Philadelphia--although the War of Independence was over, Continental soldiers were protesting delays in their discharges (and pay). There Sampson became ill from a fever. Taken to a hospital for treatment, the attending doctor, Barnabus Binney, discovered her biological sex.

But Binney did not reveal her sex. Instead, he took her to his home where she could be cared for by his wife. She was able to return to her post, though Binney sent along with her a note to her commander, General John Paterson. Without punishment or publicity, Paterson gave her an honorable discharge on 25 October 1783.

With money Paterson had given her, Sampson returned to Massachusetts. On 7 April 1785, she married Benjamin Gannett, a farmer. The couple had three children, a son and two daughters, and adopted another child, a girl.

Reduced to poverty, in 1792 Deborah Sampson Gannett successfully petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay. On 20 January, the legislature adopted a resolution granting her the sum of 34 pounds plus interest, dating from the date of her discharge. According to the resolution, "the said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserved the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished."

It took longer to gain a pension for her service, however. Mann's The Female Review; or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady, was part of the campaign to secure her recognition and compensation for her service. She also undertook a lecture tour (in 1802), and secured testimonials from luminaries like Paul Revere. Such efforts were needed, since her application for a pension could not be supported by documentation of her service--while she was with the army, she had hidden her wounds and her identity.

In 1805, Congress awarded Sampson a pension of four dollars a month, placing her on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll. Although a petition for an increase was denied in 1809, her pension was later increased to $6.40 a month (in 1816) and to $8.00 (in 1819).

Deborah Sampson Gannett died on 29 April 1827, but her story doesn't end quite there. Although she was not married at the time of her service, her husband petitioned for the continuation of a military pension as the spouse of a soldier. His claim was finally recognized in 1837--though he was not alive to receive the money due to him.

Deborah Sampson Gannett is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery, Sharon, Massachusetts.

Deborah Sampson's headstone,
posted by David Allen Lambert
at Find a Grave
In addition to the 1797 account of Sampson and to Young's 2005 biography, both of which I've cited above, there are numerous excellent online resources. You may want to start with Debra Michals's entry at the National Women's History Museum site or, for context, Kaia Danyluk's essay, "Women's Service with the Continental Army," among the online resources at the Colonial Williamsburg website. (On this essay, see update, below.)

For an excellent discussion of Mann's "memoir" of Sampson, written in part as support for Sampson's campaign to get her military pension, I recommend Jody Schorb's introduction at Just Teach One, resources for teaching neglected or forgotten American texts (Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life).

You should also check out the entry online at OutHistory, which explores Sampson's intimacies with women--reported by Mann, whose accounts are at times "unintelligible": 
Several suggestive and curious passages in this work refer to Sampson's romantic, though allegedly chaste liaisons with other women, while posing as a male. Quite apart from any accuracy these tales may have, their very existence in a book subscribed to by respectable New Englanders in the late 1700s is of interest. Sampson's cross-dressing and the nominally "pure," asexual character of her romances no doubt made these stories seem acceptable at the time.

Update, 2 July 2019: A recently discovered diary, kept by a Massachusetts man who knew Deborah Sampson, has cast new light on Deborah Sampson. To read Alison Leigh Crowan's New York Times story, "The Woman Who Sneaked into George Washington's Army," click here.

Update, 1 February 2021: Kaia Danyluk's essay seem to be no longer available at the Colonial Williamsburg website. I can find multiple references to the original essay online, but not the essay itself. The link here takes you to the essay as preserved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.