When You Think of Freedom, Remember Deborah Sampson, Revolutionary War Soldier

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If you want to talk about breaking with traditional gender roles, talk about Deborah Samson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827, better known as Deborah Sampson or Deborah Samson, a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.

Deborah had an elite ancestry but her father abandoned the family when she was young and she was sent off to live first with a relative who died, then a Reverend Thomas who died. She then became an indentured servant until age 18. She was treated well but never went to school though she wanted to learn.

The reverend’s wife taught her to read so she could read bible verses to her. Deborah was also a skilled weaver.

Deborah bound herself and dressed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.

She was 5’7″ when women in those days were 5′ and was said to have been heavy, small-breasted and plain looking. A relative who is said to have resembled her posed for this photo.

A number of women tried to fight in the war but were too big-breasted to escape notice.

Deborah Sampson

In 1782 Sampson enlisted in the Army under the name Robert Shurtleff, and she joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Captain George Webb. She fought in several skirmishes.

During her first battle, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, history.org reported, she took two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers to let her die and not take her to the hospital, but they refused to abandon her. A soldier put her on his horse, and took her to a hospital. The doctors treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before they could attend to the musket balls. Fearful that her true identity would be discovered, she removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but her leg never fully healed because the other musket ball was too deep for her to reach. On April 1, 1783, she was promoted and spent seven months serving as a waiter to General John Paterson.

During the summer of 1783, Sampson became ill in Philadelphia and was cared for by a doctor, Barnabas Binney. He removed her clothes to treat her and discovered the cloth she used to bind her breasts and, thus discovered her secret. He did not betray her, but took her to his house, where his wife, daughters, and a nurse housed and took care of her.

After a year-and-a-half of honorable service, she was discharged.

She did marry and had three children. Their poverty compelled her to give lectures on her time in the military.

She recalled that she enlisted because she wanted to avenge all the wrongful deaths of colonists by British soldiers. Though she appeased those who would call her unfeminine by saying, “I indeed recollect it [her enlistment] as a foible, and error and presumption,” she did “recollect it with a kind of satisfaction.” Despite her experiences, or perhaps because of them, Sampson went on to praise motherhood and encourage women to raise children and leave wars and politics to men.

It was years before she received her pension because she was considered an illegitimate soldier. She fought for a pension for years. Paul Revere had spoken on her behalf years before. The Massachusetts legislature declared, “that the Said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier.” As compensation, the legislature awarded her $4 per month, commencing from January 1, 1803. In 1816, the legislature increased her pension to $6.40 per month and, in 1819, to $8.00 per month.

She died in 1827 of yellow fever at the age of 66.

Sampson’s long and ultimately successful public campaign for her pension helped bridge gender differences by asserting for women the same feelings expressed by male veterans—that the country had an obligation to those who fought a war to help found it, especially the wounded, injured, and the families of service members who had died during the war, history.org reported.

Women in the Revolutionary War are forgotten and though most didn’t fight, they played an important role. Remember their courage and sacrifice. Honor them. Abigail Adams once said, “Remember the ladies!” Indeed!

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  1. Women soldiers in the Revolution and Black men serving in the Revolution as soldiers also have always fascinated me…. both groups have been near forgotten. Deborah Sampson I actually knew of from several years ago. but there are are some Female and Black Heros depicted on USA stamps from the Revolution who seem to be ignored…… but then even men like Francious Marion, an impressive revolutionary, had to be rescued from the shadows of history by Walt Disney…….. what other Heroes of the Revolution were forgotten because they were men of color or Women.????

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