Eat Your Heart Out, Mulan!
Posted on 13 March 2012
Deborah Sampson was the first known American woman to impersonate a man in order to join the army and take part in combat. She was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760 as the oldest of three daughters and three sons of Jonathan and Deborah Sampson. Her family descended from one of the original colonists, Priscilla Mullins Alden, who was later immortalized in Longfellow's poem, "The Courtship of Miles Standish."
Deborah's youth was spent in poverty. Her father abandoned the family and went off to sea. Her mother was of poor health and could not support the children, so she sent them off to live with various neighbors and relatives. At the young age of eight to ten, Sampson became an indentured servant in the household of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough. For ten years she helped with the housework and worked in the field. Hard labor developed her physical strength. In winter, when there wasn't as much farm work to be done, she was able to attend school. She learned enough so that after her servitude ended in 1779, she was hired as a teacher in a Middleborough public school.
On May 20, 1782, when she was twenty-one, Sampson enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army at Bellingham as a man named Robert Shurtleff (also listed as Shirtliff or Shirtlieff). On May 23rd, she was mustered into service at Worcester. Being 5 foot 7 inches tall, she looked tall for a woman and she had bound her breasts tightly to approximate a male physique. Other soldiers teased her about not having to shave, but they assumed that this "boy" was just too young to grow facial hair. She performed her duties as well as any other man.
Back home, rumors circulated about her activities and she was excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Massachusetts, because of a strong suspicion that she was "dressing in man's clothes and enlisting as a Soldier in the Army." At the time of her excommunication, her regiment had already left Massachusetts.
Sampson was sent with her regiment to West Point, New York, where she apparently was wounded in the leg in a battle near Tarrytown. She tended her own wounds so that her gender would not be discovered. As a result, her leg never healed properly. However, when she was later hospitalized for fever in Philadelphia, the physician attending her discovered that she was a woman and made discreet arrangements that ended her military career. Sampson was honorably discharged from the army at West Point on October 25, 1783 by General Henry Knox.
Deborah Sampson returned home, married a farmer named Benjamin Gannett, and had three children. She also taught at a nearby school. About nine years after her discharge from the army, she was awarded a pension from the state of Massachusetts in the amount of thirty-four pounds in a lump payment. After Paul Revere sent a letter to Congress on her behalf in 1804, she started receiving a U.S. pension in the amount of four dollars per month. In 1802, Sampson traveled throughout New England and New York giving lectures on her experiences in the military. During her lectures, she wore the military uniform.
Deborah Sampson Gannett died April 29, 1827 in Sharon, Massachusetts, at age sixty-six. Her children were awarded compensation by a special act of Congress "for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a soldier of the Revolution, deceased."