March 11, 1805 Why can I not Fight for my Country too?

“Wrought upon at length, you may say, by an enthusiasm and frenzy that could brook no control – I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege”. – Deborah Sampson

Her mother was Deborah Bradford Sampson, great-granddaughter of William Bradford, the Mayflower passenger and later Governor of Plymouth Colony. As the mother of seven, Deborah did the best she could. She also raised her young niece whose parents and baby brother were killed and scalped, by Indians. She was not one to make great choices in men, though. Jonathan Sampson would abandon his wife and children to start a new life, in Maine.

Deborah Sampson was the 5th child of this union, born in 1760 in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Plympton. Her father left the family destitute, and all the Sampson children were sent off to live with friends and relatives, a common practice at that time.

Today her bronze likeness greets visitors to the Sharon town library, 22 miles south of Boston. So, who is Deborah Sampson?

Sharon town library

At age ten, Deborah became an indentured servant to the family of Jeremiah Thomas, of Middleborough. She was treated well but, in 18th century New England, female education wasn’t a priority. Deborah would overcome the obstacle, persuading the Thomas sons to share their lessons with her. The episode would reveal a lot of who she’d become in later life.

As Revolution came to the soon-to-be former British colonies, Deborah supported herself as a schoolteacher. She became skilled at weaving and light carpentry and sold milking stools and pie crimpers, door to door.

In 1782, Deborah Sampson entered the life for which we know her, today. She bound her breasts with a linen cloth, donned male attire and went to war for her country. As a soldier.

In an age when the average man stood five-foot six-inches tall, Deborah stood 5’8″. With “plain features” according to a neighbor and what her biographer described as a “waist [which] might displease a coquette”, the transition wasn’t as unlikely as it would seem.

She joined an army unit in Middleborough under the assumed name of Timothy Thayer. She almost pulled it off too before being recognized, by a local. She paid back that part of her signing bonus not already spent and tried again, this time where she wouldn’t be known. Fifty miles away, in Uxbridge.

Sampson joined a light infantry unit under the assumed name of Robert Shirtliff, part of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.

Deborah Sampson fought for a year and a half, as a man, and not in some rear-echelon outfit. The light infantry soldier was specifically chosen to be bigger and stronger than average, charged with rapid flanking movements, rearguard defense and forward reconnaissance, for units on the move. It was not a place where anyone would expect to find someone of her sex.

That baby-smooth chin earned her no end of grief from her fellow soldiers, but she persevered. Sampson fought in several skirmishes, the first outside Tarrytown New York, on July 3, 1782. There she received a deep gash on the forehead and two musket balls, to her thigh. Terrified that her sex would be discovered, she begged her fellow soldiers not to intervene. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. She was put on a horse, and dragged off to the hospital.

Doctors tended to her forehead but she sneaked out before they could get a look at that leg. Using a pen knife and sewing needle, Deborah removed one of the balls, herself. The other was too deep. She would carry it with her for the rest of her life, deep inside a wound that never quite healed.

The war was basically over following the American victory at Yorktown, yet negotiations dragged on, for a year. Even then, American soldiers remained in uniform.

On April 1, 1783, Sampson was assigned to be waiter to Major General John Paterson. That June a contingent of soldiers under General Paterson, were ordered to put down an anti-government protest by some 400 continental soldiers known as the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1783.

Deborah fell ill while in Philadelphia. Delirious, fading in and out of consciousness it was doctor Barnabas Binney who removed her clothes only to find the linen cloth, which bound her breasts. Thus discovered she was removed to the doctor’s home where the female members of the household joined in her care, with a trained nurse.

“Robert Shirtliff” recovered and, handed a note to give to General Paterson, assumed her secret was betrayed. She was right. Other women had been reprimanded for what she had done but Paterson seemed to admire what she’d accomplished. She was sent home with an honorable discharge, a few words of advice and enough money, to get home to Massachusetts.

She married one Benjamin Gannett two years later and moved to the Gannett family farm, in Sharon. There the couple raised three kids plus an orphan, but life was hard. As farms go this one was small, the soil depleted from generations of use.

In 1792 she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for back pay, withheld because of her sex. She was awarded 34 pounds plus interest dating back to her 1783 discharge. The measure was signed by governor John Hancock.

Sampson went on a speaking tour where she’d extoll traditional feminine roles. Then she’d step out and return to the stage in uniform, flawlessly performing a long and taxing series of military drills. She did it for money but, once expenses were paid there was little left. She often borrowed money from her family and from a friend, named Paul Revere.

Revere wrote to Massachusetts member of Congress William Eustis in 1804: “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender… humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.

On this day in 1805, Congress approved her application. An invalid pension of $4 a month.

Deborah Sampson wasn’t the first woman awarded a military pension, that honor went to Margaret Cochran Corbin. At the battle of Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, Corbin continued to fire the gun in whose service her husband was killed, only minutes before. A fine job she did too, before being hit by enemy fire. With her jaw and her left breast severely damaged, her left arm all but ripped from her body, Corbin entered captivity following British victory.

Corbin never did regain use of that left arm. Gruff and thoroughly unfeminine she made few friends among the women of her age, preferring instead the rough and masculine company of fellow soldiers.

Deborah Sampson adopted the more traditional role of wife and mother and died of yellow fever in her 66th year. She went to her rest in the Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts. So it is the bronze likeness of Massachusetts’ “official heroine” greets visitors to the Sharon town library, the only person so honored, by an American state.

Every day, visitors of all ages pass her likeness, in front of that library. Do they know her name? Who knows, but wouldn’t she set a fine example for our daughters and granddaughters. Not at all the sort of role model our girls are subjected to, in our own day and age.