She dressed as a man to fight in the American Revolution

Matt Saintsing
March 08, 2019 - 3:15 pm

Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society

As the Revolutionary War was raging, Robert Shurtleff joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, scouting enemy British troops and equipment. 

In June of 1782, he led 30 other men in a battle against an outnumbered force of Red Coats and conducted a raid on an occupied home capturing 15 enemy soldiers. He was also shelled at Yorktown. 

Shurtleff served in the Continental Army for 17 months until being handed an honorable discharge from Gen. George Washington. 

National Archives photo

Except the hero known as Robert Shurtleff, was a woman by the name of Deborah Sampson who disguised herself as a man so she could fight for her country’s independence. 

Sampson was born December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth. When her father, Jonathan Sampson Jr. left when she was five years old, her mother—financially struggling with six other children—decided to scatter them throughout New England. 

By age 10, Sampson was living as an indentured servant on a farm in Middleborough. 

By 1782, the allure of military life became too much to bear, but she knew as a woman her choices were limited. That’s when she decided to cross-dress as a man. In the spring of that year, she fashioned a man’s coat, waistcoat and breeches—which are similar to Colonial Era knickers. 

Sampson was injured twice in combat, the first being a sword wound to her head, from which she fully recovered. She later removed a bullet from her thigh—on her own. 

It was only when the disease-riddled reality to Revolutionary camp life caught up with her that a doctor discovered she was, in fact, a woman while treating her for a fever outside Philadelphia. 
General Washington was adamant about having a male-only camp. When he offered her a discharge, he didn’t utter a word about her service. 

Upon returning to Massachusetts, Sampson was a prolific writer and traveled around New England, sometimes in full military garb and often demonstrating tactics she learned from the battlefield. 

She married Benjamin Gannett in April of 1795, they had three children. Although they ran a small farm in Sharon, Mass., they lived a life in destitute. Facing mounting financial pressure, Sampson, with the help of her husband applied for her military pension. Congress denied it. 

Monetary compensation for her service would not come until 21 years later when Paul Revere became her advocate. 

Writing to William Eustis, a Massachusetts Congressman, in 1804, Revere writes, “She told me, she had no doubt that her ill health is in consequence of her being exposed when She did a Soldiers duty; and that while in the Army, She was wounded.” 

He continues, “I think her case much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous.” 

RELATED: 5 vintage recruiting posters that encouraged women to enlist

Revere’s words were met with action, and Sampson has the honor of being just two women who fought in the Revolutionary war to receive a military pension, about $4 a month, or about $104 today. She died

A statue in her honor stands the town of Sharon showing her true identities by combining her military uniform with civilian clothing. 

RELATED: They were the first: How these military women smashed glass ceilings

Statue of Deborah Sampson at the Sharon Massachusetts Public Library.
Photo Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society

Today, a bill carries her name, the Deborah Sampson Act, which would eliminate barriers to care and services that many women veterans face. It would also help ensure the VA can address the needs of women who are more likely to face homelessness, unemployment and go without much-needed health care.

RELATED: New bill aims to provide women equitable VA care

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