- James Houser
March 11, 1805 - The Mulan from Massachusetts, Deborah Sampson
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
March 11, 1805. Women’s History Month: On this day in Congress, the Founding Fathers stopped bickering over taxes and the Barbary War (coming on April 27) for about five seconds. Representative William Eustis of Massachusetts holds up a letter from Paul Revere asking for a military pension – for a woman. Who was Deborah Sampson?
Deborah Sampson was born into a poor Massachusetts family in 1760. She was a direct descendant of William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony, and other of the original Mayflower passengers. Early in her life, Deborah’s father abandoned their family and relocated to Maine, leaving her mother unable to care for her and her siblings. Deborah ended up living with relatives and then with an elderly widow who taught her to read. Destitute after the death of her mother and the widow, Deborah was a young woman alone in the Massachusetts of the Revolution.
Deborah found a place as an indentured servant to the well-off family of Jeremiah Thomas but was forbidden to attend school, as Jeremiah believed that girls should not attend. Deborah didn't do well with father figures, then or later, and shared the Thomas boys’ schoolwork. Armed with something resembling an education, she was just about as qualified as anyone in Massachusetts to become a teacher, which she did at 18 years old once her indentured servitude ended. While Deborah taught local children during the summer, she picked up other odd jobs along the way, including weaving, woodworking, and making her own tools. In short, she was the town teacher and the town handyman all in one.
According to her own account, Deborah began to have a recurring dream in 1780-1781. In this dream, she was attacked by an unseen figure and managed to defend herself. This dream occurred multiple times before she decided to take it as a religious sign. Deborah, a devout and evangelical Baptist, believed in an interventionist God. The Colonies were struggling for independence, and God was telling her that it was her job to join the fight – and that she was capable of doing so.
In early 1782, just after the Battle of Yorktown, Deborah tried to join a local Massachusetts regiment in Middleborough. She was quickly recognized by a man from her town, however, and summarily dismissed. Deborah was pretty good at passing for a soldier. At 5’9”, she was even taller than the average man of the times (5’7”), and her slender but brawny look, plain face, and small bust made it easy to disguise her appearance.
In May 1782, Deborah tried again. Under the name “Robert Shirtliff,” she joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, and no one got wise this time. The Light Companies were marked as elite troops made up of stronger-than-average soldiers capable of quick thinking and reconnaissance; they were employed as scouts, skirmishers, and for quick movements. Deborah purposely joined the Light Company because its special status meant she would be less likely to be questioned and thus discovered.
Despite the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the war continued even as peace negotiations carried on. The British continued to occupy New York, and there were many skirmishes between Continental Army troops and the redcoats while the diplomats in Paris hemmed and hawed. Deborah – or, uh, “Robert” - fought in several of these small battles, gaining a good reputation in her unit as a steady and devoted soldier. On July 3, 1782, during one such engagement, Deborah was wounded in the thigh from musket fire. Her comrades started to take her to a doctor, but she begged them to let her die, worrying that examination would reveal her secret. Nevertheless, she reached a field hospital.
The doctor was able to treat her cuts and bruises. Before he could disrobe her and operate on her leg, she hobbled out of the hospital, clutching the wound. On her own, she bit down on some leather and extracted one of the two rounds from her leg with a knife. She wasn’t able to recover the other one – which kept the leg from ever fully healing – but she did bandage up her wounds and rejoined her unit.
Throughout the rest of 1782 and to the end of the war, Deborah served in the 4th Massachusetts in various small battles. The only person to discover her secret was Doctor Barnabas Binney, who treated her when she fell ill in 1783. Binney kept Deborah’s secret and took her to his own house, where his wife and daughters cared for her during her illness. After Deborah had recovered, she went to work for General John Paterson as one of his aides.
The Revolution won, the 4th Massachusetts and Deborah Sampson were set to be discharged in October 1783. Upon receiving her papers of discharge from General Paterson, the General revealed that Doctor Binney had told him Deborah's secret. Rather than report her to the authorities and reprimand her – as had happened to most other women who had been found out – he handed her the discharge, gave her some kind words of advice, and gifted her enough money to get home. Paterson, in a way, was the first supportive father figure the young woman had. Deborah Sampson’s war was over, but her struggle had begun.
One wonders what Deborah’s neighbors thought of her when she came home to Massachusetts after a year at war. At least one of them didn’t seem to have much of a problem; in 1785, Deborah married a farmer about her age named Benjamin Gannett. (Some men prefer Amazons, then and now.) They had three children and adopted a war orphan, and the whole family quietly tended Gannett’s tiny farm in New England. Maybe Deborah decided she needed some quiet. But this was Deborah - she didn’t stay quiet for long.
In 1792, Deborah Sampson Gannett successfully petitioned the State of Massachusetts for some of her back pay, which the state had withheld on account of her gender; Governor John Hancock approved the petition. Encouraged by this public recognition of her taboo service, by 1802 Deborah was making the lecture circuit. She would give a sarcastic speech praising traditional gender roles, only to leave the stage and return in her army uniform, displaying a complicated routine of drill and ceremony. The obvious message of the act was clear enough, and she made friends across Massachusetts, including patriot Paul Revere.
Deborah's routine made little money, though, and her husband’s farm barely made enough to sustain them during the economic hard times following the Revolution. Ashamed, she had to approach her famous friend Revere and ask for a loan. Revere, one of the original Sons of Liberty, was apparently indignant that a fellow Patriot (and fellow rule-breaker) was experiencing such hard times after her sacrifices. So he wrote his Congressman.
On March 11, 1805, Representative Eustis read Revere’s letter out loud: "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." Even for such a woman as Deborah Sampson, Revere had to couch his letter in socially acceptable terms of gender roles and assure Congress that she had no intention of “going butch” again.
Whatever he had to do, it worked. On this day in history, Private Deborah Sampson Gannett became the first woman in American history to earn a military pension.
With this pension, and eventually with pay as an invalid soldier due to her war wound, Deborah was able to repay all her loans – including to kind old Mr. Revere – and fix up the family farm. Still occasionally making her lecture circuit, where people came from all over out of curiosity to see the “woman soldier,” Deborah remained an icon of the community in Sharon, Massachusetts and a living legend.
She was still a legend when she finally passed away at 66, and she lies in the cemetery of her small town of Sharon.
In 1983, Deborah Sampson was acknowledged as the Official Heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. By 1983, of course, thousands and soon millions of women would be acknowledged as members of the Armed Forces, fighting and serving on every continent and in every capacity.
All women who have served since the Revolution, then, can find their roots in that first pioneer of women fighting for the United States, the “woman soldier,” the Mulan from Massachusetts: Private Deborah Sampson.
Book Recommendation: Deborah Sampson's best bio is Sheila Solomon Klass, Soldier's Secret: The Story of Deborah Sampson (New York: Henry Holt, 2009).