At five-foot-seven, Deborah Sampson was tall for a girl in 1782. In fact, she was tall for a man in those times. Tall enough to be mistaken for a boy, which had its advantages if you were a girl who wanted to join the Continental Army and fight in the U.S. war for independence. And that’s exactly what Deborah Sampson wanted, and what she did.
With the war well underway in 1782, the idea of joining the army and aiding the effort was a compelling one. Danger, adventure, dedication to a cause and financial rewards were then, as now, a powerful lure to military service.
And it held a strong appeal for Sampson, who was born in Plympton, Mass in 1760. She had been abandoned by her father and grew up as an indentured servant. As a young woman, she was hired to teach school in Middleborough. Her first attempt at enlisting ended as a joke. She disguised herself, joined up and then apparently thought better of it after spending some of her enlistment pay on a drunken bender. Church and local officials were not amused, and they admonished her.
But in 1782 she tried again. This time she successfully disguised herself as a boy and signed up for service in Uxbridge in the Massachusetts 4th Regiment as Robert Shurtlieff Sampson, which was her deceased brother’s name. At this point in history towns were required to send young men into the service, and volunteers could receive a bounty if they were willing to step in and join up. Deborah probably received a substantial sum for representing Uxbridge in the army.
Sampson’s undercover act held, for the most part, throughout her 17-month service. She had a close call in July of 1782 in a skirmish in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was struck by musket fire. She was brought to the hospital with wounds to her head and leg by her fellow soldiers. Though she let a hospital doctor dress her head wound, she left the hospital before her leg was treated. Fearing discovery, she removed on piece of shrapnel from her leg herself, but a second was too deep for her to retrieve and it stayed with her for life.
After a cold winter in which she suffered frostbite, Sampson received a promotion to serve as a waiter to General John Paterson in April of 1783, which improved her accommodations. But she suffered one more close call when she came down with a fever in the summer of that year. The doctor treating her discovered her secret, but he did not reveal it. The doctor’s wife and daughters nursed Sampson back to health and, with the war now ended, she was honorably discharged by General Henry Knox at West Point in October, 1783.
Upon returning to Massachusetts, Sampson abandoned her disguise and married Benjamin Gannett of Stoughton and raised a family of four children, three biological children and one adopted daughter.
Sampson lectured about her adventures throughout New England and into New York and sold a book about her experiences, as well. But she did struggle financially, calling on Paul Revere, who was a friend of hers, for loans several times. She had to wrestle with the bureaucracy to receive her military pension, which wasn’t fully approved until 1816. After that, she lived comfortably until her death in April, 1827.