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 that’s what she did.
With the war well underway in 1782, she found the idea of joining the army a compelling one. Danger, adventure, dedication to a cause and financial rewards lured young people then, as now, to military service.
And it held a strong appeal for Deborah 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 Sampson received 60 pounds, a substantial sum, for representing Uxbridge in the army.
Casualty of War
Deborah Sampson’s undercover act held, for the most part, throughout her 17-month service. She went to West Point with the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, then her unit patrolled Westchester County between British-held New York and patriot-held territory.
She had a close call in July of 1782 in a skirmish in Tarrytown, N.Y., when musket fire struck her. Fellow soldiers brought her to a hospital with wounds to her head and leg.
Though she let a hospital doctor dress her head wound, she left the hospital before he could treat her leg. Fearing discovery, she removed on piece of shrapnel from her leg herself, but she couldn’t retrieve a second, deeper one, for her to retrieve and it stayed with her for life.
After a cold winter in which she suffered frostbite, Sampson received a promotion in April of 1783. She served as a waiter to General John Paterson, 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.
Marriage And Celebrity
Upon returning to Massachusetts, Sampson abandoned her disguise and married Benjamin Gannett of Stoughton. They raised a family of four children, three biological children and one adopted daughter. The family, though, struggled financially on their small farm.
In 1792, Deborah Sampson petitioned Congress for back pay as a Continental Army soldier. The story leaked out, and newspapers ran her story. She decided to profit from her celebrity by writing a book about her experiences.
Ten years later, Deborah Sampson decided to put her show on the road. She began performing “The American Heroine” on stage in Boston. First she recited a patriotic oration, then she appeared on stage in a Continental Army uniform and showed how to load and present arms.
The audience loved it. After four nights performing in a fashionable Boston theater, she toured New England and New York.
But she still struggled financially, calling on her friend Paul Revere for loans several times. She had to wrestle with the bureaucracy to receive her military pension, which Congress didn’t fully approve until 1819. After that, she lived comfortably until her death in April 1827.
Her husband lived another 11 years. He died weeks after Congress voted him to give him a pension as the widower of a veteran of the American Revolution, the only man so honored.
This story about Deborah Sampson was updated in 2019.