Thursday, December 29, 2011

Deborah Sampson: Woman Warrior of the American Revoultion

Illustration of Deborah Sampson
Despite the fact that women were not allowed to join the military until the 1940s, hundreds of women still fought as soldiers in the American Revolution. These women often disguised themselves as men and used aliases to avoid detection. Like the secret female soldiers in the Civil War, they were often young, poor, unmarried women looking to serve their country and earn money for their families.

One such soldier was a woman named Deborah Sampson from Plympton, Mass. Sampson, a direct descendant of the Mayflower pilgrim William Bradford, grew up in poverty. Like most children in poor families, she was hired out as an indentured servant until the age of 18. After she was released from indentured servitude, she worked as a local school teacher.

After the Revolutionary War broke out and the war raged across the colonies, Sampson decided to join the military. Disguising herself as a man, she attempted to enlist but was recognized by someone she knew. She tried again in 1782 and succeeded, enlisting in the Continental Army under the alias Robert Shurtliff.

Mustered in Worcester, the war had moved on to the New York area by the time she enlisted. Sampson fought as a light infantryman in the Hudson Valley where she was wounded in battle twice. She recovered from her wounds but came down with a deadly fever, prompting her doctor to move her to Pennsylvania for better treatment. It was there that her true identity was discovered. After Sampson recovered she was given a honorary discharge by General Knox and returned home to Massachusetts where she eventually married and had three children.

Statue of Sampson in front of the Sharon library
In 1797, Sampson published her memoirs detailing her time as a soldier in the war, titled "The Female Review." Following publication of the book, Sampson embarked on a public speaking tour throughout eastern New York and New England. During her performances, she dressed in her male uniform and performed maneuvers from the manual of arms.

Like many soldiers of the revolution, Sampson had difficulty trying to obtain a pension. After she campaigned unsuccessfully to secure a pension in 1790, she became discouraged and feared Congress would never award her any money for her role in the war. With the success of her memoirs and speaking tour, Sampson renewed her campaign and gained the support of Paul Revere, who visited her farm in 1804 and wrote a letter to Congress stating “I think her case much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous.” The following year she was finally awarded a pension and eventually won a general service pension in 1821.

Sampson died of yellow mountain fever in April of 1827 and was buried in Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Mass. After her death, several statues and monuments were erected in her honor in Sharon. Over a century later, the Massachusetts legislature named Sampson the official state heroine and declared May 23 “Deborah Sampson Day.”


“The Female Review”; Herman Mann, Deborah Sampson; 1797

Women and Children First: Nineteenth Century Sea Narratives & American Identity”; Robin Miskolcze; 2007

Women in the Military and Armed Conflict”; Helena Carreiras; 2008

Writing Early American History”; Alan Taylor; 2005

Massachusetts Historical Society: A Woman Soldiers in the Revolution

National Women's History Museum: Deborah Sampson

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