The Female Soldier
Deborah Samson is credited as the first American woman to serve in combat as a uniformed U.S. military member. Disguised as a man, she joined the Continental Army and fought in the American Revolutionary War.
Born Dec. 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, Deborah was a direct descendant of the pilgrim families who came to America on the Mayflower. The Samson family, of which Deborah was one of seven children, was very poor. When she was very young she was told that her father died at sea, but there’s evidence that he actually abandoned his family.
At 10 years old, Deborah became an indentured servant to Jeremiah Thomas, a farmer with sons but no daughters. Deborah was withheld from school because Thomas didn’t believe women should be educated, but she got her education anyway, because Thomas’ sons shared what they learned with her. She must have been clever, because at age 18, with her period of servitude finished, she taught at the one-room Middleborough School (1779-80).
When Deborah was 15 and still an indentured servant, America declared its independence from British rule. Thomas was a patriot, and his beliefs may have influenced her decision to contribute to the war effort. Standing 5-foot, 7 inches tall, she was taller than the average woman of the time, and she decided to enlist in the army disguised as a man.
After binding down her breasts with a linen cloth and wearing men’s clothing, she enlisted on May 20, 1782, using the name Robert Shurtliff (Shurtleff or Shirtliffe). There was no a physical exam. The Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army, under the command of Captain George Webb, marched to West Point where they built fortifications on the Hudson River’s west shore.
Deborah’s military service has puzzled researchers because the dates remain uncertain and records from the time are missing or incomplete. Additionally, Herman Mann published her biography, The Female Review; or Memoirs of an American Lady, in 1797 which, per the Canton, Massachusetts, Historical Society, “contained innumerable falsehoods and inaccuracies; Mann even succeeded in misspelling her surname … Her true name was Samson, but due to Mann, even plaques and monuments record her name as ‘Sampson.’”
Off to Battle
Deborah fought in several skirmishes. Facing volleys of musket fire from lines of red-coated British troops was a terrible experience. Battlefields were smothered with the eye- and lung-burning smoke from the black powder used in deafening muskets and cannons. Wounded and dying men groaned in agony.
In a battle on July 3, 1782, Deborah received a sword cut to her forehead during hand-tohand combat, which covered her left side with blood. She also took two musket, or pistol, balls in her left thigh, one just below the groin. A soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital where doctors treated her head wound. To protect her identity, she limped away before they could inspect her other wounds. In private, she tended to them herself; some accounts say by removing one ball with a knife and stitching the wound up with her own needle. The other ball, too deep for her to reach, was left in her leg, and the wound never healed properly.
Keeping the Secret
Deborah’s true gender remained undiscovered for months while she served in the army. She endured long marches and poor food along with the men. Deborah avoided any situation that might reveal her gender, such as bathing in the Hudson River with the rest of the troops. Other soldiers teased her about not needing to shave, but they assumed that this “boy” was too young to grow facial hair.
Early in 1783, she received a promotion and became aide-de-camp to General Paterson. In June of that year, even though the war was over, congress ordered George Washington to send a contingent of soldiers to Philadelphia to keep order as American soldiers protested delays in receiving their pay and discharges. Gen. Paterson’s men marched to Philadelphia. While there, Deborah came down with a “malignant fever,” possibly caused by the bullet still lodged deeply in her leg. She was near death when Dr. Benjamin (or Barnabus) Binney, while checking her heartbeat, discovered the binding over her breasts. She had been discovered. After overseeing her recovery, he sent a letter to Gen. Paterson making it known that Deborah was a woman.
Gen. Paterson gave Deborah an honorable discharge from the Continental Army at West Point on Oct. 23, 1783. However, after a year and a half of military service, she received no pay because she was a woman.
A New Life
On Apr. 7, 1785, Deborah married Benjamin Gannett, a Sharon, Massachusetts, farmer, and they had three children. Along with farming, Deborah sometimes taught at a nearby school. It was a poor farm, however, and the family lived on the edge of poverty.
Petition for Pay
In 1792, Deborah petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the army pay that had been withheld from her. Governor John Hancock granted her petition, and she received 34 pounds, plus interest, for her military service.
In 1804, friend Paul Revere petitioned on her behalf for a military pension. A military pension had never been requested for a woman, but due to Revere’s recommendation, congress approved, and she was placed on the pension roll at $4 per month.
Laid to Rest
Deborah Samson died of yellow fever on Apr. 29, 1827, at the age of 66, and was buried at Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon. Her gravestone is inscribed:
Deborah Sampson Gannett Robert Shurtliff The Female Soldier Service (1781–1783)