Past Pioneer­ing

The Fe­male Sol­dier

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Dar­ryl Quidort

Deb­o­rah Sam­son

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.

Mil­i­tary En­list­ment

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)

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