Deborah Sampson -
The USA’s first female soldier
Deborah Sampson Gannett, better known as Deborah Sampson, achieved fame by disguising herself as a man in order to serve in Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Although she is not the only woman with a documented record of military combat experience in that war, she is probably the most famous.
She came from Massachusetts and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment to fight against the British. She was the only woman to earn a full military pension, although this was only granted posthumously following the Committee of Congress’s recognition that the history of the Revolution “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage.”
Hermann Mann wrote a romanticized biography of her role as a soldier during the Revolutionary War in The Female Review or memoirs of an American Young Lady..
According to Mann, in 1782, as the Revolutionary War raged on, Sampson determined to join the fight by disguising herself as a man. She cut her hair, bound her breast, and enlisted under the name of Robert Shurtleff. She was assigned to the Company of Light Infantry serving under Captain George Webb.
She took part in a number of dangerous missions, including scouting to assess British strength in the Manhattan area, which Washington was proposing to attack. She was involved in raids on Tories that supported the British cause, as well as taking part in the siege of Yorktown.
Despite a number of close calls, including at least two occasions when she was wounded, she managed to disguise her true sex. It was not until she became ill during an epidemic, and was taken to a hospital and lost consciousness, that the truth was revealed. Apparently, Washington was not amused by the deception, but despite this she received an honorable discharge.
She later married Benjamin Gannet. Although her life after the army was typical of a farmer’s wife, including raising 3 children, she also did some lecture tours to publicize her experiences. It was only after her death that her husband petitioned Congress for “pay as the spouse of a soldier”. He was eventually awarded the money, though he too died before receiving it.
The Gannets prospered and became well established in the media and publishing world, responsible for titles such as USA Today.
Portrait of Deborah Sampson from the Frontispiece and title page from Mann’s biography: Nathaniel and Benjamin Heaton, 1797
Deborah Sampson as portrayed by Rose, in the uniform of the 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry. This is a studio painted model