Back when women were not allowed to serve in uniform in the Continental Army, a woman had the distinction of successfully serving in Washington’s Army disguised as a man. She was among the first women to have a documented record of military combat experience. Safe to say, she’s the Mulan of the American Revolutionary War.
A difficult start
Deborah Sampson Gannet was born in Plympton, Massachusetts on December 17, 1760. She was one of seven children of Deborah Bradford, a great-granddaughter of Massachusetts Governor William Bradford, and Jonathan Sampson, whose ancestry was part of the passengers of the Mayflower. Despite this pedigree which placed her among America’s premier families, gannets were impoverished, so when her father failed to return a day after a sea voyage, her mother struggled to feed her seven children. Later, they will discover that her father did not die but rather had a new love and emigrated to Lincoln County, Maine.
His mother decided to send all of her children to live with her relatives and friends, which was common in New England at the time. As for Deborah, she was sent to a relative, but when her mother later died, she was sent to be the companion of Reverend Peter Thatcher’s widow, Mary Prince Thatcher. The octogenarian old lady asked Deborah to read her the Bible, she learned to read.
Deborah was sent to Middleborough with the Jeremiah Thomas family when Mary died. There she worked as an indentured servant until she was 18. She wasn’t abused or anything, but she wasn’t sent to school like the Thomas children because they considered female education unnecessary. Education was not free at that time and families tended to spend this money first on their sons. That didn’t stop Deborah from learning what she could from Thomas’s sons, who shared their schoolwork with her. And it paid off.
After the end of her contract of servitude and at the age of 18, she earned her living by teaching in the schools during the summer sessions of 1779 and 1780. In the winter, she worked as a weaver for various families who provide accommodation while working on projects for them. Not only that, but this girl also knew woodworking and mechanics. She also did light carpentry and made pie tongs that she sold door-to-door. Deborah had useful skills as a trader.
Cheat the system
It’s important to quickly discuss Deborah’s physical characteristics, as this contributed greatly to her success in entering the all-male army. She was a tall lady standing 5ft 9in, with the average height for women at the time being 5ft. She was even taller than the average male height of 5 feet 6 to 8 inches. She has also been described as “not thin”. She had small breasts that she could simply bind with linen. His features have been described as simple and regular. While not all of these adjectives sound flattering, she has used these characteristics to her advantage.
In 1782, a man named Timothy Thayer came in and enlisted in the Continental Army unit at Middleborough, Massachusetts. He received his bonus but never showed up at his company on the due date.
Plot twist: Timothy Thayer didn’t exist, and it was none other than Deborah. Unfortunately, a local resident recognized her as she signed her papers and she was reported. She returned what was left of the bounty she claimed. After her Baptist church heard what she had done, they removed her from their church unless she apologized for what she had done.
In response, Deborah enlisted again, this time in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, and introduced herself as Robert Shurtleff. She made it into the Continental Army under Captain George Webb’s Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment stationed in Bellingham, Massachusetts. Later it was transferred to Worcester as part of Colonel William Shepard’s light infantry companies, elite troops specifically chosen for their strength and size. Their task was to provide rapid flank cover as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties.
Deborah spent two years in the Continental Army as a forward scout for the army, assessing British troop movements and strength. His unit also fought numerous skirmishes with American Loyalist militia aiding the Crown. She did what she could to hide the secret of her sex. When she was slashed in the forehead by a sword and received a musket ball in the thigh, she refused medical treatment and physical examination by a doctor. She pleaded not to be taken to hospital, fearing her gender would be discovered. They brought her in anyway, she allowed the doctor to treat her head wound but managed to limp before a doctor could attend to the bullet in her thigh. She managed to remove part of the bullet with a penknife and a sewing needle, but pieces were too deep to remove, so she decided to live with it, even when the wound never fully healed. There are other stories that she was shot in the shoulder and that bullet was not removed either for fear that a doctor would find out her secret.
In Philadelphia in 1783, Deborah fell ill during an epidemic with a high fever and lost consciousness. The doctor attending to her was Dr. Barnabas Binney. He found out she was a girl after he took off her clothes and saw the cloth she used to bandage her breasts. Doctor Binney was no snitch, so he took her home with his wife and daughters, and a nurse attended to her to protect her secret.
Dr. Binney convinced her that she was not really “Robert Shurtleff” and asked her to confess everything to General Paterson. She couldn’t be sure what punishment she might receive, but discipline in the army could be harsh. A man could be whipped for not using the camp latrine. However, what she received in return from General Paterson was a note with some advice and enough money to get home. She also received an honorable discharge from the military. It was October 1783, just months before the end of the Revolutionary War.
Now Deborah again and scarred by the battle, she has returned to Massachusetts. In April 1785 she married Benjamin Gannet and had three children, Earl, Mary and Patience. A book about her exploits was written by Herman Mann, titled “The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady”. The book probably embellished some of his war exploits. Deborah claimed to have dug trenches during the siege of Yorktown, but a diary written by a fellow soldier states that her first unsuccessful attempt to join the army occurred several months after the siege ended. Deborah may have been digging trenches as a civilian, but she wasn’t in uniform. It took some wrangling, but the state of Massachusetts eventually granted her a military pension and in 1802 she swapped the duties of wife and mother to embark on a year-long tour lecturing about her service in the military, often dressing in his Continental Army. uniform. She was the only woman to receive a full pension as a soldier for service in the war.
When Deborah died at the age of 66, her widowed husband petitioned Congress to receive her pension as the surviving wife of a Revolutionary War veteran. Congress really had no choice but to grant the request saying that Deborah’s record of service in uniform, “provided no other similar example of female heroism, faithfulness and courage” . Unfortunately, Ben Gannet died before receiving the first payment.
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