Statue of Deborah Sampson Gannett by sculptor Lu Stubbs. Sharon Public Library, Sharon, MA.
In 1782, Deborah Sampson disguised herself in men’s clothing to enlist in the Continental Army. She was wounded in combat later that year. After her discovery and discharge from the Army in 1783, she petitioned for and received a Congressional pension. She wasn’t the first American woman to do any of these things. But she was the first American woman to tell the story of her military service, both in writing and in public lectures. A revival of interest in her story late in the 20th century led to several books about her adventures – not all of them historically accurate. But what interests me most about her story is the way that aspects of it continue to play out in the lives and stories of women veterans in America today.
Portrait of Deborah Sampson by Joseph Stone, 1797.
Some women may join the armed forces to prove that they’re tough, but no woman has ever enlisted to prove her manhood. Sampson was no exception. She claimed that she’d enlisted from patriotism, a desire to travel, and a determination “to burst the bands, which…held her sex in awe” (she was dissatisfied with the limits Colonial society imposed on women’s activity). All of those things may be true, but her reasons for enlisting were probably more complex. Historian Alfred F. Young suggests several other influences that may have had some bearing on her decision. Born around 1760, she came of age in Massachusetts early in the American Revolution – a time and place where defiance of authority was esteemed. She was rebellious, having left the established Congregational church for the Baptist faith. A voracious reader, she may have been familiar with and admired Britishwoman Hannah Snell’s popular memoir The Female Soldier. She was not beautiful, and could not bring a prospective husband a dowry – if she’d even been able to find a marriage prospect when so many men were off fighting. She’d wanted to travel but couldn’t do so successfully as a single woman. She was almost certainly low on cash.
It took her two tries to join the Continental Army. In March or April of 1782, she dressed in her brother’s clothing and enlisted under the name “Timothy Thayer” in Middleborough, Massachusetts, where she had been living and working. Having been raised first by foster parents and then serving an indenture until her 18th birthday, she was not wealthy; she may have just planned to collect the enlistment bonus to supplement her income as an itinerant weaver and schoolmistress. She spent some of the money quickly, drinking in the local tavern with other enlistees that night and buying new clothes for herself and a gift of gloves for a friend. But she was known in the town and her fraudulent enlistment was exposed. She was stricken from the muster roll, and even excommunicated from the Baptist church where she had been a member. Probably because she was afraid of civil as well as religious persecution for her attempt to impersonate a man – which was not only considered a sin in that era, but also a crime – she left Middleborough for Bellingham, where she was not known. On May 20, 1782, she succeeded in enlisting in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment as “Robert Shurtliff” – her brother’s first and middle names.
Sampson had to be a better-than-average soldier simply to maintain her disguise as an ordinary private. Being a “spit and polish” soldier at frequent inspections was a good way to avoid calling attention to herself. She didn’t try to be one of the boys; she avoided horseplay and heavy drinking, among other military bonding rituals. One of her senior officers was quoted in a 1794 newspaper article as saying that she “always gained the admiration and applause of her officers…she displayed herself with activity, alertness, chastity and valour…was never found in liquor, and always kept company with the most upright and temperate soldiers.” She qualified and was chosen for service in a light infantry company – an elite, highly mobile unit whose missions included scouting, intelligence gathering, and skirmish. It was considered to be the hardest duty in the Continental Army, with a high probability of being wounded or killed. Light infantrymen stayed busy, which left Sampson’s fellow soldiers little time to speculate on why “Robert Shurtliff” had no beard – and never peed in public. Light infantry duty also allowed Sampson to avoid long stays in garrison where close living conditions would have increased the chances of her sex being discovered. She took advantage of men’s expectations of women and their abilities – and of the unsavory, undisciplined habits of “average” soldiers – to hide in plain sight and even to excel in her duties. Young says, “Women serving openly in modern armies under the compulsion to prove themselves know what it means to avoid identifying with dissenters who rock the boat.” Having been on active duty in the Navy during the Tailhook scandal, and having seen what happened to Paula Coughlin, I can personally attest to the truth of that. Sometimes keeping your head down is the best survival strategy available.
The real story of Sampson’s combat wounds is lost to history. Her Congressional pension application, which would have contained a detailed description of the wounds, has been lost. Young has found sufficient evidence to believe that she actively engaged in combat at least twice; that she sustained wounds, probably in her upper body, in battle; that she treated them herself (not only to maintain her disguise, but because it was safer than entrusting her life to the military physicians of the day); and that she suffered some disability as a result. Whatever documentation she provided of the wounds was sufficient evidence for Congress to grant her pension application soon after it was received. And her honorable discharge on October 25, 1783 is well documented. On assignment to Philadelphia, she contracted a high fever (possibly from measles) and a military surgeon discovered that she was a woman. Exposure, she said later, was her worst fear: the penalties could be harsh. In 1777 her commander, General John Paterson, had been the colonel of a regiment in which a woman named Ann (“Nancy”) Bailey had been fined and jailed for impersonating a male soldier. But the outcome was happier for Sampson. Calvin Munn, who had been her drill sergeant, recalled that “she was…protected by the officers who she served under, discharged, and sent home to her friends.” She may have been granted clemency and an honorable discharge because she had always excelled in her duties and had proven herself in combat.
After her discharge, Sampson returned to the life of a rural Massachusetts woman. She married Benjamin Gannett Junior, a farmer from a prominent local family in the town of Sharon, gave birth to three children, and adopted a fourth. Almost a decade later, she decided to tell her story. The family may have needed the money that a pension and publication would bring in; Benjamin Gannett failed to prosper as a farmer. In part, she simply wanted to receive what she believed was due to any disabled soldier of the Continental Army. The tone of her pension letters suggests that she was frustrated, perhaps even angry, at the difficulties a woman faced in telling her story and getting the recognition due her for her service.
In 1792 Sampson met an idealistic, educated, and patriotic young man with whom she would work for the next thirty years to tell her story to the public. Ambitious but not an experienced (or particularly good) writer, Herman Mann had just started a career as the editor of the newspaper in Dedham. He spent almost five years on Sampson’s biography, published in 1797 as The Female Review.
The book is full of errors. Some may have been accidental; Mann admitted that part had been written hastily, before he’d been able to complete the research to his satisfaction. Some are errors of omission: Sampson didn’t tell Mann about her early, fraudulent enlistment and her excommunication from the Baptist church, probably in order to shape her story in the least unflattering light. And some of the incidents described in the book are pure fiction. Many seem to have been almost plagiarized from the earlier memoir of British soldier Hannah Snell. Others appear to have been invented for sensational effect, including her presence at the Battle of Yorktown (which occurred prior to her enlistment), tales of derring-do among the Indians, and insinuations about her sex life that hinted about romances with other women. Embellishment of a memoir didn’t have the same stigma in the 18th century that it has today, and it would have been difficult to disprove many of the “facts” in the book back then. But Sampson’s own drill sergeant dismissed much of the book as “a novel not one fourth of which is fact” while he praised Sampson herself: “she displayed much alertness, chastity and valour” and “was a remarkable, vigilant soldier on her post.” James Adams Vinton, who published a reprint of The Female Review in 1866, included extensive, disparaging comments about factual errors in the text. Contemporary sources suggest that Sampson had not approved part of the book and was not entirely pleased with it. In the 1820s, she refused to approve publication of a second edition until after her death.
One thing is certain: the story that Sampson told about her service has only come down to us filtered and embellished by Herman Mann. In the late eighteenth century women who wrote for publication were considered disreputable, and having Mann write and publish her memoir may have been the only way that Sampson could have her story told without facing social ostracism. Mann may also have appropriated her story to further his own career and reputation, or to publish a story easily shaped to reflect his own patriotic ideals and view of the American Revolution (but not to advance any subversion of established gender roles). At the very least, he was privileged by gender and superior education to take whatever liberties or to impose whatever meaning he wanted on the story with a nearly complete disregard for both the truth and Sampson’s intent in taking her story public. In short, The Female Review is an early American example of “mansplaining” a female veteran’s service.
At the turn of the century, Sampson decided to take her story on the lecture circuit. She delivered an “address” followed by a performance of the manual of arms while wearing a soldier’s uniform. She had remained friends with Mann and his family, and he collaborated with her on her speech. Although Mann is once again the author of her address, it’s as close as we can come to hearing her voice today. She choose to use the words of that address to tell her story in public. We know that she memorized the address and delivered it at least twenty times in a dozen cities. I believe that something more of her personality and intent comes through in the address. I believe that it’s a more honest story than The Female Review, and that its value lie less in what Sampson said about the facts of her life than in how she chose to speak to the American public about her decision to enlist and about the value of her service.
The bulk of the address is an apology for Sampson’s transgression of disguising herself as a man – “a foible, an error and presumption” – but it’s a defensive apology. She says that her story
“…ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgement of my own sex, and from the endearing friendship of the other. But this, I venture to pronounce, would be saying too much: For as I should thus not respect myself, should be entitled to none from others.”
She was proud of her service, however shocking it may have been to polite society. I personally suspect that she also took perverse pleasure in the transgression:
“And yet I must frankly confess,” she says, “I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction, which no one can better conceive and enjoy than him, who, recollecting the good intentions of a bad deed, lives to see and to correct any indecorum of his life.”
She also claims agency for herself. It’s hard to miss the parallel she draws between what she sought in her own rebellion and what the colonists sought in the American rebellion:
“I burst the tyrant bonds, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural priviledge….Thus I became an actor in that important drama, with an inflexible resolution to persevere through the last scene; when we might be permitted and acknowledged to enjoy what we had so nobly declared we would possess, or lose with our lives: FREEDOM and INDEPENDENCE!”
She goes on to allude briefly and in vague images to four wartime episodes that her audience would have recognized: the Westchester skirmishes, the Battle of Yorktown, Schuyler’s expedition into northern New York, and her discovery in Philadelphia. She provides no personal details of her experience (she could not have been involved in two of the four episodes: she hadn’t yet enlisted when the Battle of Saratoga in took place in 1777 or when the Battle of Yorktown was fought in 1781). In declining to provide personal details, she might have able to mislead her audience into thinking that she had enlisted early in the war. But she also managed to avoid overt lies, for the most part. There is only one sentence that could be taken as an absolute lie: in describing the Battle of Yorktown, she says that “Three successive weeks, after a long and rapid march, found me amidst this storm.”
Then she slyly equates her own motives for enlisting with the “noble” motives that are typically attributed only to men, in a poem composed by Mann:
“And dost thou ask what fair hand inspired
A Nymph to be with martial glory fired?
Or, what from art, or yet from Nature’s laws,
Has join’d a Female to her country’s cause?
Then ask – why Cincinnatus left his farm?
Why science did old PLATO’s bosom warm?
Why HECTOR in the Trojan war should dare?
Or why should HOMER trace his actions there?
Why NEWTON in philosophy has shown?
Or CHARLES, for solitude, has left his throne?
Why LOCKE in metaphysics should delight –
Precisian sage, to set false reason right?
Perhaps the same propensity you use,
Has prompted her a martial course to choose.”
Women are capable of the same noble and heroic thoughts and deeds as the heroes of Western classicism? Women have the same impulse as men to fight for their country? What absolutely radical assertions – assertions that women in the American armed forces still have to make every time a question comes up about their “appropriate” roles in military service.
If she had been a man, Sampson continues, her story would be understood differently.
“I am indeed willing to acknowledge what I have done, an error and presumption. I will call it an error and presumption, because I swerved from the accustomed flowry paths of female delicacy, to walk upon the heroic precipice of feminine perdition! – I indeed left my morning pillow of roses, to prepare a couch of brambles for the night….Had all this been achieved by the rougher hand, more properly assigned to wield the sword in duty and danger in a defensive war…these thorns might have been converted into wreaths of immortal glory and fame.”
In the final paragraphs of her address, Sampson alludes to some of the challenges she faced in reintegrating into peacetime society in a traditional woman’s role. Not only was her service not recognized or valued; she seems to have been the object of gossip and scorn, perhaps even shamed by questions about her sexual virtue because she had served alongside men in a role traditionally reserved for men. She apologizes repeatedly for “whatever I may be thought to have been unnatural, unwise and indelicate.” Young believes that she may have adopted an apologetic tone in her address and inferred that women and men belonged in separate spheres to try to regain social acceptance.
The final words of Deborah Sampson Gannett’s public address are a reference to a woman’s expected role of child rearing, usually read as a return to convention to satisfy public expectation and to solicit social approval. “Let us rear an offspring in every respect worthy to fill the most illustrious stations of their predecessors,” she says.
And so they did. America’s women veterans have filled “the most illustrious stations of their predecessors” – predecessors like Deborah Sampson Gannett; like Margaret Corbin, severely wounded in action and taken prisoner by the enemy in 1776; like Sally St. Clare, a woman of color who became the first recorded American woman killed in action at the Battle of Savannah on December 29, 1778; and like the camp followers, the civilian volunteers, and the hundreds or even thousands of other women who served anonymously in the armed forces before women were permitted to enlist officially in the twentieth century. They continue to do so today.
From the moment of enlistment to separation from the service or even death, the experiences of women veterans are not the same as those of men who serve their country. Even when they perform the same jobs, achieve the same ranks, and fight in the same battles, the lived experiences of women veterans differ from those of the men they fight beside. So when women veterans tell their stories openly and honestly, those stories aren’t the same as the stories told by fighting men. Because there exists no single definitive story of military service or of war, the stories of women veterans must be heard if American society is to understand correctly the value and the cost of military service – and of war. To my sisters in arms: our stories matter.
On this blog, I hope to look at the stories that women veterans are telling – to make a space to consider our lived experiences, our stories and how we tell them, and the meaning that we might derive from them. If you are a woman veteran, tell your stories, in whatever way works best for you. Insist, as Deborah Sampson insisted, on speaking up and on being heard. You’ll find some resources on this web site to get you started.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’ll return.
 The women of Prudence Wright’s Guard, most of whom remain unknown and unrecognized, may have been the first who donned men’s clothing and took up arms in defense of the new nation. You can read their story here. On November 16, 1776, during the Battle of Fort Washington (New York), camp follower Margaret Corbin became the first recorded woman wounded in action. She took up her husband’s place at his cannon after Hessian soldiers shot and killed him. Her arm was nearly severed by three bullets and grape shot, and she was taken prisoner when British and Hessian troops overran her position. She became the first woman to be awarded a military pension by Congress on July 6, 1779. Other women received pensions for their service from their state or local governments; nurses, cooks, and laundresses who served as civilians with the Continental Army were also eligible for pensions.
 Deborah Sampson, “An Addrss [sic], Delivered with Applause, at the Federal-Street Theatre, Boston, Four Successive Nights of the Different Plays, Beginning March 22, 1802; and After, at Other Principal Towns, a Number of Nights Successively at Each Place.” Dedham: Printed and sold by H. Mann, for Mrs. Gannett, at the Minerva Office, 1802. Reprinted in The Magazine of History, Extra Number – No. 124, 1926.
 Young has done a masterful job of separating out the known facts, probable facts, and falsehoods about Sampson’s life, and of putting them into a rich historical context. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier is as enjoyable as a detective novel. I’ve relied heavily on the book for this post.
 Young believes that General John Paterson, under whom Sampson served as an orderly, provided these statements to a writer at the New York Gazette. They appeared in an article that ran in the January 10, 1784 edition of the newspaper.
 Calvin Munn, letter to the editor in the June 30, 1827 issue of the New York Evening Post.
 Sampson’s maiden name is used throughout this post to maintain continuity.
 Munn, New York Evening Post.
 The remainder of the quotes in this post are from Sampson, “An Addrss,” cited above.
 There are fewer stories of women veterans of color in the literature than those of their white counterparts: their stories were even less likely to be valued in America, and their race made it doubly risky to tell their stories.