For four nights in March of 1802 Deborah Sampson Gannett appeared on the stage of Boston's Federal Street Theater. Then this farmwife and mother from Sharon, Massachusetts, began a year-long tour of New England and New York.
It was a novel undertaking. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, no respectable woman spoke on a public stage, and no woman at all had embarked, as she did, on a tour. It would be another 20 years before feminists such as Frances Wright and Maria Stewart would break the taboo against women's lecturing in public. Yet Mrs. Gannett's Boston performances were an unqualified popular success. Audiences flocked to the theater not just to see a woman speak in public, but to see a woman who had served as a soldier in the Continental Army.
Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Plympton, a farming village near Plymouth. Her family was poor, and her laborer father deserted them when Deborah was a small child. The fifth of seven children, she was "put out" to live and work in the homes of others. But she showed a remarkable resourcefulness. While working as an indentured servant for a Middleborough farm family, Deborah read every book she could find and acquired skills, such as spinning, weaving, and teaching, that would help her become self-supporting. She also became something of a rebel, rejecting the discipline of the town's traditional Congregational Church and joining the less hierarchical and less rigid Baptists.
"Very justly did she consider the female sphere of action, in many respects, too contracted."
In May of 1782 Deborah Sampson did something truly remarkable. She disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtliff. Her motivations are not entirely clear. She may have wished to escape from a town where she was increasingly in conflict with the authorities. She may have seen soldiering as a way to provide for herself and live independently. She may have been fired with patriotism at a time when there was a desperate need for new recruits. A nineteenth-century biographer suggested that her enlistment represented a rebellion against gender restrictions: "Very justly did she consider the female sphere of action, in many respects, too contracted."
Whatever her reasons, Deborah Sampson dressed as a man and traveled to the Worcester County town of Uxbridge, where no one knew who she was. Using the name Robert Shurtliff — no proof of identity was required — she appeared before a recruiter there on May 20, 1782, and enlisted in the Continental Army for a term of three years. The minimum height was 5' 5" — she was 5' 7" — and she apparently satisfied the other requirement — soldiers needed a minimum of two opposing teeth for ripping open paper cartridges. On May 23rd, she passed inspection in Worcester and was judged ready and able to serve. She received a bounty of 60 pounds, a healthy sum for the times.
Deborah Sampson's physical attributes helped her disguise her sex. She had a muscular build, and her limbs were strong and well proportioned. Her breasts were small, and she could easily bind them with a cloth. Her jutting jaw and a prominent nose also aided her masquerade. Her lack of facial hair did not give her away, since recruiters were signing up adolescents who had not yet begun to grow beards. From her many years of farm work, she no doubt had the physical strength and familiarity with male tools to carry off her deception.
After her enlistment in Worcester, she went to West Point with the Light Infantry Company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. During the autumn and winter of 1783, her unit patrolled the "no man's land" between Loyalist-controlled Manhattan and the areas of Westchester held by the Patriots. According to later testimony from her commanding officer, she "was in several skirmishes and received two wounds, a shot remaining in her to this day."
In the late spring of 1783, Sampson served as a servant to General John Paterson. She accompanied the General to Philadelphia, where she became seriously ill. While she lay unconscious, the doctor discovered that his patient was a woman. Neither the doctor nor General Paterson revealed her secret. She was nursed back to health, and then quietly — and honorably — discharged from the Army.
Deborah Sampson returned to Massachusetts, married Benjamin Gannett, Jr., a struggling farmer, and had three children. In 1792, she successfully petitioned the state legislature for back pay due her as a Continental soldier in a Massachusetts regiment. The story leaked out, and the press seized on it.
Deborah Sampson Gannett was by no means the only woman to serve disguised as a man. Many whose deception was discovered were publicly humiliated and some were even prosecuted — it was a crime to impersonate the opposite sex — but one historian has concluded that women often served "undetected and even . . . detected with no one giving a damn." What made Deborah Sampson unusual was that she was celebrated for her service.
She decided to capitalize on her celebrity by cooperating with a publisher on a book about her exploits. With her husband unable to provide her with the material possessions she desired, she was eager for any money the book would make, but her ultimate goal was a federal pension.
In 1802, Sampson began performing "The American Heroine." In Boston, and later in towns across Massachusetts and New York, she delivered a patriotic oration from memory, then reappeared on stage in uniform and demonstrated the loading and presenting of arms. Her audiences were astonished.
The same determination that marked her military service and her theatrical performances was evident in her 30-year struggle for the soldier's pension she felt was owed her. Her first victory came in 1805, when the government granted her petition to be added to the federal list of wounded veterans. Perhaps it helped that her neighbor Paul Revere supported her case. "She is now much out of health," he wrote to his congressman; "she has several Children; her Husband is a good sort of Man, 'tho of small force in business; they have a few acres of poor land which they cultivate, but they are really poor. She told me, she had no doubt that her ill health is in consequence of her being exposed when She did a Soldier's duty."
The pension she received was not enough to alleviate the family's poverty. She doggedly continued her quest for a larger pension, filling in one application after another as Congress repeatedly changed the rules. In 1819, she finally succeeded in getting a general service pension promised to any veteran who could prove financial need. As historian Alfred Young concludes, the government took several years "to make sure it had avoided the menace of an imposter, a sixty-year-old grandmother, defrauding the United States of an extra $17 a year beyond her invalid pension."
Deborah Gannett died in 1827. Her husband outlived her by 11 years. He died in January 1838, just weeks after Congress voted to make him the only man to receive a pension as the widower of a Revolutionary War veteran.