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Women of the Revolution: Deborah Sampson

Did you know that although women were not allowed to join the Army at the time of the American Revolution, a few did take part?

By Rebecca Salomonsson / June 27, 2006



Imagine disguising yourself as someone else. You put on a costume, you cut your hair, and you pretend to be an entirely different person. Could you fool the people around you?

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Women were not allowed in the Army in the days of the American Revolution. So Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and joined the Army in 1782, at the age of 21.

She fooled everyone for 17 months – marching with the men of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shurtliff, Continental soldier, fighting alongside male soldiers in skirmishes against the British.

Why did she do something that women didn't do at the time of the Revolutionary War?

At a very young age, Deborah "lost her father, which left her mother stranded with several kids at the time," says historian Alfred F. Young, author of "Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier," in a recent interview.

"Her mother placed her as an indentured servant in the next town, so she was on her own very early," he adds. "She realized if she was going to do anything with her life, she had to do it."

As an indentured servant, Deborah lived on a farm with a large family, spending most of her time working. In exchange for her services, the family fed and sheltered her, but they did not pay her.

"At the farm where she worked, she acquired all sorts of skills – craft skills, farming skills, woman skills – such as taking care of kids," says Mr. Young. "But she also became a reader very early on and acquired an education on her own. She saw a wider world through ... books."

On the day of her 18th birthday, Deborah was freed from servitude. She spent two years working as a schoolteacher and a weaver – both typically male professions at the time. Then, on May 20, 1782, Deborah dressed in men's clothing, assumed the name Robert Shurtliff, and enlisted in the Army.

Her physical strength from years of hard work on the farm, as well as her boyish features, helped her hide her true identity. The men teased her and thought she was a teenage boy because she could not grow a beard. Because soldiers of the period did not bathe regularly and they slept in their uniforms, there was less chance it would be discovered that she wasn't a man.

Deborah became one of the strongest, bravest, and best soldiers in her regiment. She sustained two minor wounds in battle, but eventually her military career ended when she fell ill in Philadelphia.

An army doctor, Barnabas Binney, found out that she was a woman when he treated her. Her superior officers were shocked to learn of her disguise.

But she was not punished for her deception. Instead, she was praised in a newspaper article written by one of her superior officers as a "galantress" and "a remarkable vigilant soldier on her post, [who] always gained the admiration and applause of her officers; was never found in liquor, and always kept company with the most upright and temperate soldiers."

Deborah's extraordinary life didn't stop at being a soldier. For 20 years after her Army service, she fought to win recognition for what she did, says Young. Repeatedly over those two decades, Deborah petitioned the government for a military pension (pay for a soldier wounded in battle), which she finally received in 1805.

She went on a lecture tour, dressing in her uniform and speaking to New England audiences about her experience. She also had a book written about her life.

Deborah Sampson was a good role model for today's young women, says Young. "We still need women who are willing to break conventions – women who are willing to cross boundaries and do things that other people don't do. Deborah was extremely courageous – very risk- taking. I think young people have to learn to break conventions if they want to make of themselves what they can be."

More women of the Revolution

Deborah Sampson and "Molly Pitcher" weren't the only women patriots of the American Revolution. Here are other women who took risks to help the Colonies gain their independence from Britain in the late 1700s.

Betsy ross is believed to have sewed the first American flag at the request of George Washington and other prominent patriots in 1776. She was a widow who had an upholstery business and did sewing. Before then, the soldiers who were fighting the British used many different flags.

Kate Barry warned militiamen that British forces were coming just prior to the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in 1792. That helped the Colonial forces win the pivotal battle. The victory drove British forces north, out of the state.

Sarah Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, raised money for the Continental Army during the war. She also was involved with the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, where she helped make clothing for soldiers.

Abigail Adams was the wife of John Adams, who became the first vice president of the United States and later the second president. She was also the mother of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. Although she had no formal education, she was always writing letters to her husband, who was a member of the Continental Congress. Her firsthand observations about the war and its effects were valuable to her husband and other leaders.

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