08 July 2008

Famous People: Deborah Samson Was a Soldier Too

By Anna C. Bowling

A young woman of our time who desires a career in the military has many options--from branch of service (is Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines the right choice for her? How about the Coast Guard?) to how she gets there (perhaps she'd like to attend a military academy or enlist), but take a trip a couple of centuries in the past and such a woman has only one option. She'd need to disguise herself as a man. One such woman is Deborah Samson, the first woman to receive a US Army pension for her service in the American Revolution.

Born in Plympton, Massachusetts in 1760, Deborah learned early that she would have to go beyond the ordinary to make her way in life. The oldest of seven children, she had only her first five years of traditional family life before her father was lost at sea. Her mother was forced to disperse the children to other households, as the widowed Mrs. Samson could not support her brood. In time Deborah became an indentured servant, doing manual labor and even eventually attending school alongside her master's ten sons. She developed a strong body and a keen mind (as well as getting a good schooling in masculine behavior) and developed a strong interest in the volatile political relationship between the colonists and the British.

When Deborah turned eighteen, she was released from her indenture and taught school, but still wanted more. At the age of twenty two, Deborah decided that she would follow through on her desire to fight for her country and adopted a male disguise. Her first attempt at enlistment went less smoothly than she would have liked; some sources say that she was recognized by some feminine mannerisms, but by the second attempt, she passed convincingly as a male.

In May of 1782, Deborah successfully enlisted in the Continental Army, using the name Robert Shurtliff, a brother who had died before Deborah's birth. Her career almost ended when she was sustained a head wound and two musket balls to the leg in battle at Tarrytown, New York. Though Deborah resisted medical treatment, her fellow soldiers insisted. She was treated for her head wound, but managed to escape before doctors could examine her leg wounds. She removed one musket ball herself, but was unable to reach the other, resulting in health problems that would surface later in life. Soon, "Robert" was promoted and served for several months as a waiter to General John Patterson.

In the summer of 1783, Deborah contracted a fever and was treated by a doctor who discovered and kept her secret, taking "Robert" to the doctor's own home to be cared for by the doctor's wife and daughters. Deborah returned to active service once recovered from her fever, her secret still safe, but when the doctor had her personally deliver a letter to General George Washington in September of that year, Deborah knew she faced yet another change. General Washington granted Deborah an honorable discharge, and gave her sufficient funds to return home, along with his personal advice on her future.

Now a veteran, Deborah married farmer Benjamin Gannet in Sharon, Massachusetts, and the pair produced three children and adopted a fourth. Her battle, and her family's, however, was not yet over. Deborah petitioned the new government for back pay that the army had withheld from her due to her sex. Massachusetts Governor John Hancock himself signed the approval of Deborah's petition, and the state legislature stated that she "exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex, unsuspected and unblemished."

Even though Deborah's plea for her back pay was granted, she did not receive the same pension her fellow soldiers received, again, because she was a woman. As with her back pay, Deborah refused to take no for an answer and petitioned repeatedly to get what she was due.

To augment the family's income, Deborah embarked on a career as a lecturer, sharing the story of her military experience, yet even this did not provide the economic stability. She often had to borrow money from friends, including Paul Revere, who appealed to the government on her behalf, eventually placing her on the invalid pension roll. Despite her friends in high places and her strong stance, Deborah was denied her petition until 1816, receiving slightly more than seventy five dollars per year until her death in 1827.

Today, the town of Sharon honors Deborah's memory with a statue outside the public library, a Deborah Samson Street and Deborah Samson Field. In 1983, more than a hundred and fifty years after her death, Deborah continued to make history when Governor Michael Dukakis declared her the official heroine of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.