Americans have always revered the Founding Fathers who led the United States in the fight for independence, but there was another group just as important. These were the “Founding Mothers.” Just as devoted to the cause of independence as their husbands, these women included such patriots as Abigail Adams and Martha Washington. There was one Founding Mother, however, who wished to take a more active role in the birth of her country. She was not content to let only men fight and die for her freedom. She wanted to fight for it herself. Her name was Deborah Sampson. This is the story of her role as the “Female Soldier” of the Revolution.
Deborah Sampson’s early life was filled with struggle, but she showed a determination to fight her way through it. She was born in December 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts to a family that descended from Plymouth’s Governor William Bradford. That link did not keep her father from abandoning the family or her mother from separating the children. Little Deborah was shuttled between different homes until age ten when Jeremiah Thomas of Middleborough took her into his home as a servant. She tended to the Thomas children and taught herself to read using the children’s books. She also learned to sew. After leaving the Thomas household, she established herself as an independent seamstress and a teacher. As tensions grew in Massachusetts, Deborah joined the many like-minded citizens in protests against Britain’s colonial policy. She supported the aggressive tactics that forced colonial officials like Chief Justice Peter Oliver to resign. Then in 1775 the protests turned into open war between Britain and the colonies. Over the next seven years she saw American soldiers march past her home on their way to distant battlefields. She became consumed with a desire to join the men in fighting for freedom.
By spring 1782, Deborah realized she had to enlist immediately if she were to have a chance to serve her country. Despite the victory at Yorktown the previous fall, the infant nation still needed to field an army in case the British launched another attack. Unfortunately, the Continental Army had always had trouble recruiting new soldiers, and the current efforts were no exception. One officer even half-jokingly suggested enlisting women. For Deborah, it was no laughing matter. Unable to enlist in Middleborough, she walked nearly two hundred miles to Worcester County. In order to hide her identity, she wrapped a waistcoat around her breasts and tightened it to the point it was squeezing her chest. Then she found men’s attire and dressed the part of a man. On May 20th she enlisted in the Continental Army as “Robert Shurtliff.” Shortly afterwards, she and her fellow recruits marched to the Hudson River to join the army at West Point.
Not long after arriving at West Point, “Robert” was assigned to one of the most dangerous units of the army — the light infantry. Her commander noticed how tall and athletic she was, and he decided she would make an excellent candidate for the group of soldiers who scouted far ahead of the main army and skirmished with the enemy. She reported to her new unit and was issued a blue and white dress uniform for parades and a pair of overalls and trousers for action in the field. She soon learned it was the light infantry that saw most of the action at this stage of the war. Between the British base in New York City and the American base in the Hudson River Highlands was the neutral ground of Westchester County. The ground was the scene of fierce battles between Loyalist irregulars led by James DeLancey and American light infantry. Only a few weeks after joining the army, Deborah faced her first trial by fire.
Deborah quickly proved herself more than willing to face the guerrilla warfare erupting in Westchester County. In June Deborah and her company were ordered to perform a routine patrol of the disputed territory. They marched down the Hudson River and encamped at Tappan Bay, not far from the village of Tarrytown, the site of Washington Irving’s famous story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Suddenly DeLancey’s Loyalists attacked them. The Loyalists fired two volleys into the ranks before Deborah and the others trained their own muskets on the enemy and delivered a volley of their own. Seeing the approach of British infantry, the company withdrew into a grove of trees where reinforcements of their own were waiting. The Americans immediately regained control and began trading fire with the enemy. The day was growing increasingly hotter, and Deborah was soon worn down from fatigue. She refused to abandon her post though and continued to return the enemy’s fire. As the fighting increased, a soldier on her left fell dead. A few moments later she felt two bullets tear through her coat and another rip her hat. Finally, the fighting ended when the British and Loyalists withdrew to their camp. Deborah had survived her first battle unscathed, but she would not be so lucky the next time.
Shortly after the skirmish at Tarrytown, Deborah’s bravery almost resulted in her death. She and twenty comrades had been dispatched in pursuit of Loyalists who had perpetrated crimes against innocent civilians. It was not long before they encountered enemy cavalry. The soldiers opened fire and dropped numerous troops from their saddles. An invigorated Deborah leapt into an empty saddle and led her comrades in a charge that routed the enemy. She was so focused on the pursuit she did not notice she had been wounded twice. A saber had cut across her head drawing blood, and a musket ball struck her in either the shoulder or breast. Fearing discovery, she tended to the wound herself. She recovered enough to join her company in another fight with British cavalry in December. The company had to fight its way out and barely escaped capture. Deborah once again showed courage under fire as the company dashed across the icy Croton River to the camp at Peekskill, New York. It was there that Deborah learned she was being transferred from the battlefield to the headquarters.
By March 1783 Deborah had proven herself to be a “good and loyal” soldier. She never fell asleep on sentry duty or went absent without leave. Her superiors praised her for her upright conduct and refusal to engage in the licentiousness that infected most soldiers. Chief among her admirers was General John Paterson who asked Deborah to join his staff, or “military family” as he called it, as his “waiter,” or orderly. She gratefully accepted the position and quickly proved herself as eager an orderly as she was a soldier. She ensured his clothes were kept clean, served him and his guests food and drinks, and carried messages to distant parts of the camp. The most harrowing part of her military experience, however, came that summer when she travelled with him to Philadelphia to restore law and order in the wake of a mutiny by Pennsylvania troops. She watched him as he conducted courts-martial for the mutineers and rode throughout town on his behalf. Little did she know that an unseen force was about to expose the secret she had desperately sought to conceal.
Deborah had managed to hide her true identity even when she had been wounded, but there was one enemy she could not escape. At the time she arrived in Philadelphia, a massive epidemic was ravaging the city. Since she travelled around town, it was not long before she came down with a fever, either smallpox or measles. She was moved into a hospital located inside the Philadelphia Alms House and was tended to by Dr. Barnabas Binney and Nurse Mary Parker. Fighting desperately to survive, she often lapsed into delirium. At one point she even appeared to be dead but regained consciousness just as she was being carried away. Hearing she was awake, Dr. Binney came to examine her. It was during the examination that he found the waistcoat she used to compress her breasts. He moved her into his home to give her more privacy and notified General Paterson of his discovery. Deborah returned to the army’s camp at West Point where Paterson asked her if she was really a woman. She feared punishment but still answered yes. Paterson promised no harm would come to her. She was formally discharged from the army on October 25th but stayed in camp another week to see the official disbandment of the army. She then returned home with a determination the country would know Deborah Sampson had done her part.
Deborah spent the rest of her life fighting for recognition of her military exploits. Shortly after her return to Massachusetts, she launched a six-year campaign to claim the back pay she was owed by the state. In 1792 the state legislature finally agreed to pay her $34 for her time in uniform. At the same time, she met a young writer named Herman Mann who wanted to write an account of her war experiences. She described how she concealed herself among her comrades, how she skirmished with the enemy and how she was finally discovered. It took four years, but the memoir was finally published. It achieved immediate success. Mann reported it sold 1500 copies. Supported by Mann and her old commander General Paterson, Deborah ignited a campaign to receive a pension from the U.S. government. As part of the campaign she lectured throughout New England and New York, appearing in her Continental uniform and performing the manual of arms, loading and firing her musket. She eventually received an invalid veteran pension in 1805 and a general service pension in 1821. She died six years later in 1827. Her legacy as the “Female Soldier” lives on to this day though.
Deborah Sampson was one of those Founding Mothers determined to do more for the United States than watch from the sidelines. She might not have had the political acumen of Abigail Adams nor the aristocratic bearing of Martha Washington. What she did have was the burning desire that thousands of young men had throughout the eight long years of struggle. She yearned to prove herself as committed to independence as any man. Like her commander-in-chief, General George Washington, she did not shirk her duty when her country called. Instead, she boldly stepped forward, promising to defend America with every drop of blood in her body. It was a promise she fulfilled when she was wounded in battle. All she wanted in return was to be remembered for her willingness to serve. It would take another two hundred years before women would be officially allowed to serve in combat roles. Today, we remember Abigail Adams and Martha Washington as the foremost Founding Mothers of the United States. Though perhaps in the shadows beside them, but nonetheless proudly, stands Deborah Sampson — America’s premier female warrior.