During the time when women were not allowed to serve in uniform in the Continental Army, one woman has the distinction of successfully serving in Washington’s army while disguised as a man. She was among the first women with a documented record of military combat experience. Safe to say, she is the Mulan of the American Revolutionary War.
Off To A Rough Start
Deborah Sampson Gannet was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760. She was one of the seven children of Deborah Bradford, a great-granddaughter of Massachusetts Governor William Bradford, and Jonathan Sampson, whose ancestry was among the Mayflower passengers. Despite this pedigree that placed her among America’s First Families, the Gannets were impoverished, so when her dad did not return one day after a sea voyage, her mother struggled to feed her seven children. Later on, they would find out that her father did not die but instead had a newfound love and migrated to Lincoln County, Maine.
Her mother decided to send all her children to live with her relatives and friends, which was common in New England back then. As for Deborah, she was sent to a relative, but when her mother later died, she was sent to be a companion to Reverend Peter Thatcher’s widow named Mary Prince Thatcher. The old lady in her eighties asked Deborah to read the bible for her, she learned how to read.
Deborah was sent to Middleborough with the Jeremiah Thomas family when Mary died. There, she worked as an indentured servant until she turned 18. She was not maltreated or anything, but she was not sent to school like the Thomas kids because they treated women’s education as unnecessary. Education was not free in those days and families tended to spend that money on their sons first. This did not prevent Deborah from learning what she could from Thomas’s sons, who shared their school works with her. And it paid off.
After her indentured servitude was over and she was 18, she made a living for herself by teaching in schools during summer sessions in 1779 and 1780. In the winter, she worked as a weaver for various families who would allow her to lodge while working on projects for them. Not only that, but this girl also knew woodworking and mechanical stuff. She also did some light carpentry and would make pie crimpers that she sold door to door. Deborah had useful skills as a tradesman.
Cheating The System
It is important to quickly discuss Deborah’s physical features as that greatly contributed to her success in getting herself into the male-exclusive army. She was a tall lady standing at 5 feet 9 inches tall as average women’s height at that time was 5 feet. She was even taller than men’s average height of 5 feet 6 to 8 inches. She was also described as “not thin.” She had small breasts that she could simply bind with a linen cloth. Her features were described to be plain and regular. While all these adjectives don’t sound flattering, she used these characteristics to her advantage.
In 1782, a man going by the name of Timothy Thayer walked in and enlisted in the Continental Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts. He collected his bonus but never reported to his company on the scheduled date.
Plot twist: Timothy Thayer didn’t exist, and it was no other than Deborah. Unfortunately, a local resident recognized her as she was signing her papers, and she was ratted out. She returned whatever was left of the bonus that she claimed. After her Baptist church heard what she did, they removed her from their church unless she apologized for what she did.
In response, Deborah enlisted again, this time in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, and introduced herself as Robert Shurtleff. She succeeded in becoming a part of the Continental Army under Captain George Webb’s Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment stationed in Bellingham, Massachusetts. Later on, she was transferred to Worcester as part of Colonel William Shepard’s Light Infantry Companies, elite troops that were specifically chosen for their strength and height. Their task was to provide rapid flank coverage as well as rearguard and forward reconnaissance duties.
Deborah spent two years in the Continental Army working as an advanced scout for the army, assessing British troop movements and strength. Her unit also fought numerous skirmishes with American loyalist militias helping the Crown. She did what she could to hide the secret of her gender. When she was gashed on the forehead by a sword and took a musket ball in the thigh, she refused medical treatment and the physical examination by a doctor. She pleaded not to be brought to the hospital, afraid that her gender would be discovered. They still brought her anyway, she allowed the doctor to treat her head wound but managed to limp away before a doctor could attend to the ball in her thigh. She managed to remove part of the ball with a penknife and sewing needle, but pieces of it were too deep to remove, so she decided to just live with it, even when the wound never fully healed. There are other stories that she was shot in the shoulder and this ball was not removed either for fear of a doctor finding out her secret.
In Philadelphia in the year 1783, Deborah became ill during an epidemic with a high fever and was rendered unconscious. The doctor caring for her was Doctor Barnabas Binney. He discovered she was a girl after taking off her clothes and seeing the cloth she used to bind her breasts. Doctor Binney was no snitch, so he took her home with her wife and daughters, and a nurse took care of her to protect her secret.
Dr. Binney convinced her to come clean about not really being “Robert Shurtleff” and asked her to confess all to General Paterson. She couldn’t be sure of what punishment she might receive but discipline in the army could be harsh. A man could be flogged for not using the camp latrines. However, what she received in return from General Paterson was a note with some words of advice and enough money to travel home. She was also given an honorable discharge from the army. This was in October 1783, just months before the Revolutionary War ended.
Now Deborah again and battle-scarred, she returned to Massachusetts. In April 1785, she married Benjamin Gannet and had three children, Earl, Mary, and Patience. A book about her exploits was written by Herman Mann, titled “The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady.” The book probably embellished some of her wartime exploits. Deborah claimed to have dug trenches during the Seige of Yorktown, but a diary written by a fellow soldier states her first failed attempt to join the army occurred several months after the siege had ended. It is possible that Deborah was there digging trenches as a civilian, but she was not in uniform. It took some wrangling but the state of Massachusetts finally granted her a military pension and in 1802, she traded the duties of a wife and mother to embark on a one-year tour giving lectures about her service in the army often dressing in her Continental Army uniform. She was the only woman to receive a full pension as a soldier for service in the war.
When Deborah died at the age of 66, her widower husband petitioned Congress to receive her pension as the surviving spouse of a Revolutionary War veteran. Congress really had no choice but to grant the request saying that the record of Deborah’s service in uniform, “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity, and courage.” Unfortunately, Ben Gannet died before getting the first payment.