Remembering a Women's rights pioneer: Deborah Sampson

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Amy M. Ransier
  • 92nd Operations Support Squadron
We have always heard stories about women who impersonated men in hopes of serving for their country. But how often are we actually told about those women who did just that? Women have always played a vital role in the military, since its earliest days -- whether they served as maids, cooks, spies or soldiers. Women were just as capable as men, they just weren't given the same rights as men. During this time women did not receive the recognition and appreciation men were shown, but that didn't stop them from fighting for a just cause.

Deborah Sampson is one of many such women who fought in the Revolutionary War -- she is also the first known American woman to impersonate a man in order to join the Army and fight in combat.

At the age of 10, she became an indentured servant in the household of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough. Undoubtedly, Sampson's physique was strong due to the hard labor she was forced to work in the fields -- which unbeknownst to her, would help her later on in her life. On May 20, 1782, 21-years-old Sampson enlisted in the Light Infantry Company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the continental Army at Bellingham, under the command of Capt. George Webb. Sampson was aware that the company consisted of approximately 60 men; however, she was determined to serve -- by impersonating a male. Her name would no longer be Deborah Sampson, it was now Robert Shurtleff (her late brother's name). Luckily for her, she was able to portray a male quite easily due to her strong physique and her height, as well as, being able to tightly bind her breasts.

Rumors spread about Sampson back in her hometown on how she was dressing in men's clothing; as a result
she was consequently excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Mass. Soon after, her regiment left Massachusetts and headed toward West Point, N.Y.

During her first battle at West Point, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, N.Y., she was injured by two musket balls in her thigh and a cut on her forehead. Sampson would have rather died than to let her identity be revealed. She tried convincing her fellow soldiers to leave her to die, but they would brought her to the hospital for treatment. Sampson let the doctors treat her head wound, but left the hospital before they could attend to the musketballs. Her thigh never fully healed.

On June 24, 1783, the President of Congress ordered George Washington to send a fleet of soldiers, to Philadelphia, Penn., to fight in a rebellion of several American officers. During this rebellion, Sampson came down with a malignant fever and was cared for by Dr. Barnabas Binney. While tending to Sampson, Binney eventually discovered her real gender.

Luckily for Sampson, rather than Binney betraying her and revealing her gender to her commander and unit, he took her to his house where his wife and daughters housed and cared for her. After recovery, Sampson returned to the Army. Shortly after her return, however, the Treaty of Paris was signed and peace declared in the United States.

Sampson's true identity was soon revealed following her return to the Army in September -- on Oct. 25, 1783, General Knox honorably discharged her from the Army at West Point. In January 1792, Sampson petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for pay the army withheld from her merely because she was a woman. The General Court of Massachusetts verified her service and wrote that she "exhibited 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 gender unsuspected and unblemished."

Sampson went on to be a motivational leader for women, speaking throughout the East coast about her experience and time served in the Army -- speaking publicly about gender differences. Through these lectures, she was able to campaign for the American Revolutionary War pension, fighting for her full pension. Sampson fought to receive the same benefits her male comrades received and dedicated her life to bridging gender gaps for veterans and advocating for women who fought for their country.

[Editor's note: Airman 1st Class Katie McDermott from the 51st Logistics Readiness Squadron contributed to this article.]