A Woman’s Place –Women’s Contribution in the Revolutionary War

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome historian Malanna Henderson to the blog. A biography of Mrs. Henderson is at the bottom of this post. 

Historical records are generally written by men about men.

When most of us think about the role women played in the Revolutionary War, Betsy Ross comes to mind.  Why did early historians choose to recognize the contributions of Betsy Ross instead of others? We all know the answer to that question. Her contribution was sewing the American flag. Sewing, a traditional “female” occupation, was elevated to heroic heights by the legacy of Ross. Most historians today don’t name Betsy Ross as the designer of the first American flag, but that’s another story.

Women whose contributions didn’t fall neatly into categories that weren’t exclusively defined as “feminine” were intentionally excluded; and yet, without their contributions, big and small during the years that the war ensued, the war could have raged on longer or dare I say, we might be flying the Union Jack instead of the Stars and Stripes.

Heroism has many forms.

On the home front women maintained the farms, took care of livestock and fed, clothed and educated their children while their husbands took up arms against the British. That was how most women supported the war effort. However, as in the Civil War women were camp followers, accompanying their husbands and sons to the battlefield. For these women, the army could supply food and protection since they could no longer support themselves after their men left for war. In the military camps, women nursed the sick and wounded, laundered and mended uniforms and cooked meals. At some time in the war, women were paid for providing these services.

Then there were women who chose to pursue more daring endeavors, like spying or binding their breast, cutting their hair and donning men’s clothing to enlist in the war under an alias.

Deborah Sampson (courtesy of Fold3 by Ancestry.com)

One in particular, Deborah Sampson answered the call to freedom by enlisting in the in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the alias Robert Shurtliff.

The actual date of her enlistment has been a source of debate for more than two-hundred years. Her biographer, Herman Mann, interviewed Sampson for his book titled, ­­The Female Review, or the Memoirs of an American Young Lady, which was published in 1797. His book lists the date as 1781; however, Sampson listed 1781 and 1782 in various petitions for back pay and government pensions. The exact date of her enlistment may never be known, but events in Mann’s book support the year of 1781.

While returning to West Point for her discharge papers in 1783, Sampson lost her memoirs when her vessel capsized in a storm on the Hudson River. Thereafter, she never attempted to re-write her exploits in the war.

In 1797, Mann printed the first edition of The Female Review. According to an article in the Westchester County Historical Society, Sampson was dissatisfied with the tome due to its inconsistencies. At Sampson’s request Mann revised the book and intended to publish it after her death. However, it was not published until 1866. The original version was reprinted with notes by John Adams Vinton. He titled it; The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution.

Despite the ambiguities about her enlistment and Mann’s less than favorable rendition of her biography, Sampson’s significance in the annals of the American Revolutionary War is undisputed.

What events in her early life cultivated this daring patriotism? What made Sampson risk life, limb and liberty to fight for her country?

Sampson lived in a culture that restricted women’s ambition and movement in every corner of society.  When she enlisted, she broke the law and prevailing social customs as well.

By examining some life-changing events in her formative years, the motives that ignited the flames of liberty in this young woman’s heart may become evident. Deborah Sampson Gannett, better known as Deborah Sampson or Samson held these reasons so dear that she defied society by serving her country as a soldier in the Continental Army and fighting in the American Revolutionary War.

Deborah Sampson was born on December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts to Deborah Bradford and Johnathan Sampson, Jr.  Named after her mother, Sampson’s bloodline was imbued with uncommon courage from her mother and father’s lineage.  Both of her parents were descendants of Mayflower pilgrims seeking freedom of religious expression.

Her mother was a direct descendant of the pilgrim William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth Settlement, established in 1630.  He was elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and held that seat for thirty years.  Her father was a direct descendant of the pilgrim Miles Standish. Standish, a British military Captain, was hired to provide marshal law and administrative leadership in the pioneering settlement. A note of interest, Bradford and Standish were good friends whose descendants a century later would marry. It’s not surprising that generations later their progeny, Deborah Sampson, would follow a path that few females in her day would dare to tread.

The eldest of seven children, Sampson, her mother and siblings lived in poverty. Their financial condition was the result of their father losing a considerable inheritance due to his brother-in-law’s conniving machinations. Sampson bemoaned this devastating blow to her family’s prosperity and saw it as her father’s “his greatest misfortune.” Instead of seeking legal counsel, her father directed his ambitions toward a sea-faring business. His endeavors yielded no fortune and finally after years at sea news of his demise in a ship-wreck reached his family. Later, conflicting evidence came to light refuting his death at sea but found instead that he had moved to Lincoln County, Maine where he lived in common law with a woman named Martha and fathered two more children.

Deborah Sampson Birthplace (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Whether he died at sea or abandoned his family, the results of his failures yielded the same outcome for the family he left behind. Unable to provide for their seven children, his wife was compelled to place them in the homes of various relatives and friends.

At the age of five, Sampson lived with a distant cousin, a Miss Fuller, who taught her to read and write. When the elderly lady died a few years later, Deborah was sent to care for another elderly woman.  However, the duties proved too taxing for the child and she was hired out as an indentured servant to Deacon Benjamin Thomas, a farmer in Middleborough. Young Sampson grew up in a strict religious environment and was occupied with many chores. The deacon and his wife had twelve children. His eldest Susanna married a cousin named Jeremiah and they had five sons, close in age to Sampson.

There were many children about for Sampson to play with, most of them boys. Although, she learned spinning and weaving, she was able to observe male behavior and practice tasks performed by boys on the farm and test her skills against them. The deacon provided food and clothing but Jeremiah, an ardent patriot, influenced her political views, according to a book titled, The History of the Town of Middleboro, Massachusetts.

“Mr. Thomas, as an earnest patriot, did much toward shaping the political opinions of the young woman …. Her perceptions were quick and her imagination lively; she soon became absorbed in the stirring questions of the day.”

Once Sampson had completed her servitude, she must have contemplated her future. For a young Eighteenth Century woman marriage was the expected occupation.

For several years, she earned her living as a weaver and school teacher. However, her bold patriotic yearnings coupled by her urgent need to evade an unwanted suitor compelled Sampson to reinvent herself as Robert Shurtliff.

The future soldier thought it best to wait until the spring of 1781 to join the military. In the meantime, as the winter months ensued, Sampson prepared to assume her new identity by sewing herself a man’s coat, waistcoat and breeches. She also purchased a pair of men’s shoes and hat.

Quite naturally, she wanted to test her masquerade; so, Sampson appeared in public dressed as a man, unchallenged. On one occasion, out of curiosity, she visited a prognosticator (fortuneteller) who was quite accurate in his estimation of the young gentleman’s future.

He considered him “honest…and that he had propensities for uncommon enterprises.” The seer wanted to know why he held them at bay for so long and predicted he’d be successful in his adventures; a fact that would more than compensate for the few difficulties encountered.

In April 1781, dressed in her military garb, a determined Sampson enlisted in Captain Webb’s Company in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as Robert Shurtliff. Her first assignment found her fighting as a light infantryman in the Hudson Valley. She was part of an elite corps chosen for their youth, agility and excellent marksmanship.

In Mann’s biography, Sampson described war as being “exhausting and terrifying.”

In Jane Keiter’s article: Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier: The Westchester Connection, she outlines the terrors of war; Through the haze of guns smoke Deborah saw horses rear and men fall. Then, the soldier on her left was jolted backwards, and lay sprawled beside her, blood spurting from his neck with every heartbeat.”

She did not escape injury herself. At the Battle of Tarrytown, she sustained a gunshot wound in the thigh. She extracted the bullet herself. No doubt, Sampson feared seeing a doctor would uncover her secret.

Had she been found out, Sampson may have been arrested and imprisoned; or merely rebuked and sent home.

However, fate caught up with her. Four months later she was wounded again; she was shot through the shoulder in 1783 while fighting in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, a fever developed and Sampson was hospitalized. The attending physician, Dr. Barnabas Binney, discovered her true identity but instead of reporting her to the authorities he invited her to recuperate at his home. Once she was well, he sent her to deliver a personal letter to General John Patterson. The letter divulged her secret. Instead of a reprimand, he praised the sublime soldier by saying her “unrivaled achievement deserved ample compensation.”

That statement would define much of her life for the next thirty-eight years.

Sampson received an honorable discharge in 1783, and first petitioned Congress for a pension in 1790. Like other veterans who sought compensation, her requests were not answered promptly. To her credit, she actively campaigned to win support for her cause by touring as a lecturer.  With the pain from her first gunshot wound still lingering (the wound never healed properly) Sampson recited her war exploits and performed maneuvers from the manual of arms, while clad in her military apparel.

The highlight of her war experience may have been the last major battle of the Revolutionary War in 1781, at which Sampson was present.

In mid-October, General George Washington with the combined Continental and French forces of 17,000 began the siege of the Battle of Yorktown against British General Lord Charles Cornwallis with his contingent of 9,000 troops. The French fleet of 28 ships commanded by Francois de Grasse, luckily, was headed toward the Chesapeake Bay from St. Dominique, just as Cornwallis chose the same location as his base. Learning of the British Generals whereabouts, Washington’s ordered Marquis de Lafayette to have his 5,000 troops block Cornwallis by land, while the French naval fleet blocked his escape by sea. Washington had completely surrounded Cornwallis. After three weeks of artillery bombardment, morning, noon and night, Cornwallis was forced to surrender.

Although the war was fought on the seas, this was the last battle fought in the colonies. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the Revolutionary War and granting the Thirteen Colonies independence from British rule.

Sampson finally won a disability petition for her military service a year after a famous patriot wrote a letter to Congressman William Eustis on February 20, 1804. He wrote:

               ”Sir, Mrs. Deborah Gannett of Sharon informs me, that she has inclosed to your care a petition to Congress in favour of her. My works for manufacturing of copper, being a Canton, but a short distance from the neighbourhood where she lives; I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quitted the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own sex; & since she has been married and become a mother. Humanity, & justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman of handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife and an affectionate parent. She is now much out of health; She has several children; her husband is a good sort of a man, ‘tho of small force in business; they have a few acres of poor land which they cultivate, but they are really poor. She told me, she had no doubt that her ill health is in consequence of her being exposed when she did a soldiers duty; and that while in the army, she was wounded. We commonly form our idea of the person whom we hear spoken off, whom we have never seen; according as their actions are described, when I heard her spoken off as a soldier, I formed the idea of a tall, masculine female, who had a small share of understanding, without education, & one of the meanest of her sex. When I saw and discoursed with I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable woman, whose education entitled her to a better situation in life. I have no doubt your humanity will prompt you to do all in your power to get her some relief; I think her case much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous. I am sir with esteem & respect your humble servant,
Paul Revere”

Sampson was awarded a general service pension in 1821.

Deborah Sampson Commemorative Coin issued by the Daughters of the American Revolution (Courtesy of Westchester Historical Society’s Collection)

She died of yellow mountain fever in April of 1827 and is buried in Rock Ridge cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts. The City of Sharon has paid tribute to their female hero over the years. Several monuments and statues have been erected in her honor; the Daughters of the American Revolutionary War have named a chapter after her. Sampson is considered a Daughter of Liberty, a civic group that emerged around 1768 after the Townsend Duties were enacted.  They organized boycotts of British goods and sometimes manufactured goods when the non-importation act caused shortages.

Perhaps the most significant nod to honor Sampson occurred in 1982 when the Massachusetts legislature declared Sampson the official state heroine and named May 23, “Deborah Sampson Day.” Reenactors celebrate her by dressing in Sampson costumes and performing military demonstrations.

Unlike Sampson, most women who made sacrifices to serve their country during the Revolutionary War, as spies or soldiers have remained unknown. Their lives and stories have laid silent, obscure, undiscovered.

So as Abigail Adams put it so succinctly in a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776, when we examine our history, I desire you would remember the ladies.


*Malanna Carey Henderson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Detroit; and a MFA degree in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. I am currently employed as an interpretive guide at Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister Betty Lewis and her husband, Fielding Lewis, both patriots. I’ve written and had produced several plays and have written articles on various subjects. I currently reside in Fredericksburg, VA with my husband, Steward Henderson.*

One thought on “A Woman’s Place –Women’s Contribution in the Revolutionary War

  1. Nice article! It’s great to learn more historical details about Deborah Sampson. I was familiar with her name and her service as a soldier; it was fascinating to learn more about her life and what she did after the war. Thanks!


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