By Elaine Marie Cooper
In a world where traditional male/ female roles appear to be set in stone, there are usually some who chisel away at the edifice. One such woman in Revolutionary War Massachusetts was Deborah Sampson.
Life did not come easy for Deborah, whose mother (Deborah Bradford) was the great granddaughter of the Plymouth Colony governor, William Bradford.
Born in 1760 into a poor Massachusetts family, young Deborah Sampson was one of eight siblings abandoned by their father when Deborah was just five. At the age of ten, she was indentured to a family as their servant. The blessing here was that Deborah was schooled by the woman of the house and was even sent to formal school with the boys that lived in the household. She grew to be a tall, healthy woman capable of doing strong work. Estimates of her height were approximately 5’9” tall—taller than the average man of that day who usually stood from 5’6” to 5’8”.
She was only 15 years old when the American Revolution broke out between the colonies and England. Interested in politics, she continued her studies and even taught school for a time. But the drum beats of war pulsated through her blood and, though women were not allowed in the military, she devised a plan to join in 1782. After an initial failed attempt to join a local regiment where she was recognized by a local, she devised a more complicated plan. She sewed a suit of men’s clothing, walked 30 miles to enlist in the Massachusetts Fourth Regiment, and assumed the name “Robert Shurtliff.”
It was a disguise that generally worked well for the secretive soldier. Once she was nearly caught when someone noted her skill with the needle, but she quickly quelled any suspicions when she explained that she was from a family of only boys and they all had to learn the art.
The deception became a little more difficult when she sustained a saber wound to her forehead and then a musket ball to her thigh. She refused the surgeon’s assistance, even trying to remove the lead ball from her thigh herself with a penknife. She was unsuccessful and had difficulties with her leg the rest of her life.
When her regiment was sent to Philadelphia in 1783, she became an orderly with the Brigade Commander. Soon after, she developed a severe fever that left her unconscious. She awoke in the care of Dr. Barnabas Binney, who had discovered the obvious truth while he attended her. The gracious doctor was willing to keep the secret, until others learned the truth as well. She could no longer hide her deception and her gender was revealed to General Washington himself. A brave soldier in battle, Deborah was honorably discharged from the military.
She married a farmer, Benjamin Gannett, in 1785 and had three children. But the lead ball in her thigh continued to afflict her health.
Years later, with the support of many others including Paul Revere, she was finally awarded a veteran’s pension. A just reward for her meritorious service.
She succombed to yellow fever at the age of 66 and is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery in Sharon, MA.
The town of Sharon erected a statue in her honor in front of the Public Library, a memorial to a brave American who went the extra mile and suffered for her country.
Elaine Marie Cooper has two historical fiction books that released in 2019: War’s Respite(Prequel novella) and Love’s Kindling. Love’s Kindling is available in both e-book and paperback. They are the first two books in the Dawn of America Series set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and HomeLife magazine. She also penned the three-book historical series, Deer Run Saga. Her upcoming release, "Scarred Vessels,” is about the black soldiers in the American Revolution. Look for it in October 2020. You can visit her website/ blog at www.elainemariecooper.com