They Told Deborah Sampson She Couldn’t Fight In The Revolutionary War — So She Became A Man

Published March 9, 2018
Published March 9, 2018

When Deborah Sampson wasn't allowed to fight for her country's freedom during the Revolutionary War as a woman, she did it as a man.

Deborah Sampson

Wikimedia CommonsPortrait of Deborah Sampson and her grave at Rock Ridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.

When we think of Revolutionary War heroes, we often think of men. However, Deborah Sampson was a woman and actually became a hero of the Revolutionary War. She just had to pretend to be a man to do so.

Deborah Sampson was born on Dec. 17, 1760, in Plympton, Mass. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Sampson desperately wanted to help in the fight for freedom by fighting in the Continental Army. So she enlisted.

The only hitch was, she couldn’t enlist as a woman. So she cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothing, and in May of 1782 when she was 22, she registered under the name “Robert Shurtleff.”

Her guise passed and she was able to join the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Captain George Webb.

She had an above average height for both women and men. So not only was she admitted into the army, but she was placed in the Light Infantry Company of the Regiment. The group was made up of 50 to 60 elite men who were taller and stronger than the average soldier.

The infantry started in Bellingham, Mass. before moving to Worcester under the command of Colonel William Shepard.

During her first battle, Sampson was hit with two musket balls in her thighs. She feared that the doctors would discover and reveal her secret, so she took matters into her own hands. Using a penknife and sewing needle, she removed one of the muskets from her leg. The second musket ball was lodged too deep into her body and her leg never fully healed as a result.

She went on to fight in several more battles and was able to go undetected as a woman for almost two years.

In the summer of 1783, Sampson was in Philadelphia when she fell ill.

“A malignant fever was then raging in Philidelphia, particularly among the troops stationed there and in the vicinity. I was soon seized with it. I scarcely felt its symptoms before I was carried to the hospital,” she said of being sick.

That’s when it was discovered that the man, Robert Shurtleff was actually the woman, Deborah Sampson. The doctor who treated her, Barnabas Binney, kept her identity secret while he nursed her back to health. But once she was better, her superior officers learned who she really was.

Sampson was afraid of receiving jail time or punishment for her deception. Instead, on Oct. 23, 1783, she was honorably discharged from the army.

She also received testimonials from General Paterson, General Shepherd, and Col. Henry Jackson. They praised her for her excellent performance of duty and her exemplary conduct.

There was also a newspaper article written on her that referred to her as a “remarkable vigilant soldier on her post.”

After she was discharged Deborah Sampson married a farmer, Benjamin Gannett. She went on to speak about her experience, becoming one of the earliest female lecturers in the country.

And as important as the kind words about her were, Sampson still petitioned the government for a military pension, which she received in 1805, making her the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary army.

Deborah Sampson died of yellow fever on April 29, 1827, at 66 years old. She was buried in Sharon, Mass.

If you enjoyed reading about Deborah Sampson, you may want to check out these 12 badass women of the Revolutionary War and then the eight most badass women of World War II .

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.