The Tale of Deborah Sampson, a.k.a. Robert Shirtliff

There was much hoopla in 2013 when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed all the restrictions limiting women’s military roles. Now, women could become fighter pilots, infantrymen, and members of the special forces and serve on submarines and surface ships. It was, according to the press, a landmark event.

But was it? Women began serving in combat in the United States military during the American Revolution.

Throughout history, women have proven themselves on the battlefield as combat leaders. Alexander the Great’s half-sister, Cynane, and Joanne d’Arc are just two of many. Despite a rich history of women in combat, in the late 18th Century, women were not viewed as being fit for combat.

Early in 1782, a person signed enlistment papers as Timothy Thayer at a Continental Army recruitment site in Middleboro, Massachusetts. The individual was about 5’7”, taller than most men of the day, and probably weighed 120 – 130 lbs.

Unfortunately, Thayer didn’t show up for muster and returned the enlistment bonus. Why? When a member of the Baptist Church in Middleborough recognized Thayer as Deborah Sampson. She was cast out of the church, and to be re-instated, she was required to beg for forgiveness and promise never to enlist again.

Undeterred and unrepentant, Elizabeth Sampson enlisted as Robert Shirtliff in Uxbridge, MA, and was assigned to the light infantry company of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. During the late 18th century, light infantry units were supposed to be the fittest since the members were taller and stronger than the average soldier. These characteristics, according to military theory at the time, should enable light infantry units to move faster and farther than regular units and were preferred for reconnaissance and raids. In battle, they were often sent around to flank an enemy formation.

Sampson went on several successful raids to capture Loyalists during which she was commended for her initiative and bravery. On July 3, 1782, nine months after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Sampson was involved in a battle near Tarrytown, NY that got close and bloody. She took two musket balls in her leg and a gash from a sword on her head.

She didn’t want to be taken to a hospital, but one of her fellow soldiers did so against her wishes. There, her head wound was treated by a doctor, but she left before her leg could be treated. In a barn over a mile away, she removed one of the balls with her own knife and sewed her leg closed with a needle and thread. The second ball remained in her thigh until the day she died.

Deborah Sampson rejoined her unit in April 1783 and served as General John Paterson’s waiter, still dressed as a male. On June 24th, she was in a contingent of soldiers that General Washington sent to quell a mutiny in Philadelphia over a lack of pay. Unfortunately, she became seriously ill, and when Dr. Barnabas Binney removed her clothes after she became unconscious from a fever, he discovered that she was a woman. To protect her identity, he took her to his house, where his family nursed her back to health.

Recovered, she went back to her unit and at the end of the war, Binney gave her a note to give to General Paterson. She was afraid it would reveal that she was a woman. It did, but it also recommended that Sampson be honorably discharged for her service. She was released from the Continental Army service at West Point on October 25th, 1783, and the muster rolls of the 4th Massachusetts show that Robert Shirtliff served honorably from May 20th, 1782, to October 25th, 1783.

In 1802, Sampson began writing and giving lectures on her service. As part of her presentation, she would expertly go through military drill, including simulating loading and firing a musket to prove that she really was a soldier in the Continental Army.

But because she was a woman, her requests for her pension for service and wounds were denied by the Massachusetts State Assembly and the Congress. Her quest to be paid for her service is an epic story unto itself. No one ever challenged her service. The denials were all based on her sex. It took several attempts, and in 1816, Congress partially paid her back pay. Sampson died in 1827. She was a patriot forced to fight for both independence and equality.

Photo of Deborah Sampson’s Grave in Sharon, MA courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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