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America’s First Woman Soldier

America’s First Woman Soldier

© MPI/Getty Images 15th June 1775: George Washington (1732 - 1799) appointed as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army of the United Colonies of America in the Assembly Room of the State House of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (now known as Independence Hall). (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

By Richard Bauman, Cricket Media

There are many myths about the American Revolutionary War. One you may have heard is that a woman named Molly Pitcher was the only woman to have fought alongside men during that conflict. But that’s not true. In fact, a person named “Molly Pitcher” didn’t even exist.

One woman, however, did serve for most of two years in the Continental Army. Deborah Sampson was the only female soldier to fight the British under George Washington, and she was the first woman to serve officially in America’s armed forces.

Deborah was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, near Plymouth, on December 17, 1760. She was fifth of the seven children of Jonathan and Deborah Sampson. One of her ancestors was William Bradford, a strong-willed Pilgrim leader who sailed on the Mayflower and was governor of Plymouth Colony.

Deborah grew up in near poverty after her father abandoned the family. At the age of ten she became an indentured servant in the home of Jeremiah Thomas, a farmer with a large family that included five sons. She served in the Thomas household until she was eighteen years old.

Among the skills she learned were the arts of spinning and weaving, cooking, and the use of farm equipment. It’s claimed she also learned how to handle a musket by often going hunting with the Thomas boys. When her servitude ended in 1778, she became a teacher in a Middleborough public school.

Deborah never forgot why her ancestors came to America. And when American colonists shouldered their muskets and fought the British on Lexington Green in April 1775, the call of freedom stirred in her. By the time of Washington’s long and punishing winter at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777, she was a young woman and believed the fight for independence was a crusade that women should participate in. She set her mind on finding a way to join in the fight against the British.

She might have been a schoolmarm, but that didn’t diminish her desire to be a soldier. Gradually, she formulated an audacious scheme to get into the fight for freedom. If the army wouldn’t enlist her as a woman, she would enlist herself as a man.

For months, Deborah practiced walking, talking, and acting like a man. She spent many hours sewing clothes for other people so she could make extra money, which she saved. She shopped around for inexpensive men’s apparel. She also bought enough material to make a man’s suit for herself.

At dawn on May 20, 1782, Deborah Sampson, schoolteacher, was ready to become a soldier. She cut her hair and put on her homemade suit of clothes. In the early morning sunlight, Deborah silently walked away from her small village to join Washington’s hard-pressed Continental Army. She was twenty-one years old when she enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment as Private Robert Shurtlieff.

No one looked closely at the new recruit. Her apparent strength, firm chin, and being five-feet-seven-inches tall helped her pass for a “smock-faced” boy—one who hadn’t yet grown a beard—and her uniform hid her female figure.

“Private Shurtlieff” quickly gained a reputation for bravery in action. She was sent with her regiment to West Point, New York. Shortly after arriving there, she was wounded in the leg in a battle near Tarrytown. She tended her own wounds so that her gender would not be discovered. As a result, her leg never healed properly.

Deborah served at West Point for eighteen months and participated in several battles. In one skirmish she suffered a sword cut to the head. Army records confirm these details of Deborah’s military service. Her true gender went undetected until she came down with what was termed a “malignant fever,” which was prevalent among wounded soldiers.

She was sent to a hospital in Philadelphia, and there the attending physician, Dr. Binney, discovered her charade. He chose to keep her secret. To further protect her, he took her to his own home where she could receive better care. When she was well on the road to recovery, Dr. Binney met with Deborah’s commanding officer and told him what he had discovered.

Since Army regulations didn’t address the proper procedure to be followed when a soldier was discovered to be a woman rather than a man, her commanding officer didn’t know what to do. According to an often-told story, he pondered the problem for a while then hit upon a plan—he wrote a letter to General Washington explaining the situation, and then ordered Deborah to deliver it.

When she was told to deliver the letter into the hands of the Commander-in-Chief, Deborah knew Dr. Binney had revealed her ruse. At Washington’s headquarters, Deborah trembled with dread as she entered the general’s presence and handed him the letter. She was still wearing her private’s uniform and feared she might be thrown into a military prison for her deception. According to legend, Washington read the letter, and to spare her embarrassment, said nothing. Instead, he sent her off with an aide to have something to eat. An hour later, he summoned her back to his office.

Weary from seven years of war, yet his words to her were gentle. He gave “Pvt. Shurtlieff” a sum of money to cover her expenses to get home, the promise of an honorable discharge, and some advice—give up soldiering.

Deborah was officially discharged from the army at West Point on October 25, 1783, by General Henry Knox. She returned to Sharon, Massachusetts, and in 1784 she married Benjamin Gannett. They would have three children.

When Washington became president, he is said to have invited Deborah to the nation’s capital, where Congress officially recognized the Revolutionary War heroine. Paul Revere sent a letter to Congress on her behalf in 1804, and she began receiving a U.S. pension of four dollars per month. Later, by a special act of Congress, she was given a larger pension, in acknowledgment of her military service as a Continental soldier.

In 1792, Deborah had also received special recognition from the Massachusetts General Court, which voted to pay her thirty-four pounds for past services in the United States Army where she “did actually perform the duty of a soldier.” Their proclamation further stated: “(She) exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism, by discharging 
the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier . . . and was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character.”

For a time, Deborah taught school, and often traveled throughout New England and New York giving lectures on her experiences in the military. During her lectures, she wore the military uniform.

Deborah died April 29, 1827, in Sharon, Massachusetts. She was sixty-six years old. A few years later, her children were awarded compensation by a special act of Congress “for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a soldier of the Revolution, deceased.”

What about Molly Pitcher, who so often has been called our first woman soldier? She was actually Mary Hays, who tagged along with her husband, William, when he served in the Continental Army at the battle of Monmouth, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1778. The weather was brutally hot and humid, and legend has it that Mary continuously brought pitchers of water to the men in her husband’s company, thus earning her the nickname “Molly Pitcher.” When her husband fell wounded, she reportedly took his place in the gun crew and continued firing his cannon.

Molly Pitcher’s fame spread as she became the focus of a popular toast among artillerymen at the time: “Drunk in a beverage richer and stronger than was poured that day from Molly Pitcher’s pitcher.” Thus, in that one battle and hearty toast, Mary Hays became a Revolutionary War icon.

But “Molly” fought only once and was never enlisted in the army, while Deborah fought through numerous battles of the Revolutionary War as a regular soldier. Though Deborah Sampson passed away, and pretty much into obscurity, her military name, Pvt. Robert Shurtlieff, and her serial number 40066, are inscribed forever on the rolls of the army that gave America its independence.




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