The First Female American Solider
Deborah Sampson Gannett: Revolutionary War Patriot
Deborah Sampson Gannett: Revolutionary solider. First female to serve in the U.S. military.
So…I am probably the last person in the world who has not heard of Deborah Sampson Gannett. I’m pretty well read, so imagine my surprise when I discovered the story of a woman from Massachusetts who disguised herself as a man so that she could serve in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
We might never have known about the heroism of Ms. Gannett but for the fact that she petitioned the State of Massachusetts for a military pension. “XXIII. Resolution on the petition of Deborah Gannett, granting her £34 for services rendered in the Continental army. “On the petition of Deborah Gannett, praying for compensation for services performed in the late army of the United States. Whereas, it appears to this Court that the said Deborah Gannett enlisted under the name of Robert Shurtliff in Captain Webb’s company in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, on May 20th, 1782, and did actually perform the duty of a soldier, in the late army of the United States, to the 23rd day of October, 1783, for which she has received no compensation; and whereas it further appears that the said Deborah Gannett exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism, by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished, and was discharged from the service with a fair and honorable character therefore, Resolved, That the treasurer of this commonwealth be, and hereby is, directed to issue his note to the said Deborah for the sum of thirty-four pounds, bearing interest from October 23, 1788.” She was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary army.
The Mount Vernon website states that Gannett was “born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts, Sampson grew up in poverty. Her father abandoned the family when Sampson was five. She was sent to live with relatives until the age of ten, when they could no longer afford to care for her. She was then forced to become an indentured servant to the Thomas family in Middleborough, Massachusetts. As an indentured servant, she was bound to serve the Thomas family until she came of age at eighteen. In exchange for serving them, she was given food, clothing, and shelter. Once she was free, she supported herself by teaching and weaving.” According to Wikipedia; “In early 1782, Sampson wore men’s clothes and joined an Army unit in Middleborough, Massachusetts under the name Timothy Thayer. She collected a bonus and then failed to meet up with her company as scheduled. Inquiries by the company commander revealed that Sampson had been recognized by a local resident at the time she signed her enlistment papers. Her deception uncovered, she repaid the portion of the bonus that she had not spent, but she was not subjected to further punishment by the Army. The Baptist church to which she belonged learned of her actions and withdrew its fellowship, meaning that its members refused to associate with her unless she apologized and asked forgiveness.”
“On May 23, 1782, at the age of twenty-one, Sampson disguised herself (again) as a man named Robert Shurtliff and enlisted in the Continental Army under the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She and the other new recruits then marched from Worcester, Massachusetts to West Point, New York. While at West Point, Sampson was chosen to serve as part of the Light Infantry Troops–– the most active troops in the Hudson Valley from 1782 to 1783. To be inducted into the Light Infantry Troops, soldiers had to meet specific requirements. They needed a height of at least 5’5” and had to be physically able to keep a fast and steady marching pace. They were referred to as “light” infantry because they traveled with fewer supplies and took part in small, risky missions and skirmishes.”
“Sampson spent most of her time in the army in the Lower Hudson River Valley Region of New York, which was then known as Neutral Ground. Neutral Ground spanned throughout what is today Westchester County in New York and was termed ‘neutral’ because it sat, unclaimed, between British-held New York City and American-held Northern New York. Neutral Ground was a lawless land filled with both Patriot and Tory raiders who terrorized the local citizenry.” George Washington spent much of his time in the Hudson River Valley just north of Neutral Ground in Newburgh. “Sampson fought in several skirmishes. During her first battle, on July 3, 1782 outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and sustained a cut on her forehead. She begged her fellow soldiers not to take her to a doctor out of fear her sex would be discovered, but a soldier put her on his horse and took her to a hospital. A doctor treated her head wound, but she left the hospital before he could attend to her leg. She removed one of the balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle, but the other was too deep for her to reach. She carried it in her leg for the rest of her life and her leg never fully healed.” “After the war ended, Sampson returned home and married a farmer, Benjamin Gannett, in 1784. They had three children and adopted a fourth. In 1792, she successfully petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay for her service in the army and was awarded 34£. In 1797, she petitioned Congress, claiming disability for the shoulder wound she received during the war. Her petition ultimately failed. However, starting in March 1802, Sampson began a lecture tour of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.” “Sampson embarked on a year-long tour, delivering lectures about her sensational experiences as a soldier. Sometimes, she would dress in full military regalia during these speeches. But there is reason to suspect that Sampson inflated some of her accomplishments, as the newly unearthed diary makes clear.” “After the lecture tour, Sampson petitioned Congress again. This time, her petition succeeded. On March 11, 1805, she was placed on the pension list for disabled veterans. She continued campaigning Congress for the entirety of the money she was due until she was denied the remainder of her pay on March 31, 1820. Deborah Sampson Gannett died in Sharon, Massachusetts on April 29, 1827, at the age of sixty-six.”
She is one of the earliest examples of a woman serving in the United States Military.” Her headstone in Sharon honors her as “The Female Soldier.”
Jessie Serfilippi The College of Saint Rose https:/www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/deborah-sampson/
An official record of Deborah Sampson Gannett’s service as “Robert Shirtliff” from May 20, 1782 to Oct 25, 1783 appears in the “Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War” Volume 14 p.164 series