Letter from Paul Revere to William Eustis, 20 February 1804
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A woman soldier in the Revolution
Deborah Sampson (or Samson) was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760, to a family descended from the Pilgrim founders of Plymouth. Despite this illustrious lineage, her childhood was spent in poverty and hardship. She was hired out as an indentured servant to the family of Jeremiah Thomas in Middleborough. Upon gaining independence at age eighteen, she worked as a weaver and briefly as a schoolteacher, earning recognition for her skills and strength.
In 1782, after one unsuccessful attempt, Sampson disguised herself in men's clothing and enlisted in the Continental Army under the name "Robert Shurtliff" (also spelled Shurtlieff). Mustered on 23 May in Worcester, Sampson was deployed to the Hudson Valley, where she saw action as a light infantryman and was wounded twice. Her masquerade was uncovered while being treated for a near-fatal fever in Philadelphia, but she received an honorable discharge from General Henry Knox in October 1783.
Upon returning to Massachusetts, Sampson married Benjamin Gannett of Sharon, and bore three children. She won acclaim with the publication of a romanticized memoir -- The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady -- and a public speaking tour, during which she dressed in uniform and performed the soldier's manual exercise of arms.
The battle for a pension
Although the circumstances of her enlistment and military service were unusual, like many rank-and-file soldiers in the Continental Army, Deborah Sampson Gannett encountered difficulty in obtaining a pension. In 1790 she began a long campaign to secure a pension, gaining the support of eminent public figures, including silversmith and patriot Paul Revere. In 1804, Revere visited Gannett at her farm in Sharon and wrote to William Eustis, the congressman for her district, on her behalf, asserting that he found her "much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous."
Gannett was placed on the pension list of the United States in 1805, and awarded an annual payment. Continual financial difficulties and failing health caused her to seek additional compensation from Congress, ultimately securing a general service pension in 1821. In 1982, the Massachusetts legislature proclaimed her the official state heroine, declaring 23 May "Deborah Samson Day."
Suggestions for further research
Mann, Herman. The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
Young, Alfred F. Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 2004.
One of many biographies of Sampson for young readers is: McGovern, Ann. The Secret Soldier: the Story of Deborah Sampson. New York: Scholastic, 1999.
For more information on Paul Revere, see our April 2002 "From Our Cabinet" feature.