Like many women throughout history, Deborah Sampson overcame obstacles in her lifetime to become an example and role model for future generations of women serving in the military. She can truly be called the first female soldier of the U.S. military.
Born in Plympton, Massachusetts in 1760, she was the oldest of six children. With family ancestry dating back to the original colonists, Deborah's youth was spent in poverty. Her father went off to sea when she was young and her invalid mother was left to tend to the family. Realizing she could not support all of her children, she sent them off to live with neighbors and relatives around the American colonies.
When Deborah was around eight or nine, she became an indentured servant to Jeremiah Thomas of Middleborough, Massachusetts. She lived in his home for 10 years helping with housework and in the field harvesting crops. It was this hard work that allowed her to develop her physical strength. When not tending to the crops, she was able to attend school and following her servitude in 1779 she became a teacher.
At the age of 21, she enlisted in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtleff (also spelled Shirtliff or Shirtlieff) and became the only woman to serve formally in the Revolution. Fighting with the Fourth Massachusetts, she managed to maintain her disguise, although her fellow soldiers teased her about not having to shave and nicknamed her Molly because of her hairless face. However, being 5 foot 7 inches tall, she looked tall for a woman and she had bound her breasts tightly to approximate a male physique.
She endured two battle injuries while fighting the British — nursing her own wounds so her gender would not be discovered. However, when she was admitted into a Philadelphia hospital for a fever, her true identity was uncovered.
According to Demeter's Daughters, The Women Who Founded America 1587-1787, the physician didn't reveal her identity, rather "he took her to his own home where she would receive better care. When her health was restored, the doctor met with the commanding officer and subsequently an order was issued for Robert Shirtliffe to carry a letter to General Washington."
Upon hearing she was to deliver a letter to the commander-in-chief of the American revolutionary forces, she knew her military career was over.
"She presented herself at the headquarters of Washington, trembling with dread and uncertainty," Selma Williams writes in Demeter's Daughters, The Women Who Founded America 1587-1787. "General Washington, to spare her embarrassment, said nothing.
Instead, he sent her with an aide to have some refreshments, then summoned her back. In silence Washington handed Deborah Sampson a discharge from the service, a note with some words of advice, and a sum of money sufficient to bear her expenses home."
She was officially discharged from the Army at West Point on October 25, 1783.
Returning back to Massachusetts, she married Benjamin Gannett the next year and had three children before embarking on a lecture tour — one of the first women to do so — recounting her experiences as a soldier. During her lectures throughout New England and New York, she donned a soldier's uniform and inspired both men and women to join the military.
Approximately nine years after her discharge from the Army, Deborah was awarded a small military pension from the state of Massachusetts in the amount of thirty-four pounds in a lump payment.
"On January 20, 1792, the Massachusetts General Court voted to pay her 34 pounds for past services in the United States army where she 'did actually perform the duty of a soldier,'" Williams wrote.
In addition, the all-male legislature added approvingly: "They said Deborah 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."
Deborah Sampson Gannett died April 29, 1827 in Sharon, Massachusetts, at age sixty-six. She was the first woman to serve in combat for the U.S. military, a feat that would not be "officially" recognized until 1998 during Operation Desert Fox when *Lt. Kendra Williams of the U.S. Navy became the first U.S. female combat pilot to bomb an enemy target.
Original publication March 29, 2010 – Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, as part of a series for Women's History Month.
*Editor’s Note: Lt. Kendra Williams, F/A-18 pilot, credited as first female pilot to launch missiles in combat. She was flying in support of Operation Desert Fox, according to the U.S. Navy.