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Reflections October 2012

America’s First Woman Soldier

By Richard Bauman

One woman, Deborah Sampson, did serve in the Continental Army, and not for just a single battle. For two years, she impersonated a man so she could be a soldier. She is recognized as the first woman to serve in America’s armed forces.

There are numerous myths about people who served in the American Revolutionary War – one being that Molly Pitcher was the only woman to have fought alongside men during that conflict. But that’s not true. In fact, “Molly Pitcher” didn’t exist.

One woman, Deborah Sampson, did serve in the Continental Army, and not for just a single battle. For two years, she impersonated a man so she could be a soldier. She is recognized as the first woman to serve in America’s armed forces.

Deborah was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, December 17, 1760. When she was about ten years old, she became an indentured servant in the Benjamin Thomas household. She learned spinning, weaving and cooking during her service to the Thomas family. She also learned hunting from the Thomas boys, and thus learned to be proficient with a musket.

When her servitude ended she became a teacher at the local school.

Deborah wanted to fight the British when the Revolution broke out, but women weren’t allowed in the army. She then devised a scheme — if only men could be in the army, she would become a “man.”

She prepared for transition from schoolmarm to soldier. She secretly bought men’s clothes and wore them when she could. She taught herself to walk, talk and act like a man. She was tall, five feet, seven inches, and strong.

One morning she cut her hair, donned her male garb and walked to the next town to enlist in the Continental Army. She enlisted as “Robert Shurtlieff.” Her mother’s first-born child was Robert Shurtlieff Sampson who had died when he was eight years old.

There was no physical examination, and nobody looked closely at the new recruit. She was accepted as a “smock-faced” boy, one too young to grow a beard. She tightly bound her breasts to look more like a male. Although teased by other soldiers for not having to shave, she performed her duties as well as any other soldier and was readily accepted as another male.

Sampson served with her regiment at West Point, New York, and she was wounded in the leg during a battle near Tarrytown. Rather than risk revealing her gender, she treated the wound herself. After participating in several more battles, she was wounded a second time – a sword to the head. A third wound, a musket ball to her left shoulder, was her undoing.

She was hospitalized and contracted what was called “brain fever” or “malignant fever,” and was sent to a hospital in Philadelphia. There the attending physician, Dr. Binney, discovered Private Robert Shurtlieff was a woman.

Instead of reporting her immediately, he took her to his own home where she would receive better and private care. When she was out of danger, Binney notified her commanding officer who then ordered Private Shirtlieff to carry a letter to General Washington.

At Washington’s headquarters, Deborah, still in uniform, met Washington. He gently told her to give up soldiering and gave her an honorable discharge and some money so she could get home.

In 1784 she married Benjamin Gannett, a farmer, and became a housewife and mother in Sharon, Massachusetts.

When Washington became president, he invited Deborah to the nation’s capital. There Congress officially recognized her service to country, and passed a special bill giving her a pension and some land. She died at age 66.

And what’s the story about Molly Pitcher, so often declared our first woman soldier? She was really Mary Hays, who tagged along with her husband when he served in the Continental Army at the battle of Monmouth, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1778. It’s claimed she continuously brought pitchers of water to the men in her husband’s company, thus earning the nickname “Molly Pitcher.” When her husband collapsed, either wounded or overcome by the heat, she supposedly took his place in the gun crew, and continued firing his cannon.

Deborah Sampson may have passed away into obscurity, but the name Pvt. Robert Shurtlieff, No. 40066, is forever on the rolls of the army that helped create a nation — and she was there with him through every battle.


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