Deborah Samson Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Deborah Samson.


      When the lapse of years shall have invested the period of the Revolution with the coloring of poesy, and the novelist shall seek his materials in the romance of American history, the heroism and deeds of the subject of this notice will perhaps afford the ground-work of a tragedy or a novel. Something of the latter sort has already been constructed upon this foundation; a production, half tale, half biography, entitled “The Female Review,” published in Massachusetts about the commencement of the present century. I have not been able to find a copy; but have been told that it was not in any measure reliable, and that the heroine had repeatedly expressed her displeasure at the representation of herself, which she “did not at all recognize.” The following facts respecting her I received from a lady who knew her personally, and has often listened with thrilling interest to the animated description given by herself of her exploits and adventures.

      Though not comparable, certainly, to the “prophetess ” in whom France triumphed –

      – “The maid with helm├ęd head,
      Like a war-goddess, fair and terrible – ”

      for the dignity with which the zeal of a chivalrous and superstitious age, and the wonderful success of her mission invested her – it cannot be denied that this romantic girl exhibited something of the same spirit with the lowly herdsmaid, who, amidst the round of her humble duties, felt herself inspired with resolution to go forth and do battle in her country’s cause, exchanging her peasant’s garb for the mail, and the helmet, and the sword. There is something moving and interesting in the aspect of the enthusiasm fostered in her secret soul, struggling with obstructions and depressions, and at length impelling her to the actual accomplishment of what she had pondered in day-dreams; while the ignorance and error mingled with this enthusiasm, should increase our sympathy without diminishing the share of admiration we would bestow, had it been evinced in a more becoming manner.

      Several instances are mentioned in the history of the war, in which female courage was displayed by actions pertaining to the stronger sex. The resolution of Congress is on record, in which honorable mention is made of the services of Margaret Corbin. The story of the gunner’s wife, who took her husband’s place when he was killed at the battle of Monmouth, and did such execution that after the engagement she was rewarded by a commission, has been often related (“Resolved – That Margaret Corbin, wounded and disabled at the attack on Fort Washington, while she heroically filled the post of her husband, who was killed by her side serving a piece of artillery, do receive during her natural life, or continuance of said disability, one-half the monthly pay drawn by a soldier in service of these States; and that she now receive out of public stores, one suit of clothes, or value thereof in money.” July, 1779.) And many examples were there of matrons, who, having suffered incredibly from the spoliations of the enemy, lost patience, and fought manfully for the last loaf of bread, or the last bed-quilt for their children. In the case before us, the isolation from ordinary domestic and social ties favored the impulse that prompted to a course so extraordinary.

      Deborah Samson was the youngest child of poor parents, who lived in the county of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their poverty, rendered hopeless by pernicious habits, was the least of the evils suffered by the unfortunate children. Charity interposed to rescue them from the effects of evil example; they were removed from their parents, and placed in different families, where a prospect was afforded of their receiving proper care and instruction to fit them for maintaining themselves when arrived at a suitable age. Deborah found a home in the house of a respectable farmer, whose wife, a well-disposed woman, bestowed upon her as much attention as is common in such cases. The friendless and destitute girl was kindly treated, and provided with comfortable food and clothing; but had no advantages of education. Her keen feeling of this deprivation, and the efforts she made to repair the deficiency, show her possession of a mind naturally superior, and that judicious training might have fitted her to promote in no insignificant degree the good of society. There was none to teach her; but she seized every opportunity for acquiring knowledge. She borrowed books from the children who passed the house in which she lived on their way to and from school, and persevered with untiring exertion in her private studies, till she had learned to read tolerably well; but attempted no other branch of scholarship, until, on the completion of her eighteenth year, the law released her from her indentures.

      Her first arrangement on becoming the mistress of her own movements, was to secure herself the advantages of instruction. The only way in which she could do this was by engaging to work in the family of a farmer one half the time, in payment for her board and lodging, and attending the common district school in the neighborhood. Her improvement was rapid beyond example. In a few months she had acquired more knowledge than many of her schoolmates had done in years; and was by them regarded as quite a prodigy of industry and attainment.

      Meantime, the Revolutionary struggle had commenced. The gloom that had accompanied the outburst of the storm hung over the whole land; the news of the carnage on the plains of Lexington, the sound of the cannon at Bunker Hill, had reached every dwelling, and vibrated on the heart of every patriot in New England. The zeal which had urged the men to quit their homes for the battlefield, found its way to a female bosom; Deborah felt as if she would shrink from no effort or sacrifice in the cause which awakened all her enthusiasm. She entered with the most lively interest into every plan for the relief of the army, and bitterly regretted that as a woman she could do no more, and that she had not the privilege of a man, of shedding her blood for her country.

      There is no reason to believe that any consideration foreign to the purest patriotism impelled her to the resolution of assuming male attire, and enlisting in the army. She could have been actuated by no desire of gaining applause; for the private manner in which she quitted her home and associates, entrusting no one with her design, subjected her to surmises of a painful nature; and the careful preservation of her secret during the period of her military service exonerates her from the least suspicion of having been urged to the step by an imprudent attachment. It is very likely that her youthful imagination was kindled by the rumor of brave deeds, and that her visions of “the camp’s stir and crowd and ceaseless ‘larum” were colored richly by the hues of fancy. Curiosity to see and partake of this varied war-life, the restlessness of a heart unsoiled and solitary; the consuming of energies which had no object to work upon, may have contributed to the forming of her determination. It must be borne in mind, too, that she was restrained by no consideration that could interfere with the project. Alone in the world, there were few to inquire what had become of her, and still fewer to care for her fate. She felt herself accountable to no human being.

      By keeping the district school for a summer term, she had amassed the sum of twelve dollars. She purchased a quantity of coarse fustian, and working at intervals when she could be secure from observation, made up a suit of men’s clothing; each article, as it was finished, being hid in a stack of hay. Having completed her preparations, she announced her intention of going where she could obtain better wages for her labor. Her new clothes, and such articles as she wished to take with her, were tied in a bundle. The lonely girl departed; but went not far, probably only to the shelter of the nearest wood, before putting on the disguise she was so eager to assume. Although not beautiful, her features were animated and pleasing, and her figure, tall for a woman, was finely proportioned. As a man, she might have been called handsome; her general appearance was extremely prepossessing, and her manner calculated to inspire confidence.

      She now pursued her way to the American army, where she presented herself, in October, 1778, as a young man anxious to join his efforts to those of his countrymen in their endeavors to oppose the common enemy. Her acquaintances, meanwhile, supposed her engaged in service at a distance. Rumors of her elopement with a British soldier, and even of her death, were afterwards current in the neighborhood where she had resided; but none were sufficiently interested to make such search for her as might have led to a discovery.

      Distrusting her own constancy, and resolute to continue in the service, notwithstanding any change of her inclination, she enlisted for the whole term of the war. She was received and enrolled in the army by the name of Robert Shirtliffe. She was one of the first volunteers in the company of Captain Nathan Thayer of Medway, Massachusetts; and as the young recruit appeared to have no home or connections, the Captain gave her a home in his family until his company should be full, when they were to join the main army.

      We now find her performing the duties and enduring the fatigues of military life. During the seven weeks she passed in the family of Captain Thayer, She had time both for experience and reflection; but in after years her constant declaration was that she never for one moment repented or regretted the step she had taken. Accustomed to labor from childhood, upon the farm and in out-door employment, she had acquired unusual vigor of constitution; her frame was robust, and of masculine strength; and having thus gained a degree of hardihood, she was enabled to acquire great expertness and precision in the manual exercise, and to undergo what a female delicately nurtured would have found it impossible to endure. Soon after they had joined the company, the recruits were supplied with uniforms by a kind of lottery. That drawn by Robert did not fit; but taking needle and scissors, he soon altered it to suit him. To Mrs. Thayer’s expression of surprise at finding a young man so expert in using the implements of feminine industry, the answer was that his mother having no girl, he had been often obliged to practise the seamstress’s art.

      While in the house of Captain Thayer, a young girl visiting his wife was much in the society of Deborah, or as she was then called, Robert. Coquettish by nature, and perhaps priding herself on the conquest of the “blooming soldier,” she suffered her growing partiality to be perceived. Robert on his part felt a curiosity to learn by new experience how soon a maiden’s fancy might be won; and had no scruples in paying attentions to one so volatile and fond of flirtation, with whom it was not likely the impression would be lasting. This little piece of romance gave some uneasiness to the worthy Mrs. Thayer, who could not help observing that the liking of her fair visitor for Robert was not fully reciprocated. She took an opportunity of remonstrating with the young soldier, and showed what unhappiness might be the consequence of such folly, and how unworthy it was of a brave man to trifle with a girl’s feelings. The caution was taken in good part and it is not known that the “love passage” was continued, though Robert received at parting some tokens of remembrance, which were treasured as relics in after years.

      For three years our heroine appeared in the character of a soldier, being part of the time employed as a waiter in the family of Colonel Patterson. During this time, and in both situations, her exemplary conduct, and the fidelity with which her duties were performed, gained the approbation and confidence of the officers. She was a volunteer in several hazardous enterprises, and was twice wounded, the first time by a sword cut on the left side of the head. Many were the adventures she passed through; as she herself would often say, volumes, might be filled with them. Sometimes placed unavoidably in circumstances in which she feared detection, she nevertheless escaped without the least suspicion being awakened among her comrades. The soldiers were in the habit of calling her “Molly,” in playful allusion to her want of a beard; but not one of them ever dreamed that the gallant youth fighting by their side was in reality a female.

      About four months after her first wound she received another severe one, being shot through the shoulder. Her first emotion when the ball entered she described to be a sickening terror at the probability that her sex would be discovered. She felt that death on the battlefield were preferable to the shame that would overwhelm her, and ardently prayed that the wound might close her earthly campaign. But, strange as it may seem, she escaped this time also unsuspected; and soon recovering her strength, was able again to take her place at the post of duty, and in the deadly conflict. Her immunity was not, however, destined long to continue – she was seized with a brain fever, then prevalent among the soldiers. For the few days that reason struggled against the disease, her sufferings were indescribable; and most terrible of all was the dread lest consciousness should desert her, and the secret she had guarded so carefully be revealed to those around her. She was carried to the hospital, and there could only ascribe her escape to the number of patients, and the negligent manner in which they were attended.

      Her case was considered a hopeless one, and she perhaps received less attention on this account. One day the physician of the hospital, inquiring “How is Robert?” received from the nurse in attendance the answer “Poor Bob is gone.” The doctor went to the bed, and taking the hand of the youth supposed dead, found that the pulse was still feebly beating; attempting to place his hand on the heart, he perceived that a bandage was fastened tightly round the breast. This was removed, and to his utter astonishment he discovered a female patient where he had least expected one!

      This gentleman was Dr. Binney, of Philadelphia. With a prudence, delicacy and generosity ever afterwards warmly appreciated by the unfortunate sufferer, he said not a word of his discovery, but paid her every attention, and provided every comfort her perilous condition required. As soon as she could be removed with safety, he had taken her to his own house, where she could receive better care. His family wondered not a little at the unusual interest manifested for the poor invalid soldier.

      Here occurred another of those romances in real life which in strangeness surpass fiction. The doctor had a young and lovely niece, an heiress to considerable property, whose compassionate feelings led her to join her uncle in bestowing kindness on the friendless youth. Many censured the uncle’s imprudence in permitting them to be so much in each other’s society, and to take drives so frequently together. The doctor laughed to himself at the warnings and hints he received, and thought how foolish the censorious would feel when the truth should come out. His knowledge, meanwhile, was buried in his own bosom, nor shared even with the members of his family. The niece was allowed to be as much with the invalid as suited her pleasure. Her gentle heart was touched by the misfortunes she had contributed to alleviate; the pale and melancholy soldier, for whose fate no one seemed to care, who had no possession in the world save his sword, who had suffered so much in the cause of liberty, became dear to her. She saw his gratitude for the benefits and kindness received, yet knew by intuition that he would never dare aspire to the hand of one so gifted by fortune. In the confiding abandonment of woman’s love, the fair girl made known her attachment, and offered to provide for the education of its object before marriage. Deborah often declared that the moment in which she learned that she had unwittingly gained the love of a being so guileless, was fraught with the keenest anguish she ever experienced. In return for the hospitality and tender care that had been lavished upon her, she had inflicted pain upon one she would have died to shield. Her former entanglement had caused no uneasiness, but this was a heart of a different mould; no way of amends seemed open, except confession of her real character, and to that, though impelled by remorse and self-reproach, she could not bring herself. She merely said to the generous girl, that they would meet again; and though ardently desiring the possession of an education, that she could not avail herself of the noble offer. Before her departure the young lady pressed on her acceptance several articles of needful clothing, such as in those times many of the soldiers received from fair hands. All these were afterwards lost by the upsetting of a boat, except the shirt and the vest Robert had on at the time, which are still preserved as relics in the family.

      Her health being now nearly restored, the physician had a long conference with the commanding officer of the company in which Robert had served, and this was followed by an order to the youth to carry a letter to General Washington.

      Her worst fears were now confirmed. From the time of her removal into the doctor’s family, she had cherished a misgiving, which sometimes amounted almost to certainty, that he had discovered her deception. In conversation with him she anxiously watched his countenance, but not a word or look indicated suspicion, and she had again flattered herself that she was safe from detection. When the order came for her to deliver a letter into the hands of the Commander-in-chief, she could no longer deceive herself.

      There remained no course but simple obedience. When she presented herself for admission at the headquarters of Washington, she trembled as she had never done before the enemy’s fire. Her heart sank within her; she strove in vain to collect and compose herself, and overpowered with dread and uncertainty, was ushered into the presence of the Chief. He noticed her extreme agitation, and supposing it to proceed from diffidence, kindly endeavored to re-assure her. He then bade her retire with an attendant, who was directed to offer her some refreshment, while he read the communication of which she had been the bearer.

      Within a short time she was again summoned into the presence of Washington. He said not a word, but handed her in silence a discharge from the service, putting into her hand at the same time a note containing a few brief words of advice, and a sum of money sufficient to bear her expenses to some place where she might find a home. The delicacy and forbearance thus observed effected her sensibly. “How thankful” – she has often said, “was I to that great and good man who so kindly spared my feelings! He saw me ready to sink with shame; one word from him at that moment would have crushed me to the earth. But he spoke no word – and I blessed him for it.”

      After the termination of the war, she married Benjamin Gannett, of Sharon. When Washington was President, she received a letter inviting Robert Shirtliffe, or rather Mrs. Gannett, to visit the seat of government. Congress was then in session, and during her stay at the capital, a bill was passed granting her a pension, in addition to certain lands, which she was to receive as an acknowledgment for her services to the country in a military capacity. She was invited to the houses of several of the officers, and to parties given in the city; attentions which manifested the high estimation in which she was there held.

      In 1805 she was living in comfortable circumstances, the wife of a respectable farmer, and the mother of three fine, intelligent children, the eldest of whom was a youth of nineteen. The Dedham Register, dated December, 1820, states that-during the late session of the court, Mrs. Gannett had presented for renewal her claims for services rendered the country as a Revolutionary soldier. She was at that time about sixty-two; and is described as possessing a clear understanding and general knowledge of passing events, as being fluent in speech, delivering her sentiments in correct language, with deliberate and measured accent; easy in her deportment, affable in her manners, and robust and masculine in her appearance. She was recognized on her appearance in court by many persons belonging to the county, who were ready to testify to her services. A brief notice added of the life of this extraordinary woman was copied into many of the papers of the day, and appears in Niles’ ” Principles and Acts of the Revolution.”

      It is but a few years since she passed from the stage of human life. The career to which her patriotism urged her cannot be commended as an example; but her exemplary conduct after the first step will go far to plead her excuse.

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