Click Here to return to
DEBORAH SAMPSON GANNETT, of Sharon, has the unique distinction of presenting the only authenticated case of a woman's enlistment and service as a regular soldier in the Revolutionary army.
The proof of her claim's validity can be found in the resolutions of the General Court of Massachusetts, where, under date of January 20, 1792, those who take the trouble may find this entry: "On the petition of Deborah Gannett, praying compensation for services performed in the late army of the United States.
"Whereas, it appears to this court that Deborah Gannett enlisted under the name of Robert Shurtleff, in Captain Webb's company in the Fourth Massachusetts regiment, on May 21, 1782, and did actually perform the duties of a soldier in the late army of the United States to the twenty-third day of October, 1783, for which she has received no compensation;
"And, whereas, it further appears that the said Deborah exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful, gallant soldier, and at the same time preserved the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished, and was discharged from the service with a fair and honourable character; therefore,
"Resolved, that the treasurer of the Commonwealth be, and hereby is, directed to issue his note to said Deborah for the sum of £34, bearing interest from October 23, 1783."
Thus was the seal of authenticity set upon as extraordinary a story as can be found in the annals of this country.
Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Plymouth County, December 17, 1760, of a family descended from Governor Bradford. She had many brothers who enlisted for service early in the war, and it was their example, according to some accounts, which inspired her unusual course.
If one may judge from the hints thrown out in the "Female Review," a quaint little pamphlet probably written by Deborah herself, and published in 1797, however, it was the ardent wooing of a too importunate lover which drove the girl to her extraordinary undertaking. Two copies of this "Review" are now treasured in the Boston Public Library.
In the first chapters, the author discourses upon female education and the like, and then, after a sympathetic analysis of the educational aspirations of the heroine (referred to throughout the book as "our illustrious fair"), and a peroration on the lady's religious beliefs, describes in Miss Sampson's own words a curious dream she once had.
The young woman experienced this psychic visitation the author of the "Review" would have us believe, a short time before taking her final step toward the army. In the dream, a serpent bade her "arise, stand on your feet, gird yourself, and prepare to encounter your enemy." This, according to the chronicler's interpretation, was one underlying cause of Deborah's subsequent decision to enlist as a soldier.
Yet her mother's wish that she should marry a man for whom she felt no love is also suggested as a cause, and there is a hint, too, that the death in the battle of Long Island, New York, of a man to whom she was attached, gave the final impulse to her plan. At any rate, it was the night that she heard the news of this man's death that she started on her perilous undertaking.
"Having put in readiness the materials she had judged requisite," writes her chronicler, "she retired at her usual hour to bed, intending to rise at twelve. . . . There was none but the Invisible who could take cognisance of her passion on assuming her new garb."
She slipped cautiously away, and travelled carefully to Bellingham, where she enlisted as a Continental soldier on a three years' term. She was mustered into the army at Worcester, under the name of Robert Shurtleff. With about fifty other soldiers she soon arrived at West Point, and it there fell to her lot to be in Captain Webb's company, in Colonel Shepard's regiment, and in General Patterson's brigade.
Naturally the girl's disappearance from home had caused her friends and her family great uneasiness. Her mother reproached herself for having urged too constantly upon the attention of her child the suit of a man for whom she did not care, and her lover upbraided himself for having been too importunate in his wooing. The telephone and telegraph not having been invented, it was necessary, in order to trace the lost girl, to visit all the places to which Deborah might have flown. Her brother, therefore, made an expedition one hundred miles to the eastward among some of the family relations, and her suitor took his route to the west of Massachusetts and across into New York State.
In the course of his search he visited, as it happened, the very place in which Deborah's company was stationed, and saw (though he did not recognise) his lost sweetheart. She recognised him, however, and hearing his account to the officers of her mother's grief and anxiety, sent home as soon as opportunity offered, the following letter:
"DEAR PARENT: – On the margin of one of those rivers which intersects and winds itself so beautifully majestic through a vast extent of territory of the United States is the present situation of your unworthy but constant and affectionate daughter. I pretend not to justify or even to palliate my clandestine elopement. In hopes of pacifying your mind, which I am sure must be afflicted beyond measure, I write you this scrawl. Conscious of not having thus abruptly absconded by reason of any fancied ill treatment from you, or disaffection toward any, the thoughts of my disobedience are truly poignant. Neither have I a plea that the insults of man have driven me hence: and let this be your consoling reflection – that I have not fled to offer more daring insults to them by a proffered prostitution of that virtue which I have always been taught to preserve and revere. The motive is truly important; and when I divulge it my sale ambition and delight shall be to make an expiatory sacrifice for my transgression.
"I am in a large but well regulated family. My employment is agreeable, although it is somewhat different and more intense than it was at home. But I apprehend it is equally as advantageous. My superintendents are indulgent; but to a punctilio they demand a due observance of decorum and propriety of conduct. By this you must know I have become mistress of many useful lessons, though I have many more to learn. Be not too much troubled, therefore, about my present or future engagements; as I will endeavour to make that prudence and virtue my model, for which, I own, I am much indebted to those who took the charge of my youth.
" My place of residence and the adjoining country are beyond description delightsome. . . . Indeed, were it not for the ravages of war, of which I have seen more here than in Massachusetts, this part of our great continent would become a paradisiacal elysium. Heaven condescend that a speedy peace may constitute us a happy and independent nation: when the husband shall again be restored to his amiable consort, to wipe her sorrowing tear, the son to the embraces of his mourning parents, and the lover to the tender, disconsolate, and half-distracted object of his love.
Unfortunately this letter, which had to be entrusted to a stranger, was intercepted. But Deborah did not know this, and her mind at rest, she pursued cheerfully the course she had marked out for herself. The fatigue and heat of the march oppressed the girl soldier more than did battle or the fear of death. Yet at White Plains, her first experience of actual warfare, her left-hand man was shot dead in the second fire, and she herself received two shots through her coat and one through her cap. In the terrible bayonet charge at this same battle, in which she was a participant, the sight of the bloodshed proved almost too much for her strength.
At Yorktown she was ordered to work on a battery, which she did right faithfully. Among her comrades, Deborah's young and jaunty appearance won for her the sobriquet "blooming boy." She was a great favourite in the ranks. She shirked nothing, and did duty sometimes as a common soldier and sometimes as a sergeant on the lines, patrolling, collecting fuel, and performing such other offices as fell to her lot.
After the battle of White Plains she received two severe wounds, one of which was in her thigh. Naturally, a surgeon was sent for at once, but the plucky girl, who could far more easily endure pain than the thought of discovery, extracted the ball herself with penknife and needle before hospital aid arrived.
In the spring of 1783 General Patterson selected her for his waiter, and Deborah so distinguished herself for readiness and courage that the general often praised to the other men of the regiment the heroism of his "smock-faced boy."
It is at this stage of the story that the inevitable dénouement occurred. The young soldier fell ill with a prevailing epidemic, and during her attack of unconsciousness consciousness her sex was discovered by the attendant physician, Doctor Bana. Imme diately she was removed by the physician's orders to the apartment of the hospital matron, under whose care she remained until discharged as well.
Deborah's appearance in her uniform was sufficiently suggestive, as has been said, of robust masculinity to attract the favourable attention of many young women. What she had not counted upon was the arousing in one of these girls of a degree of interest which should imperil her secret. Her chagrin, the third morning after the doctor's discovery, was appreciably deepened, therefore, by the arrival of a love-letter from a rich and charming young woman of Baltimore whom the soldier, "Robert Shurtleff," had several times met, but whose identity with. the writer of the letter our heroine by no means suspected. This letter, accompanied by a gift of fruit, the compiler of the "Female Review" gives as follows:
"DEAR SIR: Fraught with the feelings of a friend who is doubtless beyond your. conception interested in your health and happiness, I take liberty to address you with a frankness which nothing but the purest friendship and affection can palliate, – know, then, that the charms I first read on your visage brought a passion into my bosom for which I could not account. If it was from the thing called LOVE, I was before mostly ignorant of it, and strove to stifle the fugutive; though I confess the indulgence was agreeable. But repeated interviews with you kindled it into a flame I da not now blush to own: and should it meet a generous return, I shall not reproach myself for its indulgence. I have long sought to hear of Your department, and how painful is the news I this moment received that you are sick, if alive, in the hospital! Your complicated nerves will not admit of writing, but inform the bearer if you are necessitated for anything that can conduce to your comfort. If you recover and think proper to inquire my name, I will give you an opportunity. But if death is to terminate your existence there, let your last senses be impressed with the reflection that you die not without one more friend whose tears will bedew your funeral obsequies. Adieu."
The distressed invalid replied to this note that "he" was not in need of money. The same evening, however, another missive was received, enclosing two guineas. And the like favours were continued throughout the soldier's stay at the hospital.
Upon recovery, the "blooming boy" resumed his uniform to rejoin the troops. Doctor Bana had kept the secret, and there seemed to Deborah no reason why she should not pursue her soldier career to the end.
The enamoured maid of Baltimore still remained, however, a thorn in her conscience. And one day, when near Baltimore on a special duty, our soldier was summoned by a note to the home of this young woman, who, confessing herself the writer of the anonymous letter, declared her love. Just what response was made to this avowal is not known, but that the attractive person in soldier uniform did not at this time tell the maid of Baltimore the whole truth is certain.
Events were soon, however, to force Deborah to perfect frankness with her admirer. After leaving Baltimore, she went on a special duty journey, in the course of which she was taken captive by Indians. The savage who had her in his charge she was obliged to kill in self-defence, after which there seemed every prospect that she and the single Indian lad who escaped with her would perish in the wilderness, a prey to wild beasts. Thereupon she wrote to her Baltimore admirer thus:
"DEAR Miss –-: – Perhaps you are the nearest friend I have. But a few hours must inevitably waft me to an infinite distance from all sublunary enjoyments, and fix me in a state of changeless retribution. Three years having made me the sport of fortune, I am at length doomed to end my existence in a dreary wilderness, unattended except by an Indian boy. If you receive these lines, remember they come from one who sincerely loves you. But, my amiable friend, forgive my imperfections and forget you ever had affection for one so unworthy the name of
"YOUR OWN SEX."
No means of sending this letter presented itself, however, and after a dreary wandering, Deborah was enabled to rejoin her soldier friends. Then she proceeded to Baltimore for the express purpose of seeing her girl admirer and telling her the truth. Yet this time, too, she evaded her duty, and left the maiden still unenlightened, with a promise to return the ensuing spring – a promise, she afterward declared, she had every intention of keeping, had not the truth been published to the world in the intervening time.
Doctor Bana had been only deferring the uncloaking of "Robert Shurtleff."
Upon Deborah's return to duty, he made the culprit herself the bearer of a letter to General Patterson, which disclosed the secret.
The general, who was at West Point at the time, treated her with all possible kindness, and commended her for her service, instead of punishing her, as she had feared. Then he gave her a private apartment, and made arrangements to have her safely conducted to Massachusetts.
Not quite yet, however, did Deborah abandon her disguise. She passed the next winter with distant relatives under the name of her youngest brother. But she soon resumed her proper name, and returned to her delighted family.
GANNETT HOUSE, SHARON, MASS.
After the war, she married Benjamin Gannett, and the homestead in Sharon, where she lived for the rest of her life, is still standing, relics of her occupancy, her table and her Bible, being shown there to-day to interested visitors.
In 1802 she made a successful lecturing tour, during which she kept a very interesting diary, which is still exhibited to those interested by her great-granddaughter, Mrs. Susan Moody. Her grave in Sharon is carefully preserved, a street has been named in her honour, and several patriotic societies have constituted her their principal deity. Certainly her story is curious enough to entitle her to some distinction.
Click the book image to continue to the next chapter