Deborah Sampson Gannett, born December 17, 1760, disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. She was the oldest of 7 children descended from early colonial settlers on both sides of her family, William Bradford, once Governor of Plymoth, on her mother’s side and Miles Standish on her father’s side. Deborah’s father was lost at sea, making it necessary to break up the family. When she was old enough, although self-educated, she was able to teach school and weave to support herself.
On May 20, 1782, Deborah enlisted in the Continental Army under the name of Robert Shurtliff, her deceased brother, and managed to disguise her gender for a year and a half. During her first battle, she was wounded with a cut to her head and two musket balls in her thigh. At the field hospital, a doctor attended the cut, but she left before they could remove the musket balls. Afraid of discovery, she removed one of the balls herself with a pen knife and left the other one in because it was too deep. In the summer of 1783, although the war was officially over, Sampson was still in service when she came down with a camp fever. The doctor who treated her discovered her secret, but instead of betraying her, he took her to his home where his wife and daughters nursed her. On Oct 25, 1783, Deborah Sampson received an honorable discharge from the Continental Army from General Henry Knox.
After the war, Deborah married Benjamin Gannett, a farmer, and had three children. It was difficult to make ends meet and she gave lectures on her time in the army to supplement their income. Although receiving an honorable discharge, the army withheld money due her because of her gender. In 1792, she petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for this money. Her petition passed and was signed by Governor John Hancock. This was just the beginning of a long fight to receive an ongoing pension and then to receive the money due her from the time of her discharge. This was finally granted in 1816, allowing her to pay off her many debts which had accumulated over the years. She died on April 29, 1827 of yellow fever.
Find out what else happened on December 17 in Women’s History.