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Disguised as a Man: Deborah Sampson Fought as a Soldier During the Revolutionary War

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

Woman Dressed as Revolutionary War Soldier

Woman Dressed as Revolutionary War Soldier

A Patriot in Disguise

She is considered by many to have been a true hero of the American Revolution. Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man so she could join the patriot forces. She wore breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat she had sewn herself. In April 1781, Sampson made her way to Worcester, Massachusetts where she enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment serving Captain Webb. Sampson used the alias Robert Shirtliff.

Early Years

In December 1760, Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was one of seven children. Her father's name was Johnathan Sampson Jr. and her mother's name was Deborah Bradford Sampson. Both the parents were descendants of notable pilgrims: Myles Standish and his wife Priscilla Alden.

The Sampsons always struggled with their finances. Deborah's father didn't return from a sea voyage when she was five. Deborah's mother was left with no option to feed her children other than placing them in different households. When she was age 10, Deborah became an indentured servant to Deacon Benjamin Thomas. He was a farmer who had a large family. When she turned 18, Deborah completed her indenture to the farmer. She was self-educated and began working as a teacher in 1779, In 1780, she started working as a weaver during the winter months.

Joining the Patriot Army

The Revolutionary War was raging in 1782. Deborah was a true patriot of the colonies. She wanted to do her part for freedom and decided it was time for her to disguise herself as a man and join the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She enlisted in the Army under the name Robert Shirtliff. Sampson was assigned to a Light Infantry regiment under the command of Captain George Webb.

Image of Deborah Sampson

Image of Deborah Sampson


Sampson was often assigned to the dangerous job of scouting for neutral territory. She was also given the task of assessing the buildup of British men and materials in Manhattan. General George Washington was thinking about attacking the area.

In June of 1782, Sampson got her first taste of battle. She, two sergeants, and approximately 30 infantrymen were on an expedition. They were suddenly confronted by British soldiers. The fighting consisted of fighting one-on-one. After surviving this experience, she was given the task of leading a raid on a Tory home. It was a success and 15 British soldiers were captured. During the siege at Yorktown, Sampson dug trenches and was part of a group of soldiers who stormed a British redoubt. She and her fellow soldiers endured severe cannon fire.


Sampson fought like any other revolutionary soldier for two years. During this time, she was able to avoid being discovered, but she did have some close calls. During the Battle of Tarrytown in 1781, she got a serious cut on her forehead from a sword. She then received a bullet to her left thigh. Sampson was so terrified of being detected, that she removed the pistol ball herself. It was a wound that was never properly healed. It would cause her to feel pain and discomfort for the remainder of her life. Four months later, she was wounded again. This time, Sampson was shot through the shoulder.


Deborah Sampson was able to survive her wounds. In 1783, she was dispatched to fight in Pennsylvania and came down with a fever. Sampson was hospitalized after losing consciousness. It was then that Dr. Barnabas Kinney removed her clothes to provide treatment. He saw the cloth bindings for her breasts. The doctor didn't immediately report Sampson. He let her recover in his home among his wife and children. After she had fully recovered, the doctor gave Sampson a personal letter to be delivered to General Patterson. Once it was delivered, the general told Sampson the doctor had informed him she was a woman disguised as a man.

Military Discharge

After the letter and her time in the hospital, Sampson realized she could no longer hide the fact she was a female. She admitted to General Patterson she was a female. Sampson then asked him to not punish her for her dishonesty. Patterson was impressed with what she had done during her time in the army. He told Sampson she would be rewarded for her service. General Patterson believed her outstanding achievements deserved proper compensation. Sampson would be given a discharge and taken to her home. In 1783, Sampson was escorted to her home in Massachusetts. The Revolutionary War also ended in 1783.

Painting of Deborah Sampson

Painting of Deborah Sampson

Post-Revolutionary War

Deborah Sampson married Benjamin Gannett in April 1785. Sampson and her husband had three children. They were named Patience, Earl, and Mary. The couple also adopted a baby girl named Susanna Baker Shepard. Sampson and her husband had a small farm located in Sharon, Massachusetts. The farming did not go well and the couple experienced mild poverty.

Pension Denied

Like many soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War, Sampson struggled to get a pension. She tried unsuccessfully to obtain a pension in 1790 and failed. After this experience, Sampson became discouraged. She worried Congress wouldn't provide her any money for her time in the war.

Deborah Sampson in "The Female Review"

Deborah Sampson in "The Female Review"

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Book Tour

Sampson met a person named Herman Man in 1797. He told Sampson he would publish her biography. The book was titled The Female Review. Once it was published, Sampson went on a public speaking tour. She went to New York and other New England states. During this time, she would put on a performance dressed in an army uniform. Sampson would also perform maneuvers with her rifle from the army manual of arms and more.

Pension Victory

Deborah Sampson's biography and speaking tour were a huge success. This inspired her to once again make an attempt at obtaining a pension. During this time, she gained support from a well-known patriot named Paul Revere. A letter was written in February 1804 by Revere to Congressman William Eustis. Revere urged a pension be given to Sampson. The next year, Sampson was given her pension. In 1821, she was awarded a full general service pension.

Statue of Deborah Sampson in Sharon, Mass.

Statue of Deborah Sampson in Sharon, Mass.


Deborah Sampson died in April 1827 from complications associated with yellow mountain fever. She was 67 years old. Sampson was buried in Sharon, Mass. at the Rock Ridge Cemetery. After her death, there were many monuments and statues built in her honor. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Sharon, Mass. was named after her. Sampson was given the title of Daughter of Liberty because of her participation in the Revolutionary War. The legislature of Massachusetts declared Sampson to be the state's official heroine in 1982. They also declared May 23 as “Deborah Sampson Day.”


© 2020 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on August 24, 2020:

Jeremiah, thanks.

Jeremiah Mwaniki Kilunda on August 23, 2020:

A captivating story!

Readmikenow (author) on August 23, 2020:

Flourish, thanks. I agree with you.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 23, 2020:

Not sure how she pulled it off living in close quarters and sharing facilities with so many men in the field but she’s an inspiration and true hero.

Readmikenow (author) on August 19, 2020:

Liz, thanks. I think she was an inspiration in many ways.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 19, 2020:

This is an interesting and well-researched article about an amazing woman. It's good to hear that she got her pension in the end.

Readmikenow (author) on August 19, 2020:

MG, thanks. You always enlighten me about the fascinating history of India.

Readmikenow (author) on August 19, 2020:

Alan, Thanks. You raise some interesting questions.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 19, 2020:

Very interesting to read about this woman warrior. Reminds m of the Indian Queen of Jhansi who led her troops into battle against the English in 1857. Thank you for telling us all about her.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 18, 2020:

I'd say more like awe-inspiring to men and women on both sides, never mind just Americans.

There's a debate at the moment here in the UK about women in HM Forces, their toughness... In Deborah's case her willingness to aim and pull the trigger. That's not been mentioned in debate. It's a massive commitment, to aim and fire a gun at someone you've never met and have nothing personal against. A lot of men couldn't or wouldn't do it. That was borne out in interviews with former POW's who'd been taken at Dunkirk in June, 1940. Some just threw their guns down and threw their hands in the air, many would fire them and then lay them down before surrendering.

I wonder, if a bayonet charge had been ordered, whether Deborah would've been able to pull it off. A bayonet on the end of a rifle takes a lot of muscle, so I gather (never having been in a position to have to do it myself, but going by interviews with ex-servicemen. Someone like Michael Caine could be persuaded to share his own thoughts, having fought with the 'Glorious Gloucesters' in the Korean War.

Readmikenow (author) on August 18, 2020:

Alan, thanks. I think she is an inspiration for women and true American patriots.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 18, 2020:

A salutary tale, Mike, although I can't vouch for the eyesight of the recruiting sergeant... Or maybe he knew and their army was desperate for recruits... Whichever, she was hard as nails, was Deborah, aka Robert (my middle name, my son's and my dad's first - another soldier who went through the mill who would've appreciated her help in North Africa and Italy).

A worthy adversary, I'm sure the Redcoats she helped capture would've agreed.

Readmikenow (author) on August 18, 2020:

Miebakagh, thanks.

Readmikenow (author) on August 18, 2020:

Eric, I agree.

Readmikenow (author) on August 18, 2020:

Pamela, thanks.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 18, 2020:

Mike, I was glad Congress finally approved pensions for. Deborah, really glad. Thanks for sharing.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 18, 2020:

How fascinating!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 18, 2020:

This woman was so brave, and I think it is very good to remember the brave men and women of the revolution. I really enjoyed your well-written article.

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