Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

DEBORAH SAMPSON-GANNETT
(1760-1827), Revolutionary War veteran and early lecturer

JANE ELMES-CRAHALL

Deborah Sampson Gannett was the first woman to masquerade as a man and serve in the nation's armed forces, and she may have been the first U.S. woman to appear on public platforms speaking to audiences of men and women. Thus, during her life, she violated some of the most fundamental taboos that imprisoned the women of her time.

Sampson holds a unique place in U.S. military history as the only female veteran of the Continental Army, having served with distinction as a soldier from 1781 to 1783 under the name of Robert Shurtleff (Different sources have variant spellings; see Stickley, 1972, on military records.) in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. She fought in the battles of White Plains, Tarrytown, and Yorktown and was wounded twice, most seriously near Tarrytown. Apparently, by remaining aloof and making "light of her injuries," her true sex remained undiscovered for over two years ( Stickley, 1972:233). In awarding Sampson Gannett's widower a pension in 1838, the U.S. Congressional Committee on Revolutionary Pensions concluded that "the whole of history of the American Revolution . . . furnishes no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity, and courage" (Rep. #159:2, 25th Cong., Serial 333, NA). In 1802, nearly twenty years after her honorable discharge, she lectured publicly at least twenty times on her experience as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, perhaps "initiating women's rhetorical history in the United States" ( MCSFH 1:17).


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Deborah Sampson's father died when she was five, and like many poor children, she was bound out as a servant from age nine to age eighteen. She was strong and athletic; she taught herself to read and write ( Ellet, 1969:125; Friedenberg , 1976:2); she was interested in the political debates she heard in the home of her foster father, Deacon Cephrus Thomas, who was an ardent patriot. After age eighteen, she supported herself, first as a teacher in the Middleborough school and then by taking in sewing, chiefly making suits of clothes for young men joining the Continental Army.

In April 1781, wearing a suit of clothes she had made and using the name Robert Shurtleff, she traveled to Uxbridge and successfully enlisted in Captain George Webb's Company, 4th Massachusetts Regiment. Private Shurtleff was known to be a "good soldier," although quiet and of a "smock face." Signed statements from commanding officers attested that Shurtleff was brave and athletic and was "noted in the forefront of every action" (MSA; NA). After surviving two wounds, in 1783, she was assigned as an orderly to General John

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