Did you watch Meryl Streep do her bit at the Democratic National Convention? If you hadn’t, check it out here. That memorable introductory scream and the “ungh” at the end were really something!! Streep then told the story of DEBORAH SAMPSON, a woman who disguised herself as a man so that she could join the Continental Army in the Revolution. It’s time to reread the two posts I did on Deborah Sampson some time back to refresh your memory. It is NOT confirmed that Deborah herself removed a bullet lodged in her body to avoid having her sex revealed if she had been treated by a doctor as Streep claimed— although she could have.
Here is the text of the first post on the “gender-bending” Deborah Sampson.
In The New York Times of January 13, 2014, there was a review of a novel by Alex Myers called Revolutionary. I was interested because Myers based his work of historical fiction on the true story of a 22-year-old Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson who cut her hair, bound her breasts, donned men’s apparel, and, as Robert Shirtliff, enlisted in the Continental Army in 1782. She lied about her age, claiming to be in her teens, which would account for the lack of facial hair, and collected the bounty paid to those who volunteered.
Deborah Samson (her name was later misspelled as Sampson) was one of seven children of Jonathan Samson, Jr. and Deborah Bradford, both of whom had ties to the earliest settlers in Massachusetts. The family was poor and when the father left when Deborah was five, her mother had to place some of the children with friends, relatives or employers. As soon as possible Deborah was “bound out,” that is indentured, and worked until she was freed at age 22. Tall for a woman, and strong and muscular from doing farm chores, she was, to put it mildly, plain, with a prominent nose and bulky jaw. Sent to West Point with other recruits, she was outfitted (there were no physicals), trained, and participated in skirmishes in Westchester County where there, and elsewhere, guerilla warfare still went on after the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781. She was wounded near Tarrytown, New York, but managed to maintain her disguise. Eventually, however, she was revealed to be a woman and was honorably discharged in 1783.
Returning to Massachusetts she discarded men’s clothes and married Benjamin Gannett. The couple lived on a small farm in Sharon and had three children. But Benjamin was not a good provider and in 1792 Deborah petitioned the state of Massachusetts for compensation for her service in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. A resolution granted her back pay of £34 and stated “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 preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex unsuspected and unblemished.”
The second post reads as follows.
To support her family, with a man named Herman Mann as her “agent”, Deborah Gannett undertook lecture tours—a first for a woman. Mann, a hack writer, put together a memoir, an assemblage of fact and fiction, and published it in 1797 as The Female Review or Memoirs of an American Lady. He even commissioned a painting by Joseph Stone, an engraving of which appeared in the frontispiece (see previous post). A small print run sold relatively well. Mann booked and orchestrated Deborah’s “performances”: first she delivered an address to her audience (written by Mann) then, in soldier’s attire and armed with a rifle, she presented the exercise from the soldiers’ manual of arms, the conclusion being the singing of “God Save the Sixteen States.”
With the help of the poet and editor Philip Freneau—he wrote a poem in her honor—Deborah petitioned Congress in 1797 for a pension. Her claim was denied. In 1803 she submitted another petition and was granted $4 per month as an “invalid pensioner” because of her war wounds. In spite of the award she and her family still struggled. Several times during her married life Deborah was compelled to apply to friends for loans to keep the family going. Here is one of two surviving letters, this written in 1806 to Paul Revere, who was acquainted with the Gannetts.
Honoured Sir—After my unfeigned regards to you and your family, I would inform you that I and my son have been very sick—though in some measure better—I hope Sir that you and your family are all in the injoyment of helth which is one of the greatest of blessings.—My own indisposition and that of my sons causes me again to solicit your goodness in our favour though I with Gratitude confess it rouses every tender feeling and I blush at the thought that after receiving ninety and nine good turns as it were—my circumstances require that I should ask the Hundredth—the favour that I ask is the loan of ten Dollars for a Short time—as soon as I am able to ride to Boston I will make my remittance to you with my humble thanks for the distinguished favour—from your Humble Servent—Deborah Gannett.
Deborah subsequently submitted other petitions to Congress seeking pensions and assistance. It was a struggle. Historian Alfred F. Young noted that: “. . . from the time of her discharge late in 1783, it had taken eight years to win back pay (1792), twenty-two to get a pension as an invalid veteran (1805), and thirty-eight to get a general service pension (1821).” He further observed that “it was only after repeated, angry appeals that she had gotten anywhere. . . . She received a pension because she fought for it; no one handed it to her, and at that it was paltry.” Deborah Gannett died in 1827. Her passing was not much noticed at the time. However, the advent of feminism and the accompanying interest in women’s history led Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, in 1983, to proclaim Deborah Sampson Gannett the official heroine of the state.
Back to Alex Myers and his book The Revolutionary. A couple of twists should be mentioned here. Interestingly, Myers is a distant descendant of Deborah Gannett. Further, this book about a woman who disguised herself as a man is by a woman-to-man transgender author, Alice to Alex. And that’s quite revolutionary, don’t you think?
Check out the author’s website and buy his book HERE. For those whose interest in Deborah Sampson Gannett has been piqued, read the excellent biography Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, by Alfred F. Young (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) available HERE. Deborah’s letter appears on page 230, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Alex Myers conferred extensively with Mr. Young on historical background and other details in writing his novel.