It’s hard to believe, especially in today’s social environment, how stringent women’s lives were only a handful of years ago in America. This is an especially difficult road to navigate when writing historical romances. In light of recent events in the romance publishing industry, and its long-overdue push to be inclusive, some historically accurate books featuring the struggles of women to serve equally with men, or to live their own best lives, are shoved aside as being too controversial for today’s climate.
I’ve written in this space before about women’s participation behind the scenes during the Revolutionary War in America, and how not every woman stayed behind closed doors knitting socks and rolling bandages but acted as spies or secret double agents, passing along overheard information. Some women became camp followers, and helped feed the troops who marched into battle, but never before have I written about the women who actually fought alongside the men in these battles. But there were a fewl of these brave souls. Allow me to introduce you to Deborah Sampson, the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary War.
Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Plymouth, MA, one of seven children of Pilgrim stock, and related to both Myles Standish and Governor William Bradford. Upon the disappearance of her father, Deborah was placed as an indentured servant at age ten. When her indenture was completed at age 18, she became a teacher. But in 1782, as the Revolutionary War dragged on, the patriotic Sampson had enough of sitting on the sidelines. She donned men’s clothing, christened herself Robert Shurtleff and joined the Massachusetts regiment. Standing at five feet, nine inches, and stocky of build, she bound her small breasts with a linen cloth in order to pass as a man. Her features were ordinary, and, according to her friend and biographer, Herman Mann “not what a physiognomist would term the most beautiful.” Her appearance–tall, broad, strong, and not delicately feminine–contributed to her success at pretending to be a man.
She was given the dangerous mission of scouting neutral territory to gauge the British troops buildup and supplies. As Shurtleff, she led expeditions and raids on British troops, often fighting in one-on-one encounters with the enemy. She dug trenches alongside her fellow countrymen and endured cannon fire.
For nearly two years, she fought alongside men in the Continental Army without detection as to her true identity, but she did have a couple close calls. During a battle, she received a gash on her head from a sword and was shot in the thigh. She allowed the medical staff to care for her head wound but left the medical tent before they could undress her to care for the leg wound. She extracted the bullet herself with a penknife and sewed her wound closed. Her gender was ultimately discovered when she became ill during an epidemic, and lost consciousness.
Following her honorable discharge in October 1783, she returned to Massachusetts and two years later married Benjamin Gannet, a farmer from Sharon, MA and had three children. Her life story was written by Herman Mann in 1797 in a publication called The Female Review, entitled Memoirs of an American Young Lady. She became an ordinary farmer’s wife, and raised their children, except in 1802, when she spent a year touring the country and talking about her experiences on the battlefield, becoming one of the earliest female lecturers in the country.
Following her death, her husband petitioned the government for spousal pay, given to any spouse of a soldier. The committee concluded that the history of the Revolution “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage” and awarded Mr. Gannet the payment he requested. Today a statue of Deborah Sampson stands in front of the library in Sharon, MA.
Several books have been written about Deborah Sampson’s experiences and are available on Amazon.
The first book in Becky Lower’s new Revolutionary Women series, was released in June. It features Pippa Worthington, a British heiress who, in order to avoid a loveless arranged marriage, dons a boy’s clothing and heads for America at the start of the Revolutionary War in search of her own freedom. Find out what happens next here: https://www.amazon.com/British-Heiress-America-Revolutionary-Women-ebook/dp/B089RNSY3P