Other than Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross, stories and reports surrounding the Revolutionary War depict the men, without much fanfare for women who were behind the scenes and in some cases in the heat of battle. Deborah Sampson was just one such woman who disguised herself as a man and joined the Patriot forces. She was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary army.
Born December 17, 1760 in Plympton, Massachusetts, Sampson was one of 7 children born to Jonathan and Deborah Sampson. Both of them were descendants of the Pilgrims with Jonathan related to Myles Standish and his wife was the great granddaughter of Governor William Bradford of Massachusetts. Jonathan failed to return from a sea voyage and his impoverished wife was forced to place her children in different homes. After five years had passed, Deborah, age 10 was bound as an indentured servant to Deacon Benjamin Thomas a farmer with a large family.
Deborah was self-educated, working as a teacher during the summers of 1779 and 1780 and a weaver in the winter. In 1782, as the war continued, Sampson took on the name of Robert Shurtleff and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. At West Point she was assigned to Capt. George Webb’s Company of Light Infantry with the dangerous task of scouting neutral territory to report on British buildup in Manhattan, which George Washington was expected to attack.
In June of 1782, she and two sergeants were leading about 30 infantrymen on an expedition which ended in confrontation with a one-on-one with the Tories. Leading a raid on a Tory home she and her compatriots captured 15 men and when sent to Yorktown, she dug trenches, stormed a British attack and endured cannon fire. This disguise lasted two years with several close calls to her true identity. She received a gash in her forehead from a sword and was shot in her thigh, extracting the pistol ball herself.
She was ultimately discovered when she became ill during an epidemic in Philadelphia and was taken to the hospital losing consciousness. She received an honorable discharge on October 23, 1783 returning to Massachusetts. On April 7th 1785 Deborah married and she and her husband Benjamin Gannet had three children. The story of her life was written in 1797 by Herman Mann entitled Memoires of an American Young Lady.
As a farmer’s wife and mother, Sampson’s life was surely different than her previous years as an adult and receiving a military pension. She began a yearlong lecture tour in 1802 about her experiences. She was the first woman to do so, dressing on occasion in full military uniform. Deborah died at the age of 66 and her husband petitioned Congress for pay as the spouse of a soldier. He was awarded the money; however, he passed away before receiving it.
From the battlefield and a feisty young woman, we have a lady of means with the power of the pen as a political writer and propagandist during the Revolutionary War. What was dangerous to Deborah Sampson was equally dangerous to Mercy Otis Warren, sister of the now famous James Otis who was a strong proponent in his own right during the war and author of the 4th amendment “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers and effects, against unreasonable search and seizures.” Although at times another has been given the authorship of “no taxation without representation” it was actually James Otis who presented the idea in one of his fiery speeches.
His sister, on the other hand, spent her time writing and publishing poems and plays attacking royal authority in Massachusetts, urging colonials to resist British infringements on their rights and liberties. During the debate over the constitution in 1788, she wrote a pamphlet Observations on the New Constitution under a pseudonym, “A Columbian Patriot”. In 1790 she published a collection of poems and plays under her own name, highly unusual for a woman in these times.
The first written history of the American Revolution was a three–volume work entitled History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution written by Mercy Otis Warren, the first ever authored and published by a woman. Mercy had no formal education, but she studied with the minister who was tutoring two of her brothers in readiness for their entrance into college. She learned as much she could reading book upon book about history and language. Most of the girls her age were simply literate, but she set herself apart with her father’s support which was very unusual for the 18th century.
Mercy died at the age of 86 in 1814 and the S.S. Mercy Warren, a World War II Liberty ship launched in 1943 was named in her honor. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York and is remembered on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Sybil Ludington had a somewhat different role in the Revolution. On the night of April 26, 1777, at the age of 16, she rode to alert militia forces in the villages of Putnam County, New York and Danbury to the oncoming British forces. The ride was much the same as that of William Dawes and Paul Revere in 1775 but Sybil rode more than twice the distance attributed to Revere. Born in Fredericksburg, New York now Ludingtonville, Sybil was one of 12 children.
On this date, Ludington rode her horse, Star, 40 miles through the night to warn approximately 400 militiamen that the British troops were planning to attack Danbury where the continental army had its supplies. As she rode, she warned the town’s people as well. Her ride was kept secret for many years until it was told by her great grandson. She was not only brave but also cunning when her father was due to be captured as he was a colonel in the local militia. Fifty Loyalists attempted to capture him but Sybil outsmarted them by lighting candles throughout the house and marched with her siblings in front of the windows, making it appear that many troops were guarding the house. The men dispersed in fear. After her ride she was congratulated by friends and neighbors and by a grateful General Washington.
One cannot omit the women who stayed behind, filling in for their husbands and fathers in the fields, tending to family and obligations left behind but it is interesting to note a few women who dared to reach beyond their homes, engaging in efforts only known to men at the time.