Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Deborah Samson Gannett 1760 ~ 1827

 

It has been said that in the early days of this Republic men learned to fight and pray; the women to endure," but there are several instances in the history of the Revolutionary War in which a woman's courage was displayed by the actual adoption of man's work on the battle field. The resolution of Congress is on record in which honorable mention is made of the services of Margaret Corbin, the gunner's wife who took her husband's place when he was killed, at the battle of Monmouth, and did such execution that, after the engagement, she was rewarded with a commission. And there were many other examples, though generally of women who, having suffered incredibly from the spoliations of the enemy, lost patience, and fought manfully for the last loaf of bread or the last bed quilt for their children. But, in one case, the heroism and deeds, exploits and adventures of a woman soldier make her life seem a figment of pure imagination. This was Deborah Samson.

Deborah Samson was the youngest child of poor parents who lived in the colony of Plymouth, in Massachusetts. Poverty was the least of the evils suffered by the unfortunate children and, at length, their parents becoming so degraded that intervention was necessary, they were removed from the destructive influences, and placed in different families. Deborah found a home in the house of a respectable farmer, whose wife bestowed upon her as much attention as was usual in the case of any poor girl "bound out." The friendless and destitute girl was treated kindly, and, in exchange for her work, was provided with clothes and food, but no advantages of education. There was none to teach her, but she seized every opportunity for acquiring knowledge, even borrowing books from the children who passed the house on their way to and from school, and persevered with untiring exertion until she had learned to read quite well. Then, the law releasing her from her indenture, she found a place where, by working one-half time in payment for her board and lodging, she was able to attend the common district school in the neighborhood. In a few months she had acquired more knowledge than many of her schoolmates had done in years.

But the Revolutionary struggle had swept upon the country, the sound of the cannon at Bunker Hill had reached every hearthstone and vibrated in the heart of every patriot in New England, and the zeal which urged men to quit their homes for the battlefield found its way to the bosom of lonely Deborah Samson.

Much effort has been expended by historians and women analysts to extenuate the conduct of this woman who claimed the privilege of shedding her blood for her country, but, after all, it was a most natural decision. It is likely her youthful imagination was kindled by the rumor of the brave deeds possible in that varied war life, and it must be borne in mind, too, that she was alone in the world, with few to care for her fate, and so she felt herself accountable to no human being. Be that as it may, she took the scant twelve dollars she had earned by teaching the district school, and purchased a quantity of coarse fustian and, working at intervals, made up a suit of men's garments, each article as it was finished being hidden in a stack of hay. Having completed her preparations, she announced her intention of going where she might obtain better wages for her labor. The lonely girl departed, but probably only to the shelter of the nearest wood, before putting on the disguise she was so anxious to assume. Her features were animated and pleasing, and her figure, tall for a woman, was finely proportioned. As a man, she might have been called handsome, her general appearance said to have been prepossessing, and her manner calculated to inspire confidence.

She pursued her way to the American army where, in October, 1778, she was received and enrolled by the name of Robert Shircliffe, a young man anxious to join his efforts to those of his countrymen in their endeavors to oppose the common enemy. She was one of the first volunteers in the company of Captain Nathan Thayer, of Medway, Massachusetts, and the captain gave her a home in his family until his company should be ready to join the main army. In performing the duties and enduring the fatigues of military life, her sex passed unsuspected. Accustomed to labor, from childhood, upon the farm and in out-of-door employment, she had acquired unusual vigor of constitution; her frame was robust and of masculine strength, and she was enabled to undergo what a woman delicately nurtured would have found it impossible to endure.

For three years Deborah Samson appeared in the character of a soldier, and during that time the fidelity with which her duties were performed gained her the approbation and confidence of the officers. She was a. volunteer in several hazardous enterprises, and was twice wounded, the first time by a sword cut on the left side of the head. About four months after this first wound she was again severely injured, being this time shot through the shoulder. Her first emotion, when the ball entered, she described to be a sickening terror at the probability that her sex would be discovered, but, strange as it may seem, she escaped unsuspected, and soon recovering her strength, was able again to take her place at the post of duty, as well as in the deadly conflict. Unfortunately, however, she was soon seized with brain fever, and for the few days when reason struggled against the disease her sufferings were indescribable, haunted by the terrible dread, as she was, lest consciousness should desert her and the secret so carefully guarded be revealed. She was carried to the hospital with a great number of soldiers similarly stricken, and, her case being considered hopeless, and partly owing to the negligent manner in which all patients were attended, she actually escaped detection for some days. But at length the physician of the hospital, inquiring "How is Robert?" received from the nurse in attendance the answer, "Poor Bob is gone." The doctor went to the bed and, taking the hand of the youth supposed to be dead, found that the pulse was still feebly beating, and attempting to place his hand on the heart, he perceived that a bandage was fastened tightly around the breast. This was removed and, to his utter astonishment, he discovered in this fever-racked youth, a woman patient.

With prudence, delicacy and generosity of the highest order, this physician, Dr. Binney, of Philadelphia, kept his discovery to himself, but paid the patient every attention, and provided every comfort her perilous condition required. As soon as she could be moved with safety, he had her taken to his own house, where she could receive better care, his family wondering not a little at the unusual interest manifested in this particular invalid soldier.

But, once her health was restored, the physician had a long conference with the commanding officer of the company in which Robert had served, and this was followed by the issuing of an order to the youth, "Robert Shircliffe," to carry a letter to General Washington.

Deborah Samson's worst fears were now confirmed. From the time of her removal into the doctor's family she had misgivings that the doctor had discovered her deception, yet, in conversation, as she anxiously watched his countenance, not a word or look had indicated suspicion, and she had again begun to assure herself that she had escaped. When the order came for her to deliver a letter into the hands of the commander-in-chief, however, she could no longer deceive herself. There was nothing for it but to obey, but when she presented herself at Washington's headquarters she trembled as she had never done before the enemy's fire. When she was ushered into the presence of the chief, she was almost overpowered with dread and uncertainty. Washington noticed the extreme agitation, and bade her retire with an attendant, who was directed to offer the soldier some refreshment while he read the communication of which she had been the bearer.

Within a short time she was again summoned into the presence of Washington. The great man said not a word, but handed her in silence a discharge from the service, putting into her hand at the same time a notice containing advice and a sum of money sufficient to bear her expenses to some place where she might find a home. The delicacy and forbearance thus observed affected her sensibly. "How thankful," she is said to have often explained, "Was I to that great and good man who so kindly spared my feelings. He saw me ready to sink from shame; one word from him at that moment would have crushed me to the earth. But he spoke no word, and I blessed him for it.'' This is an interesting sidelight on the character of Washington, wherein he is shown to have had the fine instinct of tact and sympathy even in his warrior days.

After the war had ended, Deborah Samson married Benjamin Gannett, of Sharon, and when Washington was President she received a letter inviting "Robert Shircliffe,'" or Mrs. Gannett, to visit the seat of the government. Congress was then in session, and during her stay in the Capital a bill was passed granting her a pension in addition to certain lands which she was to receive, as an acknowledgment of her services to the country in a military capacity. She was invited to the houses of several of the officers and to parties given in the city, attentions which manifested the high esteem in which she was held.

Deborah Samson-Gannett, in the capacity of wife and mother, lived to a comfortable old age, and finally yielded up her soul as any prosaic and worthy matron might, with no hint of mystery nor adventure in her past

It has been well said: "Though not comparable, certainly, to the Prophetess' in whom France triumphed, for the dignity with which the zeal of a chivalrous age and the wonderful success of her mission invested her, yet it cannot be denied that this romantic girl exhibited something of the same spirit of the lowly herdmaid who even in the round of her humble duties, felt herself inspired to go forth and do battle in her country's cause, exchanging her peasant's garb for the male, the helmet, and the sword. At least Deborah Samson is a figure of brave strength and intrepid daring in the hour of her country's greatest peril

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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