Deborah Sampson’s actions prove some stuff. The primary thing it proves, though there’s plenty of other examples, that women can be as brave and capable as men if not more so, even in times when there’s no influence countering the cultural notion that they ought to be weak, docile, and subservient to men. It proves, too, that women have always had significant capacity for cunning and willpower. Though I am not often fond of the idea that exceptions prove a rule, in a way, the fact of the attention she was given proves that despite Abigail Adams pleas to remember the ladies, women were pushed aside and forgotten after the revolution. The fact that she was remembered for acting as a man shows in a way how little value was given to women acting within gender roles.
Though her life after service was not as eventful as war, there were still notable events. She applied for a soldier’s pension, and when she had trouble getting it Paul Revere wrote a letter in support of her. Her life story was written in The Female Review by Herman Mann, after which she went on a lecture tour, where she would wear her uniform and perform maneuvers. After her death, her husband, Benjamin Gannet, with whom she had 3 children, applied for the pension of a soldier’s widow.
Deborah and her sick ward were housed by a Tory, who put them in his sweltering attic in summer, certainly an excellent environment for healing. Her ward died, and in revenge she revealed the Tory’s illicit dealings to local authorities. After that, she returned to active duty, but was put in a noncombat position as the servant of a general, John Paterson of the First Massachusetts. She soon caught a sickness herself however, an epidemic in the area they were passing through. She was hospitalized and examined. This time, she could not escape detection. And so, she was discovered. Thereafter she was honorably discharged from the military and went home.
On another scouting mission in 1782, Deborah’s party came into conflict with British soldiers again. This time, she would not be so lucky. She received a gash to her forehead from a sword, as well as a musket bullet to the leg. If the wound in her leg were examined she would surely be discovered- so she went in for treatment for the slash, and dealt with the bullet wound herself. She was left with permanent pain, but, having removed the bullet herself, remained undiscovered. But all was not well- the wound on her head having healed, she was pronounced fit for service before her leg wound was fully healed. Luckily she was assigned the physically relaxed duty of caring for a sick soldier.
After a preliminary test of her ability to pass as a man with the proper clothing, at 21 years old, Deborah Sampson joined the colonial military, the 4th Massachusetts regiment specifically. Her first major assignment had her join a scouting party to perform reconnaissance on the British troops. On the party’s return, they got into a skirmish with some Tory troops, but she was unharmed. Several months later, she participated in the Battle of Yorktown, where general Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. Though she fought bravely, she was again unharmed. However, despite the surrender the war continued, and she could not remain unharmed forever.
Deborah Sampson was born to a poor Massachusetts widow in 1760. Though descended from the original pilgrims, her family had very little. When her father left on a ship and never came back, her mother could not care for all 7 children. Deborah was shuffled around several homes before being sold into indentured servitude at age 10. Her master was a patriot, which would significantly influence her own beliefs. Once she was released from servitude at 18, she became a self-taught schoolteacher during the summer, and worked as a weaver during winters. However, she soon became restless at this dead-end work, and desired to explore.
Deborah Sampson Gannett is someone I’d never heard of before. It’s pretty easy to say why. In school, we’re all taught Big Man style history. That has two parts- Big and Man. While she was a significant person, she wasn’t a powerful leader. She didn’t rule a country, she didn’t invent or discover something everyone knows about, and she wasn’t the family or consort of a Big Man. Her role in history being minor affected it- as did her being and story. Women have of course historically both been disbelieved and excluded from history books when they’ve done something important, and excluded from positions they could well do just as well in as a man that would get them into history books in if the former were not the case, in a rather self-perpetuating cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy.