Deborah Sampson Drags Herself To War

Deborah Sampson Drags Herself To War

Yesterday’s article about John Paterson briefly mentions Deborah Sampson. Her life was so interesting that I knew I needed to giver her an article of her own. (Sampson was always on the list but the Paterson story made me think it would be nice to publish the two back to back).

Deborah Sampson was a poor woman who needed to make some money. She decided the best way to do so was to dress in drag and join the Continental Army.

Sampson was a stand out soldier who’s true gender was only revealed in the closing days of the Revolutionary War.

Deborah Sampson

Deborah Sampson had a tough childhood in Massachusetts.  

When her father left the family, they found themselves broke.  Deborah lived with various family members until, at age 10, she sold herself into indentured servitude.  

Sampson spent the next eight years working for the Thomas family.  Fortunately, she was able to receive a cursory education. She also became skilled at many tasks which would serve her well later in life.

Continental Soldier

By her early 20’s, Sampson was physically larger than most people living in North America.

She used this to her advantage by dressing like a man and signing up for the Continental Army. She was accepted into the militia and given a payment, however, when she didn’t return to active duty, Deborah was found out to be a woman and force to return any money she had not spent.

Just a few months later, under the name Robert Shirtliff, Deborah Sampson was accepted into the Continental Army as a member of the Light Infantry.  The Light Infantry were smaller outfits which consisted of soldiers who had superior size and ability.


While serving with the Continentals, Sampson was wounded in Upstate New York.  

Her brothers in arms brought Deborah to a doctor who treated a wound on her head, but she left before they could fix her leg.  Deborah when to the woods, cut one (of two) bullet out of her leg, and sewed herself back together.

Soon after, she was transferred to assist General John Paterson.  Sampson fell ill and was brought to another doctor who learned her true gender.  When the army was disbanded, the doctor asked Sampson to take a letter to Paterson which revealed her true gender.

For his part, Paterson gave Deborah an honorable discharge and enough money to get home.


After her discharge, Sampson married and began a speaking tour.  

She discussed how important a woman’s role in the home was and then, at the end, would change costumes to her military outfit and preform drills.  Her goal was to demonstrate that woman had roles both inside and outside of the house.

Despite these performances, Sampson lived most of her life on the edge of poverty.  She had to borrow money from her friend Paul Revere on multiple occasions.

Sampson successfully petitioned both the Massachusetts Assembly and the United States Congress for a veteran pension.  Eventually, she received both, making her one of the few Founding Mothers to have her participation on the battlefield officially acknowledged.

Deborah Sampson has become a legendary woman from the Founding Generation. As such, she has a lot of biographies available.

Unfortunately, being an American Legend typically involves a lot of myths. If you’d like to learn more about this unbelievable lady, I recommend ‘Masquerade’ because it does a great job of getting to the bottom of what is fact and what is fiction (the facts are thrilling enough themselves).

If you can’t find it at your library, I highly recommend purchasing a copy for yourself. If you get it from the Amazon link below, Amazon gives just a little bit back to keep this site going at no additional cost to you.

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