Diary Sheds Light on Deborah Sampson, Who Fought in the Revolutionary War

Historians agree that Sampson dressed as a man and enlisted in the military, but many details of her extraordinary life remain unclear

deborah sampson
Engraving by George Graham. From a drawing by William Beastall, which was based on a painting by Joseph Stone. Public Domain

In 1782, as the Revolutionary War was barreling toward its conclusion, a woman named Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man, enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under the name "Robert Shurtleff" and fought in military operations. While her participation in the conflict is “undisputed,” many contradictory stories have been told about Sampson over the years, and the details of her biography remain hazy. So, as Alison Leigh Cowan reports for the New York Times, historians were excited to stumble upon a diary, belonging to Sampson’s neighbor, that promises to shed new insight into her wartime escapades.

The diary was penned by Abner Weston, a corporal in the Massachusetts militia, and was part of a cache of documents purchased by the Maine-based DeWolfe & Wood Booksellers last year. Frank P. Wood, one of the owners of the business, brought the diary with him to an antiques show in New Hampshire, where it was recently scooped up by Philip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

“Deb Sampson, her story is mostly lost to history,’’ Mead tells Cowan. “So, finding a little piece of it is even more important than finding another piece of George Washington’s history.”

Scholars generally agree that Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, circa 1760. According to the National Women’s History Museum, her parents were impoverished, their circumstances so dire that Sampson was bound as an indentured servant until the age of 18. She subsequently worked as a teacher during the summer, though she had little in the way of formal education, and as a weaver in winter.

In the early 1780s, Sampson first tried to disguise herself in men’s clothing and enlist in the military. She was rebuffed. In his diary, Weston describes how Sampson’s cross-dressing scandalized their town:

“Their hapend a uncommon affair at this time,” he wrote, per Cowan, “for Deborah Samson of this town dress her self in men’s cloths and hired her self to Israel Wood to go into the three years Servis. But being found out returnd the hire and paid the Damages.”

Sampson’s motivations for attempting to take up arms remain unclear. Patriotism may have been a driving factor, but the promise of money may have also played a role; according to Cowan, towns that were unable to fill their recruitment quotas during the waning years of the war offered bounties to entice volunteer soldiers.

At any rate, Sampson appears to have been so determined to join the cause that she made a second attempt—and this time, she was successful. She enlisted as Shurtleff and spent at least 17 months as a combat soldier. According to the Brooklyn Museum, Sampson “participated in several skirmishes” and sustained multiple injuries. She was reportedly hit by musket fire in the summer of 1782, but refused medical treatment for a leg injury due to fears that her true identity would be discovered. Sampson is said to have extracted one piece of shrapnel from her leg by herself; another remained in her body for the rest of her life.

Sampson’s time as a Revolutionary fighter came to a halt a few months before the end of the war, after she fell ill in Philadelphia and a doctor realized that Shurtleff was, in fact, a woman. Sampson received an honorable discharge and went back to Massachusetts. She married, had children and, in 1797, joined forces with the newspaper publisher Herman Mann, who ghostwrote a “romanticized” account of Sampson’s wartime years: The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady.

In 1802, Sampson embarked on a year-long tour, delivering lectures about her sensational experiences as a soldier. Sometimes, she would dress in full military regalia during these speeches. But there is reason to suspect that Sampson inflated some of her accomplishments, as the newly unearthed diary makes clear. Sampson, for instance, claimed that she had fought in the Battle of Yorktown, when American and French forces captured thousands of British soldiers, ultimately forcing Great Britain to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation. But in his diary, Weston describes Sampson’s first failed enlistment attempt as happening in January 1782—in other words, “months after the British thrashing at Yorktown,” according to Cowan.

The Museum of the American Revolution plans to put Weston’s diary on display next year, alongside other objects testifying to women’s role in the war. Though stories about Sampson’s heroics may have been embellished—both by herself and others—she remains a remarkable historic figure.

In addition to her gender-defying stint in battle, Sampson was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary War—though she had to fight hard to get it. Her cause was taken up by Paul Revere, who duly noted in an 1804 letter to Congressman William Eustis that while he expected to find Sampson a “tall, masculine female,” she was in fact a “small, effeminate, and conversable woman.” After Sampson died at the age of 66, her husband petitioned Congress to receive a pension as the widower of a Revolutionary veteran. A committee ultimately decided to award him the money, concluding that the war had “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage.”

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