Deborah Sampson: "Animal love . . . was out of the question," 1782-1797
"Accused of dressing in men's clothes"
Deborah Sampson was born in Plymton, near Plymouth, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760. She was of Pilgrim stock, her mother a descendant of Governor William Bradford, her father a descendant of Miles Standish and of John Alden. After abandoning his family, Sampson's father reportedly died in a shipwreck, and her mother could not alone support her six children. Deborah became a servant in a family of Middleborough, Massachusetts; she received some education and grew to be a strong, aspiring, and able woman. When her term of servitude expired in 1779, Sampson taught for six months at a local school.
On September 3, 1782, the twenty-two-year-old Sampson was excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough. Church records say that it "withdrew fellowship" from Deborah Sampson because she
- was accused of dressing in men's clothes, and ... was strongly suspected of being guilty; and for some time before behaved very loose and unchristian like, and at last left our parts in a sudden manner, and it is not known where she is gone...(1)
Four months earlier, on May 20, 1782, Sampson, disguised as a male, had enlisted in the Continental forces under the name of Robert Shurtleff.
Sampson was mustered into service at Worcester as a member of the fourth Massachusetts Regiment, fought in several battles, and was wounded in one near Tarrytown, New York. When she was hospitalized with a fever in Philadelphia, her female sex was discovered. She was honorably discharged by General Henry Knox at West Point on October 25, 1783, after serving one and a half years in the Revolutionary army. In 1785, back in Massachusetts, Sampson married a farmer, Benjamin Gannett; she gave birth to three children: Earl, Mary, and Patience.
Herman Mann's Life of Deborah Sampson
In 1797, Herman Mann anonymously published in Dedham, Massachusetts, a book entitled The Female Review, a semifictionalized biography of Deborah Sampson's life and adventures in male disguise as a soldier in the American Revolutionary army.(2)
Sampson's Intimacies with Women
Several suggestive and curious passages in this work refer to Sampson's romantic, though allegedly chaste liaisons with other women, while posing as a male. Quite apart from any accuracy these tales may have, their very existence in a book subscribed to by respectable New Englanders in the late 1700s is of interest. Sampson's cross-dressing and the nominally "pure," asexual character of her romances no doubt made these stories seem acceptable at the time.
Because Mann’s writing is often almost unintelligible, at times florid to the point of absurdity, his account of Sampson's three romantic attachments will simply be summarized.
Once during the Revolution, Sampson is accused by a captured British sergeant of alienating the affection of "his girl," whom Sampson allegedly caused to "pay attention to her."
Sampson's more extended and detailed romance with a rich and beautiful young woman from Baltimore is said to be intensely felt by both women. In the process of explicitly denying any erotic aspect to this romance, Mann manages to detail enough of what did not happen to lend his volume a certain sexually suggestive character; it must have been a spicy book for its day.
"Animal love . . . was out of the question"
In a third episode, Sampson, discharged from the army but still wearing male disguise, returns to her uncle's house in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where she assumes the name of Ephraim Sampson (a younger brother), hiding her true identity. Here, her free conduct with women causes her biographer to comment:
- But her correspondence with her sister sex!-Surely it must have been that of sentiment, taste, purity; as animal love, on her part, was out of the question. But I beg excuse, if I happen not to specify every particular of this agreeable round of acquaintance. It may suffice, merely, to say, her uncle being a compassionate man, often reprehended her for her freedom with the girls of his villa; and them he plumply called fools, (a much harsher name than I can give them) for their violent presumption with the youngContinental. Sighing, he would say-their unreserved imprudence would soon detect itself-a multitude of illegitimates.(3)
Later, toward the close of his book, Sampson's biographer adds:
- But to mention the intercourse of our Heroine with her sex, would, like others more dangerous, require an apology I know not how to make. It must be supposed, she acted more from necessity, than a voluntary impulse of passion; and no doubt, succeeded beyond her expectations, or desires. Harmless thing!...An inoffensive companion in love! ... Had she been capacitated and inclined to prey, like a vulture, on the innocence of her sex; vice might have hurried vice, and taste have created appetition. Thus, she would have been less entitled to the clemency of the public. For individual crimes bring on public nuisances and calamities: And debauchery is one of the first. But incapacity, which seldom begets desire, must render her, in this respect, unimpeachable.
- Remember, Females, I am your advocate; and, like you, would pay my devoirs to the Goddess of love. Admit that you conceived an attachment for a female soldier. What is the harm? She acted, in the department of that sex, whose embraces you naturally seek. From a like circumstance, we are liable to the same impulse.
Finally, Mann denies the gossip "that Mrs. [Deborah Sampson] Gannett refuses her husband the rites of the marriage bed."(4)
Sampson's Public Lecture, 1802
After the original publication of Mann's biographical narrative in 1797, he then prepared a romanticized "Address" about her adventures, which Deborah Sampson Gannett first presented at a public lecture in Boston in 1802, then toured to various New England and New York towns.
Pensions and Honors
For her Revolutionary War services, Deborah Sampson Gannett received a pension from the state of Massachusetts and later, on the petition of Paul Revere, another pension from the United States government. After she died in 1827, the United States Congress passed an "Act for the relief of the heirs of Deborah Gannett, a soldier of the Revolution, deceased."(5)
1 Herman Mann, The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution; introduced and annotated by John Adams Vinton (Boston: J. K. Wiggin & W. P. Lunt, 1866; photo reprint, N.Y.: Arno, 1974), p. xxviii. I wish to thank Stephen W. Foster for research assistance on this document. There are a number of similar early American women's narratives which merit investigation. One such is: Lucy Brewer West, The Awful Beacon… By [One] Who in Disguise Served Three Years, as a Marine on Board the Frigate Constitution… (Boston: Printed for N. Coverly, Jr., 1816).
2 [Herman Mann]. The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady, Whose Life and Character Are Peculiarly Distinguished--Being a Continental Soldier, for Nearly Three Years, in the Late American War… by a Citizen of Massachusetts (Dedham, Mass.: Printed by Nathaniel and Benjamin Heaton for the author, 1797)
3 Mann, (1866), p. 225.
4 Mann, (1866), p. 242-43, 250.
5 NAW, vol. 3, p. 227-28 ("Sampson, Deborah").