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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

America's first woman soldier

Oct 31, 2023 11:34AM ● By Richard Bauman

There are numerous myths about people who served in the American Revolutionary War, one being that Molly Pitcher was the only woman to have fought alongside men during that conflict. But that’s not true. In fact, “Molly Pitcher” didn’t exist. 

One woman, Deborah Sampson, served in the Continental Army. For two years, she impersonated a man so she could be a soldier. 

Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts on December 17, 1760. Her mother faced financial difficulties after her father never return from a sea voyage, leading her to arrange for Sampson and her siblings to become indentured servants in other households. She learned spinning, weaving and cooking during her service. She also learned hunting from the boys and learned to be proficient with a musket.

Sampson wanted to fight the British when the revolution broke out, but women weren’t allowed in the Army. She secretly bought men’s clothes and taught herself to walk, talk and act like a man. She was tall for a woman at 5-feet-7-inches, and was strong. One morning she cut her hair, donned her male garb and walked to the next town to enlist in the Continental Army. 

She enlisted as Robert Shurtlieff, the name of her mother’s first-born child who had died when he was 8 years old. There was no physical examination and nobody looked closely at the new recruit. She was accepted as a smock-faced boy, one too young to grow a beard. She tightly bound her breasts to look more like a male.

Although teased by other soldiers for not having to shave, she performed her duties as well as any other soldier and was readily accepted as a man.

Sampson served with her regiment at West Point, New York, and was wounded in the leg during a battle near Tarrytown. Rather than risk revealing her gender, she treated the wound herself. After participating in several more battles, she was wounded a second time—a sword to the head. A third wound—a musket ball to her shoulder—was her undoing.

She was hospitalized and contracted what was called brain fever, and was sent to a hospital in Philadelphia. There, the attending physician discovered her gender. Instead of reporting her immediately, he took her to his own home where she would receive private care. When she was out of danger, Dr. Binney notified her commanding officer, who then ordered Private Shurtlieff to carry a letter to General Washington.

Sampson, still in uniform, met Washington. He gently told her to give up soldiering and gave her an honorable discharge and some money so she could get home.

In 1784, she married Benjamin Gannett, a farmer, and became a housewife and mother. When Washington became president, he invited Sampson to the nation’s capital. There, Congress recognized her service to her country, and passed a special bill giving her a pension and some land. She died at age 66.

So what’s the story about Molly Pitcher? She was really Mary Hays, who tagged along with her husband when he served in the Continental Army at the battle of Monmouth, Pennsylvania on June 28, 1778. It’s claimed she continuously brought pitchers of water to the men in her husband’s company, thus earning the nickname “Molly Pitcher.”

When her husband collapsed, either wounded or overcome by the heat, she supposedly took his place in the gun crew and continued firing his cannon.

Sampson may have passed away into obscurity, but the name Private Robert Shurtlieff, No. 40066, is forever on the rolls of the Army that helped create a nation. 

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