The Woman Who Sneaked Into George Washington’s Army

by Alison Leigh Cowan, July 2, 2019, the New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — Hers has always been one of the more astonishing, if little-known, tales of the American Revolution: a woman who stitched herself a uniform, posed as a man and served at least 17 months in an elite unit of the Continental Army. Wounded at least twice, Deborah Sampson carried a musket ball inside her till the day she died in 1827.

While historians agree that Sampson served in uniform and spilled blood for her country, gaps in the account have long led some to wonder whether her tale had been romanticized and embellished — possibly even by her.  

Did she fight in the decisive Battle of Yorktown, as she later insisted on multiple occasions? And how did she keep her secret for the many months she served in Washington’s light infantry?

Now, scholars say the discovery of a long-forgotten diary, recorded more than 200 years ago by a Massachusetts neighbor of Sampson, is addressing some of the questions and sharpening our understanding of one of the few women to take on a combat role during the Revolution.  

“Deb Sampson, her story is mostly lost to history,’’ said Dr. Philip Mead, the chief historian and director of curatorial affairs of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “So, finding a little piece of it is even more important than finding an-other piece of George Washington’s history.”  

The museum bought the diary for an undisclosed sum after Dr. Mead spotted it at a New Hampshire antiques show last sum-mer. He plans to showcase it next year with other items about the role American women played in the Revolution, as part of a larger celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.  

The skeletal facts of Sampson’s military service have long been known. After at least one failed attempt to enlist, she ultimately suc-ceeded in joining and fighting with a Massachusetts company that saw action in the Hudson Valley. Her secret went undiscovered until 1783, when, just months before the war’s end, she fell sick in Phila-delphia and was found out by a doctor. There was no reprimand, just an honorable discharge.  

Untangling the fuller story has been more complicated. She left only a smattering of records in her own words and seems to have exaggerated her exploits at the urging of Herman Mann, a sen-sationalist newspaper publisher. He took liberty with the facts in memoirs he ghostwrote for her in 1797, and had a hand in a florid speech she delivered during a paid lecture tour of New England. Each performance included a moment when she theatrically switched out of her dress and reappeared in light infantry garb.  

Ms. Sampson “is a challenging figure,’’ said Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an expert on forgotten women, “because she recreated herself so many times — and then was recreated again by her supposed biographer.”  

As recently as 2016, Meryl Streep recast history a bit while praising Sampson as a model of “grit and grace” at the Demo-cratic National Convention. She referred to Ms. Sampson as “the first woman to take a bullet for her country.” That designation more properly belongs to New York’s Margaret Corbin, who never enlisted but continued to fire her husband’s cannon when he fell at Fort Washington in 1776.

A newly resurfaced diary is providing additional detail into the life of Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army. .Credit: Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

The diary, written by Abner Weston, suggests Sampson likely did not fight at Yorktown as she claimed. He dates Sampson’s  botched enlistment to a period around January 1782, months after the British thrashing at Yorktown.

“If you really want to put her at Yorktown, you could start stretching it, but that sounds like pretty strong evidence that she probably wasn’t there,’’ said Dr. David Osborn, site manager of historic St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., a national park site that dates to the Revolution.

He noted, though, that Sampson would hardly be the first veteran to place herself at the scene of a prominent battle that might be more familiar to folks back home.

Weston, who served as corporal in the Massachusetts militia, created at least three diaries that chronicle the war years, including his deployment to help defend Rhode Island in 1780 and to rein-force West Point in 1781. Two of the diaries are already held by the National Archives. The third diary that just resurfaced is a hand-stitched, 68-page account of the period between March 28, 1781 and August 16, 1782, which Weston updated while back home in Middleborough, Mass., where Sampson also lived.

In an entry for Jan. 23, 1782, Weston, then 21, wrote with variant spelling about an “uncommon affair” that rocked the town. A woman, posing as a man, had tried to enlist.

Their hapend a uncommon affair at this time,” he wrote, “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 motivation for enlisting has never been clear. Unabashed patriotism? Financial distress?

In the last years of the war, towns that struggled to fill their quotas of recruits offered bounties to attract volunteers. Sampson, born to an indigent family in Plympton, Mass., around 1760, cer-tainly might have needed the money. She had previously worked as an indentured servant.

What’s clear, according to evidence in the Massachusetts Ar-chives, is that later that year she tried to enlist again, 40 miles away in Bellingham, Mass. This time her gambit worked, and in May 1782 she accepted a bounty to suit up in place of folks from Uxbridge, one town over. She called herself Robert Shurtleff, her alias for the rest of the war.

Dressing as a man was considered a crime in Massachusetts at the time, and Sampson’s audacity later invited the wrath of the Bap-tist church. In September 1782, while she, long gone, served with her unit under an assumed name, church elders, still reeling from her earlier attempt to enlist, excommunicated her, citing her for “dressing in men’s cloths and inlisting” and other conduct they consid-ered “loose and unChristian like.”

After the war, Sampson married a Massachusetts farmer, raised a family and spent a lot of time fighting Congress to get back pay for her wartime service. Paul Revere and John Hancock both helped her in that partially successful effort.

The museum’s discovery of the diary also ended well. The doc-ument had turned up among miscellaneous papers purchased en masse by DeWolfe & Wood Booksellers in Alfred, Me., last year. One of the owners, Frank P. Wood, later brought it with him to read at the New Hampshire Antiques Show, which Dr. Mead attended while on vacation.

The two men got to talking. Dr. Mead, who had studied Mr. Weston’s other diaries as part of his doctoral work at Harvard, men-tioned his new role at the museum. Mr. Wood whipped out the diary to get his visitor’s take.

Soon they had a deal.

Ken Burns, the filmmaker who is creating a documentary about the American Revolution, said he might feature Sampson in the work. He said the fact that the diary undermines her account of serv-ing at Yorktown does not affect the overall impact of her story.

History is complicated, he said.

“She clearly bled for the cause,” he continued. “It be-comes super-important that we don’t impose modern sensibilities on what this speaks.”  End.

A diary kept by Abner Weston, one of three he compiled during the years of the American Revolution, in which he served as a Massachusetts militia member.  Credit: Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which purchased Weston’s diary, is planning to make it part of a display that will mark the often overlooked contributions of women to the colonists’ campaign for freedom. Credit: Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times