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The Woman Who Snuck Into George Washington's Army

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 23, 2024 3:01 am

The Woman Who Snuck Into George Washington's Army

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 23, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Deborah Sampson became a hero of the American Revolution when she disguised herself as a man and joined the Patriot forces. Here to tell her story is the author of Deborah Sampson: The Girl Who Went to War.

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Let's take a listen. I am Marilyn Gilbert-Kamichak and I'm going to be telling the story of Deborah Sampson. I was on the Internet some years ago and was looking and talking about a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War, successfully disguised as a man. This piqued my interest because there were definite rules against this.

They could be flogged, jailed, or put out of the church, any manner of things. What made me want to go to the work and trouble of writing about her was her extraordinary courage and her amazing patriotic zeal that she thought to be one among those who tried to pass and succeeded without being discovered. She was born in 1760 in Plimpton, Massachusetts. Her family came over on the Mayflower, but at five years her father deserts the family and she's sent to work for a mother's cousin as a maid. At eight, she's a maid to 80-year-old widow Thatcher. At ten, she is sent to work for the Thomas family as an indentured servant, although she begged them continually to let her go to school.

They would not let her go to school. So she taught herself to read and write in the loft at night. And also, she in the meantime was becoming a teacher and a weaver. Then Middleborough gets word of the Boston Tea Party.

The English attacked the people of Boston and jailed them and whipped them for dumping the tea in the harbor. Deborah and Mr. Thomas go to Boston with food for the Americans, and that experience helped her know that she wanted to be a soldier. One night, she dresses as a man and goes to enlist. It's almost successful when someone discovers or sees her felon finger.

This is a finger that only weavers have of the thread rubbing against their certain finger. And a man shouts, that's a woman. She has a felon finger. She in the meantime has woven so many pairs of men's suits and clothing that she simply puts on late at night a man's suit and gathers some other things that she might need, because she is going to try to find the recruiter for George Washington's army. She walks quite some distance before she finds the recruiter, and so she stays in barns during the day to keep out of sight. She does find a recruiter, and she enlists as Robert Shurtleff. She's given a uniform, and she marches in this dreadful weather, very, very cold weather with her unit from Boston to New York City and joins the light infantry 1782 at West Point.

In fact, as we speak, there is a plaque on the wall for her at West Point. She liked to be away from the other man as much as she could for fear of discovery, and so she volunteered as a scout. But once while out having volunteered as a scout and on horseback raided an enemy ham house, and as she's making her getaway is wounded in the leg. She hides in a cave, and using her knife, some brandy and water from a nearby stream works on the wound, though it is never properly healed. And in time, she walks until she can rejoin her unit. General Patterson chose her to be his orderly.

Now this involves shaving his face and helping his family. This is an honor, and she also is given a room of her own, so that helps subside her fear of being found out. Then there is the rebellion in Philadelphia from some of the troops there, and the general needs to go, and he wants Deborah to go with him. So while they are there, he sends her out on several errands, and while she's out, she faints and falls over and loses consciousness.

She's picked up off the street and taken to a hospital. Dr. Benet comes to her, and she begs him not to turn her in because he has discovered she is female. Dr. Benet helps her win an honorable discharge, but before she's discharged from the Army, the general is very upset and asks her, why did you do this? Meaning, why did you enlist as a woman? And she said, so I could see the world and serve my country. Other men who had faked their identity and gotten into the Army were severely punished, but the general said he would not punish her. He thought so much of her, but he said she could no longer continue to be in the Army. So he had her turn in her uniform and gave her a pink dress and pink shoes and hat to wear home. So when she gets home, no one will have anything to do with her, not her mother, not the church, not anyone, but she works as a farmhand on different farms. And then one day, a handsome man on a great, beautiful stallion rides up at her door and asks her if she would like to go riding with him.

In time, they marry and Deborah bears three children in five years, but the farm does not produce. Poor soil, and Benjamin is ill and cannot work any longer, and her leg wound still bothers her. She petitions the government for back pay as a soldier for serving in the Revolution. The government is paying soldiers back pay, but not to her.

She decides that she can't wait any longer, and she goes in uniform and does the manual of arms. She becomes the first American woman to go on a paid public lecture tour. Then, to her delight, Paul Revere had picked up her money in Boston because he wrote a letter about her for $96, which was a fortune, and brought it back to her in his saddlebags for her payments to continue until her death. She died in 1827 at 67 years in Sharon, Massachusetts. In World War II, a Liberty ship launched the Deborah Gannett. That was her husband's name. And Deborah's reapplication and struggle for a military pension was on America's first freedom train. And songs and poems have honored her, including one by the Fort Worth, Texas, Boys Choir. Her name is on a plaque at the U.S. National Cemetery.

Song of Deborah was sung for women veterans at a memorial service. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler on the production. And a special thanks to author Marilyn Komieczak, author of Deborah Simpson, The Girl Who Went to War. And what a movie this would be. It was a heck of a story in that scene at the doctor's office, where she's just hoping against hope that the doctor will turn her in.

And he does. All she wanted to do was do what the boys could do, and that is see the world and serve her country. The story of the woman who went to war, here on Our American Stories. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now, I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why, and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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