Women in the Army


Nursing a soldier

The same brave mind that had made her so admirable as a soldier’s helpmate, upheld her through tedious hardships and continued perils on her lonely way to the settlement. Once there, it was necessary for her to wait until she could recover her exhausted strength. Her triumph over the severe tasking of all those bitter days in the wilderness, without chronic injury, or even temporary sickness, would be called now, in a woman, a miracle of endurance.

As she passed on from parish to parish, the simple Canadian peasant, always friendly to the American cause, welcomed with warm hospitality the handsome young woman, the story of whose singular bravery and devotion had reached their ears.

Her subsequent life and history is shrouded in obscurity. We know not whether she married a husband worthier of such a partner in those trying times, or whether she retired to brood alone over a sorrow with which shame for the object of her grief must have mingled. Whatever her lot may have been, her name deserves a place on the golden roll of our revolutionary heroines. [Later history tells us that Jemima Warner was killed, the first female casualty of war in the United States.]

As we have already remarked, only a few instances are on record where women served in the army of the revolution as enlisted soldiers. Occasional services performed under the guise of men were more frequent. As bearers of dispatches and disguised as couriers, they glided through the enemy’s lines. Donning their father’s or brother’s overcoats and hats, they deceived the besiegers of the garrison into the belief that soldiers were not lacking to defend it, and even ventured in male habiliments to perform more perilous feats; such, for example, as the following:

Grace and Rachel Martin, the wives of two brothers who were absent with the patriot army, receiving intelligence one evening that a courier under the guard of two British officers, would pass their house on a certain night with important dispatches, resolved to surprise the party and obtain the papers.

Disguising themselves in their husband’s outer garments, and providing themselves with arms, they waylaid the enemy. Soon after they took their station by the roadside, the courier and his escort made their appearance.

At the proper moment, the disguised ladies sprang from their bushy covert, and presenting their pistols, ordered the party to surrender their papers. Surprised and alarmed, they obeyed without hesitation or the least resistance. The brave women having put them on parole hastened home by the nearest route, which was a bypath through the woods, and dispatched the documents to General Greene.

Perhaps the most remarkable case of female enlistment and protracted service in the patriot army was that of Deborah Samson. The career of this woman shows that her motive in adopting and following the career of a soldier was a praiseworthy one. The whole country was aglow with patriotic fervor, and in no section did the flame burn with a purer luster than in that where Deborah was nurtured. It was not idle curiosity nor mere love of roving, that incited her, in those straitlaced days, to abandon her home and join in the perilous fray where the standard of freedom was “full high advanced.” She had evidently counted the cost of the extraordinary step which she was about to take but found in the difficulties and dangers which it entailed nothing to obstruct or daunt her purpose.

Deborah Sampson Gannett

Deborah Sampson Gannett

Her parents were in humble circumstances, and lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Deborah grew up with but slender advantages for anything more than a practical education; and yet such was her diligence in the acquisition of knowledge, that before she was eighteen she had shown herself competent to take charge of a district school, in which duty she displayed some of the same qualities which made her after-career remarkable.

She seems for several months to have cherished the secret purpose of enlisting in the American army, and with that view laid aside a small sum from her scanty earnings as a school-teacher, with which she purchased a quantity of coarse fustian; out of this material, working at intervals and by stealth, she made a complete suit of men’s clothes, concealing in a hay-stack each article as it was finished.

When her preparations had been completed, she informed her friends that she was going in search of higher wages for her labor. Tying her new suit of men’s attire in a bundle, she took her departure. She probably availed herself of the nearest shelter for the purpose of assuming her disguise. Her stature was lofty for a woman, and her features, though finely proportioned, were of a masculine cast. When at a subsequent period she had donned the buff and blue regimentals and marched in the ranks of the patriot army, she is said to have looked every inch the soldier.

Pursuing her way she presented herself at the camp of the American army as one of those patriotic young men who desired to assist in opposing the British and securing the independence of their country.

Her friends, supposing that she was engaged at service at some distant point, made little inquiry as to her whereabouts, knowing her self-reliance, and her ability to follow out her own career without the aid of their counsel or assistance. Those who were nearest to her appear to have never made such a search for her as would have led to her discovery.

Having decided to enlist for the whole term of the war, from motives of patriotism, she was received and enrolled as one of the first volunteers in the company of Captain Nathan Thayer, of Medway, Massachusetts, under the name of Robert Shirtliffe. Without friends and homeless, as the young recruit appeared to be, she interested Captain Thayer and was received into his family while he was recruiting his company. Here she remained some weeks and received her first lessons in the drill and duties of the young soldier.

Accustomed to labor from childhood upon the farm and in outdoor employment, she had acquired unusual vigor of constitution; her frame was robust and of masculine strength; and, having thus gained a degree of hardihood, she was enabled to acquire great expertness and precision in the manual exercise, and to undergo what a female, delicately nurtured, would have found it impossible to endure. Soon after they had joined the company, the recruits were supplied with uniforms by a kind of lottery. That drawn by Robert did not fit, but, taking needle and scissors, he soon altered it to suit him. To Mrs. Thayer’s expression of surprise at finding a young man so expert in using the implements of feminine industry, the answer was, that, his mother having no girl, he had been often obliged to practice the seamstress’s art.

While in the family of Captain Thayer, she was thrown much into the society of a young girl then visiting Mrs. Thayer. She soon began to show much partiality for Deborah (or Robert), and as she seemed to be versed in the arts of coquetry, Robert felt no scruples in paying close attention to one so volatile and fond of flirtation; she also felt a natural curiosity to learn within how short a time a maiden’s fancy might be won.

Mrs. Thayer regarded this little romance with some uneasiness, as she could not help perceiving that Robert did not entirely reciprocate her young friend’s affection. She accordingly lost no time in remonstrating with Robert and warning him of the serious consequences of his folly in trifling with the feelings of the maiden. The remonstrance and caution were good-naturedly received, and the departure of the blooming soldier soon after terminated all these love passages, though Robert received from his fair young friend some souvenirs, which he cherished as relics in after years.

For three years, and until 1781, our heroine appears as a soldier, and during this time she gained the approbation and confidence of the officers by her exemplary conduct and by the fidelity with which her duties were performed. When under fire, she showed an unflinching boldness and was a volunteer in several hazardous enterprises. The first time she was wounded, was in a hand-to-hand fight with a British dragoon, when she received a severe sword-cut in the side of her head, laying bare her skull.