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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,130

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This is the grave of Deborah Sampson Gannett.

Born in 1760 in Plimpton, Massachusetts, Deborah Sampson grew up with long Puritan roots that reached back to William Bradford. But the family had fallen on pretty hard times and her father probably abandoned the family and moved to Maine, though she would later say he died in a shipwreck. An easier story to tell anyway. After the father left, the mother had to farm the children she could no longer support out to friends and family, which was more common in these days and not necessarily a social stigma type of action. Her mother died shortly after in any case. So the young girl moved from person to person for a couple of years, mostly older relatives who kept dying. In 1770, only ten years old, she was indentured to a man named Jeremiah Thomas. She had already learned how to read from her maternal grandmother, which was good because Thomas thought education for girls was pointless, though she was able to convince his sons to share their schoolwork with her. That lasted until 1778, when she came of age. She supported herself by teaching school, working in taverns, and weaving. She evidently was quite skilled at weaving.

By this time, the American Revolution was well under way, which is why we remember Sampson today. She was a tall woman. The average woman at this time was only about 5 feet tall, but she was 5’9″. She also was not seen as any kind of beauty and had very small breasts. This all mattered because she decided to dress like a man and volunteer for the Revolutionary Army. She took the name Timothy Thayer and joined the Army in 1782, near the end of the war. Given the almost complete lack of bathing at this time, it wasn’t that hard for her to pull this off given her body type. At first, she bailed after getting her bonus, not showing up after that. They found her and forced her to give the money back. During that process, she kept up her disguise. Shortly after, she registered again as Robert Shirtliff. This time, she saw combat. She was in the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. This was an interesting group of soldiers because they were picked based on their physical size and strength. Sampson was so big for her time that she was picked for this unit.

This was very late in the war and there weren’t major battles. But there were battles. She saw combat outside of Tarrytown, New York. She was wounded, having been shot twice in the thigh. She freaked out at this, not because she was shot but because she didn’t want to be discovered as a woman. She begged her fellow soldiers not to send her to the hospital. Naturally, they ignored her. She had been bashed in the head a bit too, so wasn’t fully together. When she got to the hospital, a doctor took care of her head wound but hadn’t gotten to the leg yet. So she hobbled out of the hospital undetected, took a pen knife, and cut out one of the bullets herself. She tried to get to the other one, but couldn’t and carried it in her leg for the rest of her life, walking with a significant limp and pain. Now this is determination. For the Army though, this was all fine. She was assigned to be a waiter to General John Paterson instead for the next several months.

In 1783, some soldiers were getting rebellious over a lack of getting paid, a common problem for this disaster of an American government under the Articles of Confederation. Sampson was one of the soldiers sent there to squelch any real rebellion. While there, she got sick. She probably wasn’t conscious when the doctors looked at her. They unwrapped her clothing and…..wait a minute!

Now, it wasn’t unheard of for women to be in the Army. There were several examples of this during the war. But they weren’t treated well when found out, in general. But Sampson was treated differently. The doctor did note that she was a woman, yes. Soon after she was discovered to be a woman, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the war was officially over. Soldiers were mustered out. That included Sampson. Paterson found out and he gave her money to send her home. She received an honorable discharge.

Then in the aftermath, she was treated as a bit of a curiosity but honestly not that different from any other veteran of the war. Some of this is that she didn’t continue to live as a man. In fact, she entered a completely conventional marriage with a farmer named Benjamin Gannett in 1785. They had three children of their own shortly after and adopted another child who was orphaned. They lived with his father on a declining farm, a frequent occurrence in late eighteenth New England.

Sampson, now Gannett, was also determined that she receive her due. In 1792, she let the Massachusetts legislature know that she did not receive her full payment due her after it was discovered she was a woman. The legislature promptly gave her the money owed. She had a biography written about her in 1797. By 1802, she was giving lectures about her service, evidently raising some money that way. She became friends with Paul Revere. The family didn’t have much money and Revere sometimes gave them loans. Revere also intervened to ensure she got a pension. In doing so, Revere played up her now “normal” gender actions: “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the more decent apparel of her own gender… humanity and justice obliges me to say, that every person with whom I have conversed about her, and it is not a few, speak of her as a woman with handsome talents, good morals, a dutiful wife, and an affectionate parent.” It worked. Congress gave her that pension in 1805. She still struggled through until 1816, when she was able to convince Congress to back date that pension to 1783. It was then she finally got the family out of debt. She was the only woman to receive a full military pension for her service in the American Revolution.

Gannett died in a yellow fever epidemic afflicting Massachusetts in the spring of 1827. She was 66 years old.

Deborah Sampson Gannett is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery, Sharon, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other women who passed as men to fight in American wars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sarah Emma Edmonds is in Houston and Sarah Rosetta Wakeman is in Chalmette, Louisiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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