By Terry Pettee
I have a lineage I can trace back six and a half centuries thanks to the Ancestry website. Among my ancestors are many who defended this country in times of war and a son who bravely served two tours in Afghanistan and other overseas locations. Among my ancestors are a father and son, both named Ebenezer, who fought in the American Revolution.
As proud as I am about this heritage, this commentary is not about my ancestors. Rather it is about a heroine of the Revolution who very likely was known by both Ebenezer Pettees. That woman was Deborah Sampson.
I begin by telling you about my paternal ancestors who came to Colonial America.
William Pettee is my eighth great-grandfather. He and his wife Mary Newell, my eighth great-grandmother, were married in Talmage Stoke, Oxfordshire, England in 1635. Their first child, John, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1638. I have not discovered exactly when they arrived in the Massachusetts colony but it was between the years mentioned.
Weymouth, Massachusetts is located about 17 miles southeast of Boston. Just over 20 miles west of Weymouth is Sharon, Massachusetts. My paternal ancestors soon settled in Sharon, Massachusetts. Deborah Sampson is buried in Rock Ridge Cemetery, along with many of my ancestors.
Deborah Sampson had what can only be described as a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned his family when she was a young girl. Her mother, unable to support Deborah and her six siblings, placed some of the children homes of family and friends. Before the age of 18, Sampson was placed in at least three different homes finally as an indented servant. She was fortunate enough to learn to read and write and having completed her indenture earned a living teaching children basic reading and writing skills.
Sampson’s education was not limited to basic academics. Her biographer and long acquaintance, Hermann Mann, wrote that she was particularly talented in mechanics and wood.
Mann described Deborah Sampson as “tall, broad, strong and not delicately feminine.” She stood five-foot-nine, which was tall for a woman and even above average height for men of that era. Her talent in trades nearly exclusively practiced by men, further served to hide the secret of her gender.
Sampson enlisted twice in the Continental Army. Her first attempt failed when a local resident who knew her, revealed her gender. She successfully enlisted as Robert Shirtliff in the 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry several months later in a different Massachusetts town.
The 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry was not an accidental choice. This was a small elite unit that performed reconnaissance, advanced and rearguard service. Sampson apparently believed she could better hide for femininity within a smaller unity.
The 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry executed the more dangerous operations of reconnaissance, frontal assault, and rear-guard action. Sampson’s unit had a higher than average mortality rate.
On July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, Sampson suffered two musket ball wounds to the thigh and another to the head. Fearing her gender would be discovered she asked to be left on the battlefield rather than be carried to a field hospital for medical treatment. Her request was not granted.
The attending physician treated her head wound but Sampson limped away from the hospital before her thigh wounds could be addressed. Later, Sampson personally removed one musket ball from her thigh with a penknife and sewing needle. The other musket ball was too deep for her remove and remained in her thigh until her death in 1827. According to Hermann Mann, Deborah Sampson walked with a slight limp for the rest of her life.
In the summer of 1783, Deborah Sampson fell ill in Philadelphia. Dr. Barnabas Binney discovered her secret while providing her medical treatment. The doctor reported her secret to the army officials. She was later honorably discharged.
Deborah Sampson’s record of military service indicates Robert Shirtliff served honorably in the Continental Army, 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry from May 20, 1782, to October 25, 1783. But that is the end of Deborah Sampson’s story.
In 1794 the Massachusetts State Legislature awarded her back pay with interest for her years of service in the 4th Massachusetts Light Infantry. The first woman so recognized.
In 1804 the U.S. Congress granted Deborah Sampson a military pension. She was the first woman to ever receive a military pension. Paul Revere, a long-time friend of Sampson, wrote a letter to Massachusetts Congressman William Eustis urging this unprecedented action.
In 1816 Congress Sampson was awarded an invalid soldier pension retroactive to the date of her honorable discharge. This too was an unprecedented action.
Today a statue of Deborah Sampson stands outside the Sharon, Massachusetts Public Library. Her earthly remains rest in the Rock Ridge Cemetery, among those of several of my ancestors. She is among the many veterans whose blood was spilled on the battlefield for the freedom we all enjoy.
Terry Pettee is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where his undergraduate study prepared him for a career in secondary education. Prior to attending EMU, he was Editor-In-Chief of the Erie Square Gazette while a student at the St. Clair County Community College. Between his community college and university years he was Marysville Editor of the St. Clair County Independent Press where he was a newspaper reporter and columnist. After a brief teaching stint his life’s journey led him into human resource and industrial relations management; a career spanning four decades. Now retired, Terry writes both Christian value based fiction and non-fiction for his own amusement, which is babble-speak for saying he has only a single published book to his credit.
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