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Sister in Arms

How did a Revolutionary War soldier keep such a big secret for so long?

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To the doctor on duty in a Philadelphia military hospital one day shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War, the unconscious soldier Robert Shurtliff probably seemed like just another feverish body on another sweaty sickbed. But when the doctor put his hand on Shurtliff's chest in search of a pulse, he discovered that his patient suffered from a condition then extremely rare among soldiers--womanhood. As a later writer coyly put it, on Shurtliff's body were found the "breasts and other tokens of a female."

Shurtliff was the alias of a working-class Massachusetts woman named Deborah Sampson. Before her sex was revealed, she served for a year and a half, fighting in an elite combat unit and acting as a general's orderly. In later years she was the first American woman to embark on a lecture tour. Amazed audiences across New England heard her speak about her army service and watched her reenact military maneuvers, as she cried, "Take aim! Fire!" and "Charge bayonet!" Yet as curious as her story is, she's never gained the renown of Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, or other colonial icons.

Alfred Young, a senior research fellow at the Newberry Library and emeritus professor of history at Northern Illinois University, is hoping to make Sampson better known. He's the author of the first in-depth work on her, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, published by Knopf in February. He first encountered her over a decade ago, when he was putting together an exhibit on the American Revolution for the Newberry and stumbled on the book Sampson's contemporary Herman Mann wrote about her, The Female Review. Like everyone else who hears about Sampson, Young immediately wanted to know why she did it and how she got away with it.

Sampson grew up poor in the Massachusetts towns of Plympton and Middleborough, an indentured household servant from the time she was 10 until she was 18, then a spinner, weaver, and teacher. At about five foot seven, she was taller than most women and a good many men of her day. Middleborough residents who knew her as a young woman said years later that they "often thought as they looked on her stalwart form Deborah Sampson should have been a man." A surviving portrait of her shows a woman with long curls and feminine dress but severe features. As a free single female with her own, albeit meager, income, she was considered a "masterless woman." Her marriage prospects were slim, since she had no family connections, dowry, or property to attract a husband. But Young speculates that she may not have minded. He writes that she possessed "a kind of independence she was in no hurry to give up."

Maybe that independent spirit--or the bounty money given new recruits--led the 21-year-old Sampson to disguise herself as a man and enlist in the Continental Army under the name Timothy Thayer. She was recognized almost at once and later the act led her Baptist church to shun her. She reenlisted in another town as Robert Shurtliff. This time she wasn't discovered for 17 months.

Within a year of being discharged from the army she was married and pregnant with the first of her three children. She spent most of the rest of her life struggling to survive on a hardscrabble farm with her family and fighting for a veteran's pension, which she eventually won. When she died at 67 the only public notice was a brief newspaper obituary.

Sampson is the kind of figure Young has spent much of his career pursuing. Fascinated by the little-chronicled middle and lower classes of the Revolutionary era, he says they can make colonial times real to us in a way the wealthy and powerful leaders of the Revolution can't. (T.H. Breen explores a similar theme in The Marketplace of Revolution, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.) "The problem with the Revolution in popular history is that the same people get recycled over and over again," Young says. "The people who do the top-down history don't pay enough attention to the world the heroes are living in."

Young's previous book, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, explored the Revolution through the life of Boston shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes. When Young put together the Newberry exhibit he was looking for a working-class woman to chronicle, and Sampson seemed perfect. "I thought it would be easy," he says. "It wasn't."

Little primary source material on Sampson survives. She left behind only a short diary she kept during her lecture tour, two brief letters, and a few terse summaries of her military service. The Female Review, written by Mann 14 years after her discharge, is thick with embellishments, details plagiarized from other military memoirs, and outright fantasy. A drill sergeant who'd known Sampson in the army called the book "a novel not one fourth of which is fact."

"Mann just drove me crazy," says Young. Yet he couldn't completely dismiss the book as a source. "He talked to her, he knew her. She didn't reject him. So there has to be something there." Young picked the book apart as best he could. Sometimes he was able to distinguish fact from fiction; sometimes he could only point out plausibility and implausibility. Mann's account of the doctor discovering her "breasts and other tokens of a female," for example, isn't completely verifiable, though it seems probable enough.

Young tested Mann's claims against independent evidence such as military and tax records and records in Massachusetts historical societies. He also visited the three houses Sampson occupied--all of which had been remodeled--as well as the site of a military encampment where she'd stayed. "I have played detective," he writes, "hunting for small clues that might fit into the different jigsaw puzzles of her life."

The primary puzzle is how a woman--even a tall woman with a "stalwart form"--hid her gender for so long in the constant company of men. No physical exam was required to enlist, and she claimed to be a teenager, so her voice and lack of facial hair wouldn't have given her away. And she'd been chosen to serve in the light infantry, a branch of service reserved for the most fit, able, and daring men--which Young believes would have been "the last place in the army anyone would expect to see a woman dressed as a man."

Still, when Young visited a reconstructed log hut like the one Sampson lived in for part of her army service, he wondered if he'd fallen for a hoax. "I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had made a terrible mistake," he writes. "How could a woman have lived with six to eight men in these cramped quarters over a snowy winter and escaped detection?" After learning about the lax sanitation practices of soldiers--who slept in their clothes and didn't bathe much--he concluded that it was possible, especially since she wasn't there long. He also speculates that the stress must have been intense and she might have stopped menstruating. And when she became a "waiter," or orderly, to a general she was transferred to quarters where she probably had more privacy. Still, he writes, "no one could know the energy she poured into avoiding detection every moment of every day."

Young was interested in Sampson's entire life, not just the year and a half she spent in the military. One important question was how Robert Shurtliff, who'd enjoyed the wider scope of army life, made the transition to living as a poor farmwife in the sleepy town of Sharon, Massachusetts. He'd heard that a great-great-granddaughter of hers lived on Cape Cod and owned a diary that had belonged to Sampson, though he didn't know her phone number. "We were on vacation in Cape Cod, and I started phoning people in the telephone directory," he says. "I'd get hang-ups--'You're telling a wild story, wait'll I tell my husband!' and bang went the phone." Eventually he tracked the descendant down, only to discover that the diary belonged to another Revolutionary soldier. "But then she said, 'Would you like to see her dress?' They had it in a box." It turned out to be Sampson's wedding dress. It was a fashionable blue print dress, and he wondered if it had been chosen in an effort to quell neighborhood gossip about her masculine exploits in the army. She clearly knew that a woman who deliberately strayed into the male sphere risked gaining a reputation for licentiousness.

"You make discoveries like that very early, and it keeps you going," Young says, "but it also spoils you." For there was much drudgery ahead, digging through records for scraps of information. "You go a little bit crazy looking for stuff," he says. "I did develop a sense of obligation to the person to get her right. So you keep looking for tiny clues. You keep going and going. And it's a long pull."

His work was made harder because Sampson herself had a reason to fudge the details of her life: her fight for a veteran's pension. It was a fight not only for money, which she and her family sorely needed, but for recognition and respectability. So when Mann came along she seized the opportunity to shape the public's perception of herself.

By carefully choosing which stories she told Mann--among other things, he never knew about her first, failed attempt to enlist--she portrayed herself as a woman motivated to cross gender lines not out of a desire for independence or adventure, but for the purest of ideals: patriotism. "She was so good at playing somebody else," Young says. "The experience of passing as a man in the army must give her an enormous sense of her ability to fool people."

The lecture tour, undertaken a few years after the publication of Mann's book, offered Sampson a chance to gain support for her pension campaign. It was also a chance for her to escape the farm, if only temporarily. "She must have had enormous drive to go by herself on this tour," Young says. She traveled all over New England for nearly a year, delivering a speech Mann had written in which she tried to show that she'd been not brazen but deeply patriotic. She called her military service "a foible, an error and presumption" that "ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society," yet she didn't renounce the deception entirely. "I must frankly confess," she said, "I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction."

In World War II the government named a liberty ship after Sampson, but for the most part, Young writes, she's been "little more than a curiosity." He thinks one reason she isn't better known is the tenacious belief that "a woman who dresses like a man is doing it for romantic or sexual reasons." As late as the 1970s a librarian in a town where Sampson once lived said, "We are somewhat ashamed of Deborah here."

Her fame got a little boost with the advent of the women's movement and the relaxation of sexual standards, and in the 80s she was declared the state heroine of Massachusetts and honored with a statue in the town of Sharon. A children's book about her, The Secret Soldier, was published in 1999, and she appears as a character on the PBS cartoon Liberty Kids (her voice is provided by Whoopi Goldberg).

As Sampson has become better recognized, the number of dubious assertions about her has grown. She's often claimed by gay and lesbian groups, for example, largely because Mann claims that while in uniform Sampson had an affair with a woman. "I think this is very iffy evidence," says Young. He said so to the manager of a Web site that includes Sampson on a list of historic American gays and lesbians. "She just starts giving me hell--I'm a man and I don't understand these things and of course she would hide it." He sighs. "So as a historian you do your best to put together the record, and what people do with it . . ." His voice trails off.

With the help of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency--which represents Amy Tan, among others--Young has just sold the movie rights to Masquerade. "I think of myself as a historian who wants to get history out to the larger public," he says. "This is a way to reach people." But of course Hollywood can't exactly be counted on to stick to the truth more than anyone else.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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