For almost two years no one realized that Private Robert Shurtleff was actually a woman from Plympton, Massachusetts
Disney’s Mulan was a tale about a young outcast girl who broke every single rule and became a hero in China. After the emperor had called for at least one male member per household to join his army, Mulan disguised herself as male in order to take her father’s place in battle. Such acts of bravery are portrayed beautifully in this movie. But, truth is, Mulan was not the only woman who had to dress as a man in order to fight for her country. Deborah Sampson was an American soldier who disguised herself as a man in order to joined the patriot forces under the pseudonym of “Robert Shurtleff,” the name of her late brother. She became the first woman to ever earn a full military pension for her contributions during the war.
America was attempting to find independence from England and much of the lawmakers’ concentration went into the issue of war. Then again, they didn’t grant women the right to vote until the 19th amendment was passed in 1920, but we won’t get into that right now. Women weren't considered as equal to men in many aspects: physically, intellectually, and legally. Women were expected to stay home while they awaited for their husbands and sons to return from battle. Sampson was 20 years old and was about 5.7 feet tall: tall enough to disguised as a man. She felt in her heart a passion for justice and her love for her country drove her to the dangerous task of enlisting in the troops.
In 1782, Sampson was denied the right to fight so she cut her hair, put on men’s clothes, and toughened her voice. She successfully enlisted in the Continental Army, or at least Private Shurtleff did. She was assigned to Captain George Webb’s Company of Light Infantry. Her first tasks included scouting neutral territory, spying, and digging trenches. Later on, she would lead about 30 infantrymen to battle and she successfully helped capture up to 15 British enemy soldiers.
Sampson was deployed to the Hudson Valley, where she saw battle for the first time and was wounded twice. She would heal and treat her own wounds in order to avoid being discovered. For 17 months, she fought alongside her troops without anyone doubting her gender, until a medical treatment for severe fever in Philadelphia, which almost killed her, uncovered her masquerade. She feared the worst, they could've given her jail time for her deception stunt, but instead she was discharged with honors by General Henry Knox in October 1783.
A couple years later, Sampson had found difficulties getting a pension to survive. She launched a campaign to gain support and this drove predominant figures to support her. Her brave stories inspired silversmith and Paul Revere to send a letter to congressman William Eustis. In the letter he mentions that he found her "much more deserving than hundreds to whom Congress have been generous." She was placed on the US pension list in 1805. In 1981, the government of Massachusetts declared every May 23rd as her official day: the Deborah Sampson Day, state's official heroine.
During the Civil War, Frances Clayton dressed as "Frances Clalin" in order to fight in the war
Later on, during the US Civil War, hundred of women followed her techniques and disguised as men under male pseudonyms in order to enlist for battle. When Sampson returned home, she married and had three children. Her background as a school teacher gave her a platform for public speaking and she became a role model for girls during her time. According to historical records, she wore her military uniform with pride during social gatherings.
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