DEBORAH SAMPSON, born (d: 1827) was the first known American woman to impersonate a man to join the Army and take part in combat. Masquerading as “Robert Surtlieff,” she was the most famous female soldier of the American Revolution. Though her motives in fighting were patriotic, she had always shown great delight in wearing men’s clothing and in drinking “with the boys.” For both those “offenses,” in fact, she had been excommunicated from the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Mass. While in the army, Sampson developed a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man, and the stories of her exploits with women are too numerous to be anything but apocryphal. After serving seventeen months in the Continental Army (and being wounded in the Battle of Tarrytown), Deborah Sampson was discharged by General Henry Knox at West Point.
Eight years later, in January 1792, she petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay, which the army had withheld from her, since she was a woman. Her petition passed through the Senate and was approved, then signed by Governor John Hancock. The General Court of Massachusetts verified her service and wrote that she “exhibited an extraordinary instance of female heroism by discharging the duties of a faithful gallant soldier, and at the same time preserving the virtue and chastity of her sex, unsuspected and unblemished”. The court awarded her a total of thirty-four pounds.
Ten years after that, in 1802, began giving lectures about her experiences in the army. She was not only the first American female to cross-dress at the time war, but she was also the first woman to give a lecture. Deborah enjoyed speaking about serving her country. These speeches were initiated due to her own financial needs as well as a desire to justify her enlistment. But even with these speaking engagements, she was not making enough money to pay her expenses. She had to borrow money from her family and from her friend Paul Revere on many occasions. The soldiers in the Continental Army had received pensions for their services, but Sampson did not because she was female.
In 1804, Paul Revere wrote to Massachusetts’ representative, William Eustis, on Sampson’s behalf. Revere requested that Congress grant her a military pension. This had never before been requested by or for a woman, but with her health failing and family being destitute, the money was greatly needed. Revere wrote, “I have been induced to enquire her situation, and character, since she quit the male habit, and soldiers uniform; for the most decent apparel of her own sex; and 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.” On March 11, 1805 Congress in Washington obliged the letter, and placed her on the Massachusetts Invalid Pension Roll. This pension plan paid her four dollars a month.