Deborah Sampson: Revolutionary War Soldier
Seventeenth in a series of articles commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.
In the spring of 1782, with the Revolutionary War in full tilt, Deborah Sampson dressed like a man and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Her disguise undetected, she fought bravely and honorably -- and shed blood for her country. Struck in the leg twice by pistol balls, she extracted one of them herself rather than go to the hospital, for fear of getting found out. The other remained in her leg the rest of her life.
Eventually Sampson was found out and got an honorable discharge, and after years of wrangling she also got a full military pension. She wrote a book, then launched a year-long lecture tour, becoming the first woman to speak from a stage in America. When she dressed in a Continental Army uniform, loaded her musket, and ran through 27 military gun maneuvers, audiences went wild.
Life as a Female Revolutionary War Soldier
March 24, 1802 -- Federal Street Theatre, Boston
Not unlike the example of the patriot and philanthropist, though perhaps perfectly so in effect, do I awake from the tranquil slumbers of retirement, to active, public scenes of life, like those which now surround me. That genius, which is the prompter of curiosity, and that spirit, which is the support of enterprise, early drove, or, rather allured me, from the corner of humble obscurity -- their cheering aspect has again prevented a torpid rest.
Secondary to these are the solicitations of a number of worthy characters and friends, too persuasive and congenial with my own disposition to be answered with indifference, or to be rejected, have induced me thus to advance and bow submissive to an audience, simply and concisely to rehearse a tale of truth; which, though it took its rise, and finally terminated in the splendor of public life, I was determined to repeat only as the soliloquy of a hermit, or to the visionary phantoms, which hover through the glooms of solitude.
A tale -- the truth of which I was ready to say, but which, perhaps, others have already said for me, ought to expel me from the enjoyment of society, from the acknowledgment of my own sex, and from the endearing friendship of the other. But this, I venture to pronounce, would be saying too much: For as I should thus not respect myself, should be entitled to none from others.
I indeed recollect it as a foible, an error and presumption, into which, perhaps, I have too inadvertently and precipitately run; but which I now retrospect with anguish and amazement -- recollect it, as a Thomson, or any other moralizing naturalist, susceptible to the like fine feelings of nature, recollects the howling blasts of winter, at a period when Florahas strewed the earth with all her profusion of delicacies, and whose zephyrs are wasting their fragrance to heighten our sensations of tranquility and pleasure; or, rather, perhaps, I ought to recollect it, as a mariner, having regained his native shore of serenity and peace, looks back on the stormy billows which, so long and so constantly had threatened to engulf him in the bowels of the deep! And yet I must frankly confess, I recollect it with a kind of satisfaction, which no one can better conceive and enjoy than him, who, recollecting the good intentions of a bad deed, lives to see and to correct any indecorum of his life.
But without further preliminary apologies, yet with every due respect towards this brilliant and polite circle, I hasten to a review of the most conspicuous parts of that path, which led to achievements, which some have believed, but which many still doubt. Their accomplishment once seemed to me as impossible, as that I am author of them, is now incredible to the incredulous, or wounding to the ear of more refined delicacy and taste. They are a breach in the decorum of my sex, unquestionably; and, perhaps, too unfortunately ever irreconcilable with the rigid maxims of the moralist; and a sacrifice, which, while it may seem perfectly incompatible with the requirements of virtue -- and which of course must ring discord in the ear, and disgust to the bosom of sensibility and refinement, I must be content to leave to time and the most scrutinizing enquiry to disclose.
Unlettered in any scholastic school of erudition, you will not expect, on this occasion, the entertainment of the soft and captivating sounds of eloquence; but rather a narration of facts in a mode as uncouth as they are unnatural. Facts which, though I once experienced, and of which memory has ever been painfully retentive, I cannot now make you feel, or paint to the life.
Know then, that my juvenile mind early became inquisitive to understand -- not merely whether the principles, or rather the seeds of war are analogous to the genuine nature of man -- not merely to know why he should forego every trait of humanity, and to assume the character of a brute; or, in plainer language, why he should march out tranquilly, or in a paroxysm of rage against his fellow-man, to butcher, or be butchered? For these, alas! were too soon horribly verified by the massacres in our streets, in the very streets which encompass this edifice -- in yonder adjacent villas, on yonder Lexington, and the adjacent towns and hamlets, when the British marched out of Boston to destroy the military stores at Concord, memorable eminence, where now stand living monuments of the atrocious, the heart-distracting, mementoes scenes, that followed in rapid succession!
This I am ready to affirm, though it may be deemed unnatural in my sex, is not a demoralization of human nature. The sluices, both of the blood of freemen and of slaves, were first opened here. And those hills and valleys, once the favorite resort, both of the lover and philosopher, have been drunk with their blood! A new subject was then opened to the most pathetic imagination, and to the rousing of every latent spark of humanity, one should think, in the bosoms of the wolves, as well as in those of the sheep, for whose blood they were so thirsty.
But most of all, my mind became agitated with the enquiry -- why a nation, separated from us by an ocean more than 3,000 miles in extent, should endeavor to enforce on us plans of subjugation, the most unnatural in themselves, unjust, inhuman, in their operations, and unpracticed even by the uncivilized savages of the wilderness? Perhaps nothing but the critical juncture of the times could have excused such a philosophical disquisition of politics in woman, notwithstanding it was a theme of universal speculation and concern to man. We indeed originated from her, as from a parent, and had, perhaps, continued to this period in subjection to her mandates, had we not discovered, that this, her romantic, avaricious and cruel disposition extended to murder, after having bound the slave!
Confirmed by this time in the justness of a defensive war on the one side, from the most aggravated one on the other -- my mind ripened with my strength; and while our beds and our roses were sprinkled with the blood of indiscriminate youth, beauty, innocence and decrepit old age, I only seemed to want the license to become one of the severest avengersof the wrong.
For several years I looked on these scenes of havoc, rapacity and devastation, as one looks on a drowning man, on the conflagration of a city -- where are not only centered his coffers of gold, but with them his choicest hopes, friends, companions, his all -- without being able to extend the rescuing hand to either.
Wrought upon at length, you may say, by an enthusiasm and frenzy, that could brook no control -- I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity, which custom and the world seemed to deny, as a natural privilege. And whilst poverty, hunger, nakedness, cold and disease had dwindled the American Armies to a handful -- whilst universal terror and dismay ran through our camps, ran through our country -- while even Washington himself, at their head, though like a god, stood, as it were, on a pinnacle tottering over the abyss of destruction, the last prelude to our falling a wretched prey to the yawning jaws of the monster aiming to devour -- not merely for the sake of gratifying a facetious curiosity, like that of my reputed Predecessor, in her romantic excursions through the garden of bliss -- did I throw off the soft habiliments of my sex and assume those of the warrior, already prepared for battle.
Thus I became an actor in that important drama, with an inflexible resolution to persevere through the last scene; when we might be permitted and acknowledged to enjoy what we had so nobly declared we would possess, or lose with our lives -- freedom and independence! When the philosopher might resume his researches unmolested -- the statesman be disembarrassed by his distracting theme of national politics -- the divine find less occasion to invoke the indignation of heaven on the usurpers and cannibals of the inherent rights and even existence of man -- when the son should again be restored to the arms of his disconsolate parent, and the lover to the bosom of her, for whom indeed he is willing to jeopard his life, and for whom alone he wishes to live!
A new scene, and, as it were, a new world now opened to my view; the objects of which now seemed as important, as the transition before seemed unnatural. It would, however, here be a weakness in me to mention the tear of repentance, or of that of temerity, from which the stoutest of my sex are, or ought not to be, wholly exempt on extreme emergencies, which many times involuntarily stole into my eye, and fell unheeded to the ground: And that too before I had reached the embattled field, the ramparts, which protected its internal resources -- which shielded youth, beauty, and the delicacy of that sex at home, which perhaps I had forfeited in turning volunteer in their defense. Temeritis -- when reflections on my former situation, and this new kind of being, were daggers more frightful, than all the implements of war -- when the rustling of every leaf was an omen of danger, the whisper of each wind, a tale of woe! If then the poignancy of thought stared me thus haggardly in the face, found its way to the inmost recesses of my heart, thus forcibly, in the commencement of my career, what must I not have anticipated before its close!
The curtain is now up -- a scene opens to your view; but the objects strike your attention less forcibly, and less interestingly, than they then did, not only my own eyes, but every energetic sensation of my soul. What shall I say further? Shall I not stop short, and leave to your imaginations to portray the tragic deeds of war? Is it not enough, that I here leave it even to unexperience to fancy the hardships, the anxieties, the dangers, even of the best life of a soldier? And were it not improper, were it not unsafe, were it not indelicate, and were I certain I should be intitled to a pardon, I would appeal to the soft bosom of my own sex to draw a parallel between the perils and sexual inconveniences of a girl in her teens, and not only in the armor, but in the capacity, at any rate, obliged to perform the duties in the field — and those who go to the camp without a masquerade, and consequently subject only to what toils and sacrifices they please: Or, will a conclusion be more natural from those who sometimes take occasion to complain by their own domestic fire-sides; but who, indeed, are at the same time in affluence, cherished in the arms of their companions, and sheltered from the storms of war by the rougher sex in arms?
Many have seen, and many can contemplate, in the field of imagination, battles and victories amidst garments rolled in blood: but it is only one of my own sex, exposed to the storm, who can conceive of my situation.
We have all heard of, many have doubtless seen, the meteor streaming through or breaking in the horizon the terrific glare of the comet, in its approach towards, or in its declension from us, in its eccentric orbit the howling of a tempest the electric fluid, which darts majesty and terror through the clouds -- its explosion and tremendous effects! Bostonians, and you who inhabit its environs, you who have known from experience your houses and your hills tremble from the cannonade of Charlestown, your ears are yet wounded by the shrieks of her mangled and her distressed -- your eyes swimming in a deluge of anguish at the sight of our butchered, expiring relatives and friends; while the conflagration of the town added the last solemnity to the scene!
This idea must assimilate with the progress of this horrid delusion of war. Hence you can behold the parched soil of White-Plains drink insatiate the blood of her most peaceful and industrious proprietors -- of freemen, and of slaves! I was there! The recollection makes me shudder! A dislocated limb draws fresh anguish from my heart!
You may have heard the thunderings of a volcano. You may have contemplated, with astonishment and wonder, the burial of a city by its eruption. Your ears then are yet deafened from the thunderings of the invasion of York Town. Your eyes dazzled, your imaginations awfully sublimed, by the fire which belched from its environs, and towered, like that from an eruption of Etna, to the clouds! Your hearts yet bleed, from every principle of humanity, at the recollection of the havoc, carnage and death that reigned there!
Three successive weeks, after a long and rapid march, found me amidst this storm. But, happy for America, happy for Europe, perhaps for the World, when, on the delivery of Cornwallis’s sword to the illustrious, the immortal Washington, or rather by his order, to the brave Lincoln, the sun of Liberty and Independence burst through a sable cloud, and his benign influence was, almost instantaneously, felt in our remotest corners! The phalanx of war was thus broken through, and the palladium of peace blossoming on its ruins.
I will not hence urge you to retrace with me (tranquilly you surely cannot) all the footsteps of our valiant heroic leaders through the distraction both of elements and of war. I will not even portray an attempt to reinforce the brave Schuyler, then on the borders of Canada; where, if the war-whoop of infernals should not strike you with dismay, the tomahawk would soon follow!
Nor need I point you to the death-like doors of the hospital in Philadelphia, whose avenues were crowded with the sick, the dying and the dead; though myself made one of the unhappy crowd!
You have now but the shade of a picture; which neither time nor my abilities will permit me to show you to the life. The haggard fiend, despair, may have stared you in the face, when giving over the pursuit of a favorite, lost child: And it is only in this torture of suspense that we can rightly conceive of its situation.
Such is my experience, not that I ever mourned the loss of a child, but that I considered myself as lost! For, on the one hand, if I fell not a victim to the infuriate rabble of a mob, or of a war not yet fully terminated -- a disclosure of my peculiar situation seemed infinitely worse than either. And if from stratagem and perseverance, I may acquire as great knowledge in every respect as I have of myself in this, my knowledge, at least of human nature, will be as complete as it is useful.
But we will now hasten from the field, from the embattled entrenchments, built for the destruction of man, from a long, desolating war, to contemplate more desirable and delightful scenes. And notwithstanding curiosity may prompt any to retrace the climax of our revolution, the means, under a smiling, superintending providence, by which we have outrode the storms of danger and distress, what heart will forget to expand with joy and gratitude, to beat in unison, at the propitious recollection? And I enquire, what infant tongue can ever forget or cease being taught to lisp the praises of Washington, and those of that bright constellation of worthies, who swell the list of Columbian fame -- those, by whose martial skill and philanthropic labors, we were first led to behold, after a long and stormy night, the smiling sun of Peace burst on our benighted world! And while we drop a tear over the flowery turf of those patriots and sages, may she unrivalled enjoy and increase her present bright sunshine of happiness! May agriculture and commerce, industry and manufactures, arts and sciences, virtue and decorum, union and harmony -- those richest sources of our worth, and strongest pillars of our strength, become stationary, like fixed stars in the firmament, to flourish in her clime!
Hail dearest Liberty! thou source sublime!
What rays refulgent dart upon our clime!
For thee the direful contest has been waged,
Our hope, and all that life held dear engaged.
Thee the prime offspring which my thoughts employ,
Once sought with grief — now turns that grief to joy.
Your beatific influence extend
O’er Africa, whose sable race befriend.
May Europe, as our sister-empire, join.
To hail thee rising with your power divine,
From the lone cottage to the tyrant’s throne,
May Liberty, ethereal guest, be known!
Be thou preserved for nations yet unborn,
Fair as the shining Star that decks the morn.
But the question again returns: What particular inducement could she have thus to elope from the soft sphere of her own sex, to perform a deed of valor by way of sacrilege on unhallowed ground -- voluntarily to face the storms both of elements and war, in the character of him, who is more fitly made to brave and endure all danger?
And dost thou ask what fairy hand inspired
A Nymph to be with martial glory fired?
Or, what from art, or yet from nature’s laws,
Has join’d a Female to her country’s cause?
Why on great Mars’s theatre she drew
Her female portrait, though in soldier’s hue?
Then ask why Cincinnatus left his farm?
Why science did old Plato’s bosom warm?
Why Hector in the Trojan war should dare?
Or why should Homer trace his actions there?
Why Newton in philosophy has shown?
Or Charles, for solitude, has left his throne?
Why Locke in metaphysics should delight —
Precisian sage, to set false reason right?
Why Albion’s sons should kindle up a war?
Why Jove or Vulcan hurried on the car?
Perhaps the same propensity you use,
Has prompted her a martial course to choose.
Perhaps to gain refinements where she could,
This rare achievement for her country’s good.
Or was some hapless lover from her torn —
As Emma did her valiant Hammon mourn?
Else he must tell, who would this truth attain,
Why one is formed for pleasure -- one for pain:
Or, boldly, why our Maker made us such --
Why here he gives too little -- there too much!
I would not purposely evade a a pertinent answer; and yet I know not, at present, how to give a more particular one than has already been suggested.
I am indeed willing to acknowledge what I have done, an error and presumption. I will call it an error and presumption, because I swerved from the accustomed flowery paths of female delicacy, to walk upon the heroic precipice of feminine perdition! I indeed left my morning pillow of roses, to prepare a couch of brambles for the night; and yet I awoke from this refreshed, to gather naught but the thorns of anguish for the next night’s repose and in the precipitancy of passion, to prepare a moment for repentance at leisure!
Had all this been achieved by the rougher hand, more properly assigned to wield the sword in duty and danger in a defensive war, the most cruel in its measures, though important in its consequences; these thorns might have been converted into wreaths of immortal glory and fame. I therefore yield every claim of honor and distinction to the hero and patriot, who met the foe in his own name; though not with more heartfelt satisfaction, with the trophies, which were most to redound to the future grandeur and importance of the country in which he lives.
But repentance is a sweet solace to conscience, as well as the most complete atonement to the Supreme Judge of our offences: notwithstanding the tongue of malevolence and scurrility may be continually preparing its most poisonous ingredients for the punishment of a crime which has already received more than half a pardon.
Yet if even this be deemed too much of an extenuation of a breach in the modesty of the female world -- humiliated and contented will I sit down inglorious, for having unfortunately performed an important part assigned for another -- like a bewildered star traversing out of its accustomed orbit, whose twinkling beauty at most has become totally obscured in the presence of the sun.
But as the rays of the sun strike the eye with the greatest luster when emerging from a thick fog, and as those actions which have for their objects the extended hand of charity to the indigent and wretched -- to restore a bewildered traveler to light -- and to reform in ourselves any irregular and forlorn course of life; so, allowing myself to be one or the greatest of these, do I still hope for some claim on the indulgence and patronage of the public; as in such case I might be conscious of the approbation of my God.
I cannot, contentedly, quit this subject or this place, without expressing, more emphatically, my high respect and veneration for my own sex. The indulgence of this respectable circle supersedes my merit, as well as my most sanguine expectations. You receive at least in return my warmest gratitude. And though you can neither have, or perhaps need, from me the instructions of the sage, or the advice of the counsellor; you surely will not be wholly indifferent to my most sincere declaration of friendship for that sex, for which this checkered flight of my life may have rendered me the least ornamental example; but which, neither in adversity or prosperity, could I ever learn to forget or degrade.
I take it to be from the greatest extremes both in virtue and in vice, that the uniformly virtuous and reformed in life can derive the greatest and most salutary truths and impressions. Who, for example, can contemplate for a moment, the prodigal from the time of his revelry with harlots, to that of his eating husks with swine, and to his final return to his father without the greatest emotion of disgust, pity and joy? And is it possible to behold the effects of the unprincipled conduct of the libertine, the bacchanalian, the debauchee, and what is more wretched of all, of the emaciated, haggard form of a modern baggage in the streets, without bringing into exercise every passion of abhorrence and commiseration? And yet, happy, those, who at the same time receive a monitor which fixes a resolve, never to embark on such a sea of perdition; where we see shipwreck of all that is ennobling to the dignity of man -- all that is lovely and amiable in the character of woman!
I cannot, indeed, bring the adventures, even of the worst part of my own life, as parallels with this black catalogue of crimes. But in whatever I may be thought to have been unnatural, unwise and indelicate, it is now my most fervent desire it may have a suitable impression on you -- and on me, a penitent for every wrong thought and step. The rank you hold in the scale of beings is, in many respects, superior to that of man. Nurses of his growth, and invariable models of his habits, he becomes a suppliant at your shrine, emulous to please, assiduous to cherish and support, to live and to die for you! Blossoms from your very birth, you become his admiration, his joy, his Eden companions in this world. How important then is it, that these blossoms bring forth such fruit, as will best secure your own delights and felicity, and those of him, whose every enjoyment, and even his very existence, is so peculiarly interwoven with your own!
On the whole, as we readily acquiesce in the acknowledgment, that the field and the cabinet are the proper spheres assigned to our masters and our lords; may we, also, deserve the dignified title and encomium of mistress and lady, in our kitchens and in our parlors. And as an overruling providence may succeed our wishes let us rear an offspring in every respect worthy to fill the most illustrious stations of their predecessors.
Source: Gannett, Deborah Sampson. An Address Delivered in 1802 in Various Towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York by Mrs. Deborah Sampson Gannett of Sharon Massachusetts, A Soldier of the American Revolution, (Reprinted by the Sharon Historical Society, With an Introduction by Eugene Tappan, Corresponding Secretary of the Society (Boston: Press of H.M. Hight) 1905.