Today, May 23, is Deborah Sampson Day, honoring the remarkable exploits of a gender-twisting female Revolutionary War hero and trailblazing public speaker.
On this day in 1782, disguised as a man, Sampson was mustered into the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army.
She’d cut her hair, bound her chest, and, dressed in man’s clothes, enlisted under the name “Robert Shurtliff.” Deployed to the Hudson Valley, she fought honorably as a light infantryman alongside her fellow soldiers.
For two centuries, Sampson’s extraordinary accomplishments were hardly known. . . . now we should all celebrate her.
She shed blood for her country-to-be. Twice she was wounded — lacerated in the head, and shot in the leg with musket balls. One of the balls she extracted herself, the other was embedded in her leg the rest of her life.
Sampson’s disguise was revealed when she fell ill with fever and was treated at a hospital near Philadelphia. Honorably discharged, she wrangled with the new American government for a decade to receive her withheld salary and a full military pension.
Her military career behind her, Sampson launched an equally extraordinary commercial venture. She wrote a memoir about her military service, The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady.
And then she embarked on a year-long lecture tour, becoming the first woman to speak from a stage in America.
In the spring of 1802, Sampson performed four times at the Federal-Street Theatre in Boston, explaining to her audience why she had: “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.”
I burst the tyrant bands, which held my sex in awe, and clandestinely, or by stealth, grasped an opportunity. . .
Sampson delivered her speech as a woman. Then she disappeared behind the curtain and reappeared, this time in a blue and white Continental Army uniform, with a musket, and ran through 27 gun maneuvers — the soldier’s “manual exercise of arms.”
Audiences went wild.
Over the next year, Sampson traveled by horse, by wagon, by cart, to perform on stage in a dozen cities, places like Northampton, Providence, Schenectady, and New York City, promoting her book and earning her living as a paid professional speaker.
Sampson died of yellow fever in 1827 and is buried in Sharon, Massachusetts — where she’s celebrated as a hometown hero.
For two centuries, Sampson’s extraordinary accomplishments were hardly known. Historians overlooked her.
In 1983, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis declared Deborah Sampson the “Official Heroine of the Commonwealth.” In 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick declared May 23 “Deborah Sampson Day.”
Now we should all celebrate her.
You can watch Deborah Sampson come to life in actress Judith Kalaora’s one-woman virtual performance, A Revolution of Her Own!
I watched it this past week with pleasure — great fun for children of all ages, including grown-up kids, history nerds, and women’s speech enthusiasts like myself.
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