Mulan was a modest Walt Disney animated hit that recast a possibly partially true Chinese legend about a young girl who disguised herself as a man in order to join the army. What most people don’t know is that one of the most interesting stories of the American revolution tells almost the exact same story not encumbered by quite as much myth and legend. Which isn’t to say the story of Deborah Sampson is completely free from fictionalization.
Deborah Sampson was an ancestor of William Bradford, one of the legendary governors of the Plymouth colony. By the time Deborah was born, however, her lineage had fallen on hard times. Her father was a farmer who took off one day and her mother sold her into indentured servitude to a man who would probably feel right at home in America today. A conservative, religious man who denied Deborah Sampson her request for an education because he simply could not figure out how education would be profitable to either him or her. Not to be denied, however, Deborah sought to educate herself and became a voracious reader, quickly learning that the world was a good bit more than what she had been allowed to think it was. Deborah Sampson became as fanatical a reader as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin and like those founding fathers she not only read, but actually comprehended what she read. It wasn’t just her mind that was developing, so were her aspirations as she began to apprehend that she herself had a part in making her own destiny. Democracy was taking shape inside the mind of the young indentured servant just as it was taking shape in Philadelphia.
At the same time that Deborah Sampson was gobbling up knowledge and learning how to do “women’s work” she was also becoming quite strong by working outside. Learn to cook and take care of the kids Deborah did, but she also added on some muscle mass that would serve her quite well at doing “men’s work” in a few years. Independence had been declared by the colonies just three short years before it was granted to Deborah Sampson
Eking out a living as a weaver and being put upon to marry and bear children result in a transitory life for Deborah at first. Her readings had convinced her that there was far more to life than what she knew, and she was hardly unaware of the revolution whirling around her. That revolution was, in fact, inspiring many other people to escape the drudgery of obscurity and declare their own independence. For the American Revolution was not simply a revolution in the sense of colonial independence, it was also a revolution of thought. The Age of Enlightenment throwing light everywhere on new ideas that covered everything from science to politics to even religion. The bridge that would allow Deborah Sampson to cross from obscurity to fame was, ironically, constructed upon a religious foundation.
Deborah Sampson’s quest for meaning led her to join a Baptist congregation. At this time the Baptists represented a less strict orthodoxy than other denominations for Deborah the Baptists symbolized for religion what the bloody revolution symbolized for political ideals. Just as the colonial soldiers were struggling to bring democracy to government, so the Baptists represented a more democratic form of worship. Unfortunately, the Baptists also enforcing strict Biblical precepts of morality and it was this gender-based unfairness that sent her to try enlisting as a man the first time. This was clearly transgression of God’s view of gender roles and so Deborah Sampson was punished when it was discovered what she’d tried to do. She was first censured by the Baptist church, and then threatened with prosecution.
Still, America’s Mulan was not to be denied. On May 20, 1782 a man named Robert Shurtliff enlisted in the Continental Army. A convergence of events helped Deborah Sampson in her attempt to get away with the unthinkable. This was during a time when every man-jack was necessary and few who enlisted were ever turned away. As a result of the urgent need for soldiers, she wasn’t even required to take a physical exam. She not only received a uniform, but a bonus as well.
But how did a woman get away with disguising herself as a man among other men in such intimate circumstances for so long? One possible explanation is that soldiers come to rely on their fellow men not just for camaraderie and protection, but also to stem the madness of war. The psychology of warfare demands a bare-bones relationship between soldiers with utter trust at the forefront, and there is no easier route to creating this kind of trust than to display bravery and competence in the heat of battle. The old standby that a woman must be twice as good at what she does as a man springs to mind here. Deborah Sampson was not just a soldier, not just a good soldier, but a standout soldier .
She was so good, in fact that Deborah Sampson eventually was promoted to the light infantry. Could it be mere coincidence that a quick wit and an advanced intelligence were the qualities most desired among light infantrymen? These qualities Deborah had in spades, but let’s be honest. It certainly was to her advantage that her superiors were incapable of believing that any woman could do the work she was doing. Another reason Deborah got away with her disguise as a man for so long had to do with the period of time. Soldier hygiene is never at the top of the list of necessities, but during the Revolutionary War it was near the bottom. Not being required to take a bath very often, she was quite easily able to avoid detection until the spring of 1783 when she was overcome with fever. After being admitted to a military hospital, her secret was discovered. As one more sign of just how good a soldier she was, Deborah Sampson was actually permitted an honorable discharge. Again, timing was with Sampson. The war had been won and transgressions such as Sampson’s were glossed over when a few years earlier they might have led instead to jail time.
After her discharge, Deborah Sampson’s life was anything but less interesting. She married and had children, sued for her pension, hired a ghostwriter to help with her autobiography which was highly fictionalized, and went on a speaking tour. In fact, it’s safe to say that Deborah Sampson became one of the first of the new breed of self-mythologized American heroes in the mold of such later examples as Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates. Her story is a mixture of half-truths and half-lies that may never be completely unraveled. If she were alive today, she’d be a frequent guest on Oprah and the producer of her own made-for-TV movie on Lifetime.