Private Deborah Sampson, ‘The Female Soldier’

WASHINGTON, DC – There are those who would say that Private Deborah Sampson deserved the Medal of Honor, but she didn’t sign up for that; she joined the Army to fight for her country and wound up making history. Private Sampson was America’s first woman combat soldier. She served, disguised as a man by the name of Robert Shurtleff, under the command of General George Washington in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Her story was not well told, if it was told at all, until President Trump immortalized her when he signed into law the Deborah Sampson Act in early January of this year, about two weeks before he left office. The bill was long overdue as it corrected a wrong in the way our female veterans were treated by the Veterans Administration.

The legislation, introduced by Senator John Boozman [R-AR] and Senator Jon Tester [D-MT] “eliminates barriers to care and services many women veterans face and helps ensure the VA can address the needs of women veterans who are more likely to face homelessness, unemployment and lack of access to needed health care.”

Private Sampson, the first woman to earn a full military pension, could have used that kind of care, herself, after she bravely completed her service in the Continental Army’s Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. She had joined the Army by disguising herself as a man and for some two years she traded bullets with British partisans and militiamen in numerous confrontations.

In one fight, it is reported, she took a nasty blow to the head from a sword wielded by an enemy combatant — and she was shot in the thigh, to boot. Private Sampson received other wounds, including a bullet wound to her shoulder. Finally, in 1783, while on a mission in Philadelphia, she came down with a high fever and passed out. She was taken to a hospital where her doctor discovered her true gender and was honorably discharged at West Point on October 25, 1783.

She married after the war, had three children and adopted a fourth. She petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for back pay for her service in the army and was awarded 34 pounds [about 7,000 in today’s dollars].

It is said of Deborah Sampson that, in the Revolutionary War, no citizen or soldier “furnished no other similar example of female heroism, fidelity and courage.” Private Sampson died in Sharon, Massachusetts on April 29, 1827. She was 66 years old. Her headstone refers to her, simply, as “The Female Soldier.”

As for the Deborah Sampson Act, the consensus is that it was long overdue. Here is Senator Boozman’s list of what the new law does:

  • Empowers women veterans by expanding group counseling for veterans and their family members and call centers for women veterans,
    Improves the quality of care for infant children of women veterans by increasing the number of days of maternity care VA facilities can provide,
  • Eliminates barriers to care by increasing the number of gender-specific providers in VA facilities, training clinicians and retrofitting VA facilities to enhance privacy and improve the environment of care for women veterans,
  • Improves the collection and analysis of data regarding women veterans, expands outreach by centralizing all information for women veterans in one easily accessible place on the VA website and requires the VA to report on the availability of prosthetics made for women veterans.

-Association of Mature American Citizens [AMAC] Release

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