Private Robert Shurtleff

“Private Robert Shurtleff,” Friend, Mar. 1976, 48

Private Robert Shurtleff

One of the true and exciting stories in the history of the United States Army is that of Deborah Sampson who volunteered for service in the Continental army of 1782. She was wounded three times and was a veteran of several military campaigns. Deborah was such a good soldier that she was transferred to Philadelphia to serve as an orderly for General Patterson.

Ironically, the move from a combat area to one that was relatively secure proved to be her undoing. For it was in the City of Brotherly Love that a doctor discovered Deborah’s secret that she had been masquerading as a man and serving in the army as Pvt. Robert Shurtleff.

Deborah was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1760. After the death of her father and illness of her mother when she was only eight, she spent the early part of her life as a general handywoman and as an indentured servant (a person who agrees to work for his keep for a certain length of time). But Deborah was not content to always be a servant even though she was strong and tall—about five feet eight inches high. She taught herself to read and by the time she was twenty she was able to find work as a teacher. Using twelve dollars she had saved from her new profession, she bought enough cloth to make herself a suit of men’s clothes. As each article was completed, she hid it in some hay.

When all was ready, she wrapped a bandage tightly around her chest, assumed her new identity, hiked seventy-five miles to Worcester, Massachusetts, and became Pvt. Robert Shurtleff, the newest member of Captain George Webb’s Fourth Massachusetts Regiment.

None of her comrades suspected that a woman had joined their ranks, and the lack of beard and mustache was attributed to the recruit’s youth. So she joined her comrades in arms without experiencing any insurmountable obstacles.

Deborah’s first wound was a sabre slash across the left side of her head. Practically self-healing, it did not require the services of a doctor. Her second wound, however, was caused by a musket ball that pierced her thigh. Frightened at the thought of detection, Deborah crawled away from a field dressing station and treated the wound herself. That musket ball remained embedded in her thigh for the rest of her life.

Finally, it was a doctor in Philadelphia who made, what must have been for him, a truly remarkable discovery. Deborah had been stricken by “malignant fever” and, close to death, she was taken to a hospital. Unable to move, she could only lie in pain and misery as Doctor Binney decided to check her heartbeat. We can only imagine the doctor’s surprise when he encountered the tight bandage Deborah always kept wrapped around her upper torso. But the doctor kept the secret to himself and transferred Deborah to his own home to recuperate.

Although Deborah had never been one to turn a man’s head, she did apparently present a magnetic appearance as a disabled soldier. One writer even claims that Doctor Binney’s young niece fell in love with the dashing young soldier who bore a scar across her face as testimony to her heroism.

Later, when Doctor Binney finally revealed Deborah’s secret to General Patterson, General Washington himself authorized Private Shurtleff’s discharge from the service, and Deborah returned to Massachusetts in November 1783.

She was married in 1784, and in time she became the mother of four children. Deborah died on April 29, 1827, at the age of 67.

In memory of this daring woman patriot, a street in Sharon, Massachusetts, was named after her. And on April 10, 1944, a Liberty Ship bearing her name was christened.

Illustrated by Cary