Little is known of Deborah Sampson, a young Massachusetts woman who, disguised as a man, fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. This is not surprising as her actions were surely an affront to many in a patriarchal society.
However, Jan Lewis Nelson, following years of exhaustive research, which included a period in which she lived in the house Deborah grew up in, used her story as the basis for a richly imaginative historical novel, “The Memoir of a Female Soldier: Deborah Sampson’s American Revolution.” The book was long in the making, and although Jan, a long-time Berkshire resident with her husband Steve, passed away in 2020, Steve has seen it through to publication.
The book is written in sections alternating between Sampson, writing her memoir in 1805 while confronting the issues of the day, and the young Sampson’s adventures. (The section looking back at the Revolutionary War is in italics to differentiate.) It is a clever conceit that gives readers both the story and the older Sampson’s reflections upon it.
The young Sampson is a woman ahead of her time, chafing under the rigid restrictions placed upon her gender. Not only are her options limited but by learning to read she was made aware of what she was missing.
The Boston Tea Party, which took place not far from her home in eastern Massachusetts, excited the 13-year-old Deborah while demonstrating the irony of an escalating fight for liberty by men who denied women their rights. Deborah’s decision to disguise herself as a man and enlist at age 22 — taller than most women, her height gave her a chance to pull it off — arose organically and inevitably over the years. It was her only real option, but discovery would bring shame to her family and ostracism from society.
Enlisting in the 1st Massachusetts Brigade, Deborah — now Private Robert Shurtlieff — spent most of the war in New York’s Hudson Valley. Nelson ably captures the struggles of underfed soldiers confronting illness and the vagaries of weather. When a battle erupts it is described with all the graphic detail of a brutal war fought up close with muskets and swords.
The elder Sampson suffers from the after effects of a bullet wound that couldn’t be treated by a doctor without her secret being revealed. Denied a pension by a patriarchal Congress and with the family farm struggling financially, Sampson had hoped to sell her story in book form. However, her biography, “The Female Review,” was not a success, and the publisher’s insistence that facts be embellished — Sampson supposedly fought at Yorktown — left her determined to write her own memoir to set the record straight and make another attempt at desperately needed financial reward.
Amusingly, Sampson expresses her frustration with her daughter Mary, a budding princess determined to marry well, and the frivolous concerns of the younger generation. Sampson’s prospective son-in-law, Judson, who wants to go to sea to make his fortune in trade, and her son, Earl, who plans to help settle the Ohio territory, are representative of both the excitement and the dangers of the early days of the American adventure.
Nelson makes good use of historic figures in her novel, most prominently American commander George Washington, whose dignity and determination inspire Robert and his “fellow” troops. Her brigade commander, General John Paterson, recognized Shurtlieff’s skills and made him/her his aide, and was in fact a resident of Lenox who recruited Berkshire men to fight in the war and served as a Lenox selectman.
The book is written in the formal vernacular of the period, which gives it added verisimilitude. It surely required considerable research and discipline on the part of Nelson to master this style, and being addressed as "Patient Reader" or "Dear Reader" is flattering. That style lends itself to periodic recaps of what was written a few pages earlier, leading to some redundant passages that make the novel somewhat longer than necessary.
Nelson’s “The Memoir of a Female Soldier” tells a remarkable story in the context of the American Revolution and provides a look at life in Massachusetts during that period and in the decades immediately after. It’s a unique addition to Revolutionary War literature.
"The Memoir of a Female Soldier: Deborah Sampson's American Revolution" by Jan Lewis Nelson
Published by: Massaemett Media