Sensible portrait of Deborah Sampson, a.k.a. Robert Shurtliff, soldier in the American Revolution.
Sampson wasn’t the first woman to try to pass as a man to gain entry into the Continental Army, but she was the most successful, writes Young (History Emeritus/Northern Illinois Univ.; The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, not reviewed). Not only did she serve for an impressive 17 months, but she was neither thrown in jail nor drummed out of town to the tune of the “whore’s march.” (This, Young suggests, may have been because she wasn’t looking for a husband and had been wounded in battle.) But what was she doing masquerading as a soldier? The author turns for enlightenment to a memoir Sampson wrote with the florid aid of Herman Mann, deciphering what he can of the true story from Mann’s obvious and not-so-obvious embellishments. Young comes at the memoir from an angle, looking for slender clues, details, and corroboration, trying to match them up against other oral histories. His tone is humble, knowing full well he is on sketchy ground, but the toeholds he finds for his ideas are solid. These range from the spirit of disguise that was loose on the land (remember the Boston Tea Party?) to the plebian tradition of warrior women, from the scant prospects of a former indentured servant to Sampson’s defiant, rebellious nature. She was that “ultimate threat: a woman ‘who wore the breeches.’ ” All of this comes out as Young charts Sampson’s early life, her years of notoriety, and her demands for veterans’ pension, pointing to the paradox of this iconoclast flirting with conformity within her nonconformity. Sampson was a model soldier, she married, she even apologized.
Cuts through the murk and blarney to suggestively analyze a curious figure. (31 illustrations, 3 maps)