Saturday, November 2, 2013


Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. By Alfred F. Young. (New York: Knopf, 2004. x, 417 pp. $26.95, ISBN 0-679-44165-4.)

Deborah Sampson was not one to sit idle amidst the backdrop of unrest and Revolution.  In many ways, she broke the many barriers in a man’s world turned upside down by armed rebellion.  Growing up in hardship as a child and eventually becoming a weaver, she yearned to become more active in the revolutionary cause of her generation.  Disguising herself as a man, she unsuccessfully attempted to enlist in the Continental Army on multiple occasions up through 1781.  The following year, however, she finally met success and enlisted under the male pseudonym Robert Shurtleff and remained there for well over one year.  Overcoming skirmishes with Native Americans, restoring order in response to pay riots, and enduring grievous illness, Sampson’s tale has evolved into perhaps one of the most romanticized fables in the history of the American Revolution.

But that is where trouble begins for the historians attempting to delve into the story of Sampson’s life.  Much like the embellished story of Sybil Ludington, the romanticized female version of Paul Revere, Sampson’s historical persona grew to heights largely unparalleled in the realm of the founding generation.  For over four decades following the conflict, she reportedly kept her alter ego a secret.  By the early 1790s, however, she made her case public in the hopes of obtaining a federal pension for her service.  In the ensuing years, her 1797 biography was haphazardly recorded by a writer named Herman Mann, who fabricated information and elevated Sampson to cult hero status.  (She had little objection to this agenda, though, for it assisted her in the larger scheme of things.)  As a result, she did in fact receive a pension, followed by a subsequent lecture tour around the young nation—the first of its kind performed by a woman.  Alfred F. Young, author of Masquerade, believes this post-war action to perhaps be even more culturally and socially significant than Sampson’s actions in the Revolution itself.

Young’s approach toward interpreting Sampson’s life is creative, in-depth, and at times unorthodox.  Much like Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, Young’s Masquerade attempts to truly delve into the mind, thoughts, and motivations of his protagonist.  The author asks hypothetical questions of his readers—telling them not only what was, but what might have been.  Young reads Sampson’s enthusiasm, energy, and patriotic zeal through her attempts at enlistment and her willingness to remain in the ranks despite frequently harsh conditions.  He even considers questions regarding her disguise: How did she conceal her gender amidst living with hundreds of men?  Was she boyish looking?  Manly in appearance?  He takes readers step by step through the process of her secret identity and presents the issue as Sampson herself may have considered it.

Much like his insightful study on American memory and the Revolution in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, Young mixes strong historical research with myths from popular culture to present a complete story with its facts and its fictions.  Sampson’s exploits during the Revolution were notable, but then again so was the manner in which her (sometimes skewed) tale was remembered by the masses.  This saga also coincides with the new social history of the nation from “the bottom up.”  Sampson came to represent the trying efforts of unsung women during the Revolutionary era.  This point, Young argues, is crucial in understanding the significance of the Sampson tale.  Although her true identity was discovered by a military physician during her illness in 1783, he kept her secret hidden.  Could this action not have meant that female soldiers could indeed gain deserved respect in an all-male military?  The book speaks not solely to Sampson’s individual courage as a Continental infantryman, but to a generation of revolutionary women who worked and suffered for a cause they too had ardent conviction in.

Perhaps Young’s greatest difficulty in authoring this fascinating book was separating the historical truth from decades of obfuscation, tall tales, and Mann’s hyperbole.  In this task, he succeeds quite commendably—not necessarily by crushing all the suspect colorful stories surrounding Sampson’s experiences, but by offering the reader multiple scenarios.  Through this methodology, one can estimate how an historical event occurred and/or why it was commemorated in the manner it was.  Young’s innovative approach in depicting the sometimes puzzling Sampson not only presents new perspectives on the American Revolution, but also raises important questions about society and gender amidst warfare.

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