I seem to be obsessed by women who really know how to handle guns. This is odd because I am myself one of those war-is-not-good-for-children-and-other-living-things ladies. However, I identify with girls who had difficult childhoods, fraught with poverty, hardship, and uncertainty. During the 1930’s when I was a child, my father was unemployed and we were on Home Relief. I grew up accustomed to being poor, so much so that now, seventy years later, I still spend money uneasily. It never occurred to me that a gun might empower me, even long afterward, when I’d read Freud.
No. I hate guns. So I can’t explain why I chose to spend three years of my life writing about Deborah Sampson, the Revolutionary War heroine who was handy with a gun. Disguised as a male, she enlisted in the Continental Army and served seventeen months in the light infantry company of the Fourteenth Massachusetts Regiment during which time she was severely wounded three times and twice decorated for bravery.
Guns and wars tragically damaged my own family. My father was a shell-shocked World War I veteran with shattered nerves; we were all terrified witness to his erratic and sudden rages. And I lost my eighteen-year-old brother in the third week of the Korean War. I tell you I’ve never seen a firearm I admired and I doubt that I ever will.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution makes no sense to me. I’d like it much better if I were guaranteed the right to bare arms. As we all know, laws about women’s clothing are nothing to take lightly. In Deborah Sampson’s day, wearing pants was a violation of the law as well as Deuteronomy and was punishable by whipping, jail, or derision.
So why, at the peaceable advanced age of seventy-eight, did I choose Deborah Sampson? And she was not my first breach of pacifist principle. Ten years before, I’d researched Annie Oakley, the best sharpshooter in the world, and I used that material in a biographical novel. Eight-year-old Annie used her father’s rifle to shoot a running rabbit in the head the very first time she ever fired a gun. Hunters swear that hitting a small moving target on the first shot is well nigh impossible. Annie did it. I can easily identify with the squeamish feelings Annie’s Quaker mother had about her daughter’s “special talent”; nevertheless, the whole family lived for many years off Annie’s earnings from hunting.
How come I am once again enthralled? I know why. I’ve succumbed to rabid curiosity. What happened to the twenty-three-year-old woman honorably discharged from the Continental Army in 1783 as a man — though her commanding officers knew she was a woman? She returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in male disguise. She couldn’t live at home; her mother felt disgraced and would not house a daughter who had worn a man’s clothes and had consequently been cast out of the Baptist Church. What was Deborah’s life like in the puritanical farming communitywhere women were reviled and punished for wearing pants? Where women did not speak publicly — ever. How did Deborah Sampson survive?
That she survived we know A respectable young farmer married her and they had three children and adopted a fourth. They farmed diligently but did not prosper. Paul Revere, Deborah’s childhood hero, befriended her — and when hard times blighted her family, he wrote to William Eustis, the Massachusetts representative in Congress, on behalf of her appeal for a pension. “She is now much out of health. She has several children, her husband is a good sort of man ‘tho of small force in business, they have a few acres of poor land which they cultivate, but they are really poor.”
Revere wrote, “She told me that no doubt her ill health is in consequence of being exposed when she did a soldier’s duty and that while in the army she was wounded.” Congress granted Deborah Sampson an invalid pension, $4.00 a month, and Paul Revere remained a friend and lent the struggling family money many times.
Deborah Sampson lived to be sixty-seven, a farmwife and mother raisng a family on a few acres of hardscrabble New England land. But when money became really tight, she set off alone in 1802, on a lecture tour, to Boston, then Providence, and later she went on to many Massachusetts towns and to New York. She was a phenomenon: the first woman lecturer to speak on a public platform in this country! Appearing in modest woman’s clothing, she apologized for her earlier masquerade as a man, “which was a breach in the decorum of my sex unquestionably.” Her contrrition accomplished, she then went backstage and donned her Continental Army uniform and with her rifle, “Old Betsy,” she performed the ful manual of arms onstage, all 27 maneuvers. Deborah Sampson was determined to shape life in her own way.
These heroines’ stories are filled with ingenuity and courage, the willingness to break boundaries and an abiding faith in equality. It’s the inherent hunger for adventure along with the faith in justice, I think, that binds me to them. Not the piddling phallic symbols. A Depression child, grown old and nearly blind, I’m dazzled by the brave attempts these women made to rewrite life’s scripts — indeed, to shoot holes in its barriers.