The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson


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Book Review

The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson by Ann McGovern has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

In 1765 when Deborah Sampson is 5 years old, her mother sends her to live with a cousin. Cousin Fuller loves and cares for the child, and he teaches her to read. When Cousin Fuller dies three years later, Deborah is sent to care for an old woman named Mrs. Thatcher in Middleborough, Massachusetts. The minister in town realizes the job is too big for an 8-year-old, so he helps place Deborah with Deacon Thomas and his family. Pledging to serve the family for 10 years, Deborah takes care of the four boys and does hard labor indoors and out. She loves reading and wishes she could go to school with the boys. She begins keeping her own diary on pieces of tree bark.

The years between Deborah’s 10th and 18th birthdays are eventful for the American colonies. British soldiers exert control, causing Americans to rebel in actions including the Boston Tea Party. American men make and hide weapons in preparation for war, and leaders sign the Declaration of Independence. Battles rage, and French forces come to the aid of the American soldiers.

At age 18, Deborah is free of her debt to the deacon. She works as a schoolteacher and visits her mother, who is concerned that Deborah is still unmarried. Deborah isn’t anxious to settle down; she longs for adventure. She begins to hatch a plan for joining the Army and seeing the world.

Deborah gets men’s clothing and practices her mannerisms so she can pass as a man. She is even able to fool her own mother into thinking she is a man. In her early 20s, Deborah nervously joins the Army under the name Robert Shurtliff. She seems young to the other soldiers, since she has no facial hair, and they call her Bobby. She sees combat and is even wounded.

Fearing a doctor will discover her secret, she extracts a bullet from her own leg rather than let him help her. She aids other soldiers in battle, too, and her good conduct earns her a position as Gen. Paterson’s personal orderly. When Deborah contracts a severe fever, a year and a half into her military service, a doctor discovers she is a female. He sends a note to the general, who can’t believe the news.

The general gets her a dress, at her request, and discharges her. Soon afterward, she marries a farmer named Benjamin Gannet, and later she gives birth to three children and takes in a fourth. Deborah gives speeches around the area about her adventures in the war and dies at age 67. A warship and a street in Sharon, Massachusetts, both bear her name.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Deborah consults a fortune-teller to see if she can be recognized as a woman while dressed as a man.

Authority Roles

Deborah’s father dies in a shipwreck when she is young. Her mother loves her children but can’t afford to keep them with her. She still keeps track of Deborah, and they reunite when Deborah is a teenager. Military leaders respect Deborah’s work ethic, even granting her military benefits after they discover she is a woman.

Profanity & Violence


Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Alcohol: Before joining the Army, Deborah has a suitor. She loses interest when he arrives at her home drunk. Deborah is given wine to ease her pain when she’s injured in battle.

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