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America’s first female soldier with ties to West Point remembered ahead of Veterans Day 

Steve Nelson recently published a book on Deborah Sampson, “The Memoir of a Female Soldier.” His wife, Jan Lewis Nelson, wrote it 50 years ago shortly after they married at the soldier’s childhood home. She died in 2020 from breast cancer before she could see it published.

Blaise Gomez

Nov 7, 2023, 8:44 PM

Updated 219 days ago

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Deborah Sampson grew up as a poor, indentured servant in Massachusetts and was a young woman in 1782 when she enlisted as a man in the Revolutionary War.
“It was illegal for women to wear men’s clothes. The consequences could’ve been very severe,” says Steve Nelson. “She was dissatisfied with her station in life and women had very restricted rules about how they could live.”
Nelson recently published a book on Sampson, “The Memoir of a Female Soldier.” His wife, Jan Lewis Nelson, wrote it 50 years ago shortly after they married at the soldier’s childhood home, but died in 2020 from breast cancer before she could see it published.
“She had a child. She had a job. So, it sort of got put aside and collected dust on a shelf,” Nelson says.
Jan's interest in Sampson’s life started as a child when she learned about Sampson in school. Her book chronicles Sampson’s life and enlistment under the alias Robert Shurtlieff, when she was stationed as a recruit at West Point.
“At the time, the Americans controlled the Hudson River from West Point,” Nelson says. “The British still occupied New York City even though they surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia.”
Sampson was part of an elite infantry unit assigned to dangerous patrols targeting loyalists who were terrorizing the Hudson Valley. She got sick months later and was discovered by a doctor who kept her secret but wrote a letter for her to resign.
“The general could’ve gotten very angry and punished her but instead he got her an honorable discharge,” says Nelson.
Sampson went on to petition for her veteran’s benefits and succeeded 22 years later – as the first woman to receive a veteran’s pension in 1805. Over the years, her service has received honorable recognition. She was named the Massachusetts “Official State Heroine” in 1983.
Nelson published his wife’s book in the spring after he found her writings in a box. He says his only wish was that she was alive to see it.
“I think she would be thrilled,” says Nelson. “I wish I did this while she was alive but she’s looking over my shoulder.” 


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