Revolutionary War re-enactor brings forgotten history to life
Even among a gathering of colorfully dressed mountain men and Revolutionary War re-enactors, Anna Smith stands out.
At Saturday’s McLouth Patriots Day Parade, the Carbondale woman was decked out in the blue and white of the Continental Army. It was, she said, an authentic replica of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment uniform of Deborah Samson, the historical figure she brings to life as a member of the Kansas Alliance of Professional Historic Performers.
Samson wore her uniform after enlisting at the age of 23 in May 1782 to fight in the Revolutionary War in the guise of a man. She would continue to serve through the end of the war 18 months later.
“She enlisted as Robert Shurtleff,” Smith said. “That was her brother’s name. Since he died when he was 8, she figured that was safe.
“She was wounded twice in battle. There were a lot of women who fought in disguise, but she was the only one to get a pension and land.”
Other women were chased off when their identities were learned, and some were subjected to an inglorious “whore’s march” out of camp, Smith said.
Samson avoided detection or served with tolerant fellow soldiers with whom she fought side by side in at a battle on July 3, 1782, near Terrytown, New York. In that engagement, Samson suffered a large gash on the head and was hit in the thigh by two musket balls. Doctors attended the head wound, but she treated the gunshot wounds herself to avoid detection, suffering the rest of her life because of the inability to remove the deeper musket ball with a penknife and sewing needle.
After the war, Samson married and had three children. But life continued to be difficult, and she struggled to receive the pensions promised veterans, Smith said.
“She fought for it the rest of her life,” Smith said. “The government was bad about giving most veterans what was promised.”
One thing that draws Smith to Samson is the similarities in their lives.
After a series of family misfortunes, which included the disappearance of her father and death of a brother, Samson became an indentured servant for her teenage years. She was a teacher between the end of her servitude and her enlistment in the Army.
Smith said she could identify with that experience, because her formative years were spent on a family farm in central Kansas, where she performed all the customary male and female chores.
Smith, like Samson, is a teacher and a veteran, having served in the Kansas National Guard and Army Reserve. Smith has two children — one less than Samson.
“I’m a member of Daughters of the Revolution and had ancestors who fought in the Continental Army,” Smith said. “One probably fought with Samson.”
Beyond that personal connection, Smith said she enjoyed sharing Samson’s story.
“People ask questions and are surprised to learn about her,” she said. “They say it’s a little bit of history that was unknown to them. You know how women in history are; they are forgotten.”
She hopes Samson’s story sparks interest that leads to further study of history and the American Revolution, Smith said.
Next month, Smith will portray Samson for the second straight year at the Kansas Sampler Festival in Leavenworth. She is looking forward to the experience because of the large crowds the festival draws.
“There’s so many people,” she said. “There is all the little towns represented with all amazing things no one knows about.”
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