Friday, May 17, 2013

Deborah Sampson Gannett and... George Washington?

As I was sleuthing around the internet, looking for information on Deborah's years after the war (a fascinating story, though not part of my novel), I kept coming across an image of her handing a letter to General George Washington.

Here's a link to this image: Deborah&Washington.

The image is a 19th century engraving, and in it, Deborah (on the right), stands with her arm extended, offering a letter to a seated Washington.  She is dressed in military garb, of a sort.  Certainly, her garments are men's wear.  However, she doesn't have a weapon nor does she have any sign of rank.  In one hand, she holds a tricorn hat -- the emblem of the "minute man" and revolutionary war soldier.  She is also bent, as if bowing to Washington, her eyes clearly downcast.  In all, she appears submissive, especially in comparison to how the men are depicted.

Two men are in the engraving.  One, his back to the viewer, has epaulets and a sword at his side (signifier of rank as well as of masculinity!) and stands in a posture that appears almost hostile.  He has a hand on his hip and his face, shown in profile, bears a look of disdain.  It isn't clear who this person is supposed to be -- General Paterson (Deborah's commanding officer)?  An aide to Washington?  What he represents, though, is clear: he is the military establishment, overseeing the scene before him, asserting dominance and displeasure.

The other man is George Washington.  He is seated with epaulets of rank on his shoulder, his body turned to face Deborah, suggesting openness.  Together with his seated position, his posture is much less combative than the other man's.  However, it would be too much to read acceptance into his depiction; he doesn't reach for the missive and his face is shown with a clear scowl.

Overall, it is an odd engraving.  The scene that it claims to depict is Deborah handing a letter to Washington, a letter that discloses her female nature (the letter was purported to have been written by the physician who treated an injury of hers).  Two things are strange.  First is the lack of factual basis.  It is possible that Deborah met with (in the sense that she was in the room with) Washington during her service.  She did carry messages between New Windsor (where General Paterson was stationed) and Newburgh (where Washington was stationed).  However, she doesn't mention any meeting in the biography written about her, and that biography is inclined to take notice and make use of any possible means of aggrandizement.  Indeed, she reports that she handed her letter to General Paterson and it was he who dismissed her (the apocryphal engraving account says that Washington read the letter, recognized the sensitive nature of the contents, dismissed Deborah to another room, and then went to meet her there, handing her a letter of discharge as well as a sum of money).

Why make this history up?  I interpret it as a sad statement about fame.  It is not enough to tell one's own story on one's own merit.  Rather, it must be appended to the story of another famous person.  (The old riding of coat-tails cliche.) For the 19th century, claiming a connection with Washington was a means of gaining some celebrity.  Especially for Deborah, this also legitimizes her claim -- it implies that she "passed" in front of Washington and that her service wasn't peripheral to the war but right at the heart.

But, on the level of the art itself, there are several peculiar factors.  It makes sense that Deborah wouldn't be happy about the situation (if she knows what the letter holds).  But why are the men upset?  They don't know what the letter says.  Their apparent disdain could be nothing more than a reflection of the class differentiation at the time; ranking officers had little need to be indulgent with enlisted men.  But I think that their facial expressions and body postures, together with Deborah's positioning and costuming, connote something more significant about gender relationships.  They are showing superiority; they are showing mastery; they are showing disapproval.  Deborah is lesser in every sense.  She is smaller, she is bent, she is not given a rank or a weapon.

Even though this scene is apocryphal, meaning that the artist had ever license needed to recreate it as he wished, he appears to have interpreted it through a heavy lens of 19th century bias, translating his disapproval for her service and her "masquerade."  Too bad... this moment, in my mind, was one of victory and triumph.

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