Do you remember the days when men were men and we all knew our place in the world? No? Me neither. The thing about comments that refer to ‘back in the day’ is that the people who make them tend to have a very narrow view of the past and decide that what they experienced was a universal truth for all. These days we’re constantly being warned not to make assumptions and use broad brushstrokes when referring to people or events, but that warning equally holds true for the past, too.
‘Back in the day’– in Poland in the 1760s to be precise — General Casimir Pulaski was certainly a ‘man’s man’, with dashing good looks and bravery to the point of recklessness. Pulaski’s name first gained fame when the young cavalry officer engaged in battles, raids and sieges against the Russians in Poland, where Casimir was born in 1745. These military actions were of mixed success, mainly because of Pulaski’s habit of ignoring orders and because of a total disregard for personal safety.
Such actions were immortalised in oil on canvass by several artists of the day. “Pulaski at Częstochowa” an 1875 painting by Józef Chełmoński, captures the cavalry officer astride a galloping horse and bounding ahead of troops of cavalry. A portrait by Jan Styka shows the fighter resplendent in military attire.
Pulaski later took all that military experience and joined the Continental Army of George Washington, to whom Pulaski had been recommended by Benjamin Franklin after he met the cavalry officer in Paris.
Appointed a brigadier general following the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 — where Pulaski quite probably saved Washington’s life by leading a cavalry charge against British troops and staving off a rebel defeat — the Polish officer would go on to improve the training and discipline of the horsemen in the Continental Army, eventually being feted as “the father of American cavalry”.
The only snag with that sobriquet is that Pulaski could just as easily have been called its “mother” because dashing, brave-beyond-compare Casimir Pulaski may not have been the “man’s man” that many believed.
New DNA research on Pulaski’s bones, conducted by experts at Georgia Southern University, suggest that the Polish and American war hero was actually intersex, having had congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition in which genetic females produce excessive amounts of testosterone, resulting in abnormal sexual development of the genitals, making them appear more masculine.
The condition hit the spotlight a few years ago when success on the running track by South Africa’s Caster Semenya, an intersex athlete, led to her legitimate achievements being criticised because her condition gives her an ‘unfair’ advantage over her opponents, according to her detractors.
But back to Pulaski… Not only did Casimir have a female-shaped pelvis, according to researchers, but the skeletal remains also showed a more female structure and jaw. Lest anyone doubt the provenance of the remains, DNA tests matched them to Pulaski’s grand-niece.
The remains also showed evidence of horseback riding and the same wound to the head that Pulaski was said to have received during one battle. The researchers’ findings have now been made into a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel.
Pulaski’s career with the Continental Army was cut short when the Polish officer was killed in action in 1779 at Savannah after being hit by grapeshot. Casimir’s military resumé was a mixed bag of defeats and small victories; however, there is no doubting the Polish war hero’s bravery or influence on the development of American cavalry in the years that followed.
It’s a fascinating prospect to consider, that the person who achieved such military feats with lance and sabre was actually female, at a time when the closest most women got to sharp objects was a household blade or an embroidery needle.
But Pulaski wasn’t the only combatant in America’s War of Independence who was more than they seemed.
Virginia woman Anna Maria Lane (c.1755-1810) also fought for the Continental Army. She joined up along with her husband, John, in 1776. That practice of spouses enlisting together wasn’t as unusual as it sounds; other women accompanied their husbands during the campaign, too. The difference with Anna was that while they served as nurses, laundresses and cooks, she dressed as a man and fought on the battlefield.
The married couple was in the thick of the action, fighting in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Georgia. They also served under George Washington in October, 1777, at the Battle of Germantown, outside Philadelphia. That last point is intriguing because Casimir Pulaski fought there, too. One can’t help but imagine Pulaski and Lane facing the enemy side by side, neither knowing the other’s deep-held secret.
Washington must have had his suspicions about women getting involved in the fighting because he issued an order forbidding female ‘camp followers’ from accompanying men onto the battlefield. Anna Lane duly ignored the edict and fought anyway, but was badly wounded and left lame for the rest of her life.
But Anna didn’t let a gammy leg stop her from fighting beside her husband. Like Pulaski, John was wounded at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, but unlike the brigadier general, he didn’t succumb to his wounds. The couple continued to serve together until 1781 and later settled in Richmond, Virginia.
Anna’s military service was later recognised and she was granted a pension of £100 a year for life. According to historian Joyce Henry, Anna’s pension record states that “in the garb, and with the courage of a soldier, [she] performed extraordinary military services at the Battle of Germantown”. That pension was far in excess of the average – Anna’s husband’s annuity was £40 a year – which would suggest that Anna Lane’s actions were uncommonly brave.
Deborah Sampson (or Samson) also donned britches and disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the fledgling American nation. Born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760, Sampson’s ancestors are said to have included passengers from The Mayflower.
At 5’9’’ she was tall for the times – the average height for women was just five feet – and was described as being broad, strong and with plain, not particularly feminine features.
By the age of 18, Sampson was teaching in a school during the summer months and supplementing her income with basket weaving and by making wooden tools and sleds. Then, in 1782, she answered the call to arms, donned men’s clothing and signed up under the name Robert Shirtliff, enlisting in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment as a Light Infantryman.
Things got off to a disastrous start during her first military engagement, at Tarrytown, New York, in July 1782, when Deborah was shot twice in the thigh and received a wound to her head. Fearful that her true identity be discovered, she refused to allow doctors to treat her leg, preferring to dig one of the musket balls out herself using a penknife. The second ball was too far embedded and remained in place for the rest of her life.
The following year she was given lighter duties, acting as a waiter to General John Paterson until she was finally discharged from service in October 1783. Sampson’s post-war years were a struggle financially. For much of her life she teetered on the edge of penury, not helped by the meagre pension she had been awarded for service to her country. She died in 1827, in Sharon, Massachusetts, aged 66, after succumbing to yellow fever.
Pulaski, Lane and Sampson… three rare individuals who bucked the trend and showed that women (intersex or otherwise) had more than enough guts and grit when it came to the ‘manly’ trials of warfare.
They were trailblazers who put their lives on the line; who saw beyond the sexual prejudices of the day, and who refused to be categorised by what form their bodies took. In so doing they, more than any other heroes from America’s War of Independence, were the true revolutionaries of their time.