Conversations in Management: Robert Shurtleff

Associate with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation.

 George Washington

ThSeal_of_Massachusettsings started hard for Robert Shurtleff.  When he was five years old he was indentured to a series of families to help pay the bills. Thirteen years later, Robert emerged as an excellent horseman, crack shot and literate enough to become the local school teacher. But while Robert was growing up the country was going to war. Now boredom, a £60 enlistment bonus and patriotic zeal beckoned the young schoolmaster. He enlisted with a local Massachusetts regiment and for seventeen months between 1781 and the end of the war in 1783, courageously served the republic. And courageous he was. In his first engagement with the British, he received a saber cut to the head and a musket shot near his groin. Fearing medical discharge, he concealed the musket wound from the doctors and dug the ball out himself with a knife and then stitched himself up with a sewing needle. He soldiered on (literally) and endured the privations and horrors of war. As the fighting neared conclusion, he served fearlessly on the front lines for the entirety of the Yorktown campaign. With a hard-earned reputation for dedication and valor, he was sent to Philadelphia as an aide to General Paterson. He lived with the General’s family until falling seriously ill with fever then ravaging the city. Semi-conscious, he was given over to the care of Dr. Binney, who after a thorough examination moved Robert to his personal residence in order to better nurse him back to health. After recovering fully, Robert—with a doctor’s note firmly in hand (sound familiar?)—reported back for duty. Along with his unit, he traveled to West Point where he was honorably discharged. And there the story might end but for a lingering question: how the heck did he end up as the Massachusetts State Heroine?

It turns out that the doctor’s note our hero delivered to General Paterson revealed that Robert Shurtleff was actually Deborah Samson. For those many months and under austere conditions, she had artfully maintained her secret. But with the notable exceptions of her name and gender, everything else about her story was true. Deborah’s exemplary service spoke for itself and General Paterson had no problem letting her complete her enlistment as a man. After returning home, she married, had three children and lived a life typical of a farm wife. But she was justifiably proud of her service and took no measures to conceal it. Along with a co-author she penned a semi-fictional account of her army years and later went on the lecture circuit with her story. She’d begin her lectures femininely dressed and extolling the virtues of womanhood. Then, midway through the performance, she’d leave the stage and return in full uniform executing a complicated series of military drills to the astonishment of the audience. Despite the prejudices of the day, she was awarded a military pension and when she predeceased her husband, he received the widow’s benefit. With a back story like this, Deborah was a shoo-in for high honors. In recognition of her incredible service (and ability to keep a secret) the Legislature named her state heroine in1983.

Samson’s story underscores the foolishness of cultural norms that limit people because of gender, age, education or any of a dozen other arbitrary categories. This is also story of character. Samson must have served with men of good quality because they never challenged the apparent idiosyncrasies that she used to conceal her gender. Even when discovered, her secret was preserved out of respect for what she’d demonstrated not what she was supposed to be. In turn, Deborah’s character inspired her to live a dream and helped her thrive against all odds. Washington was right—character and reputation are a cooperative endeavor.  True then, true now.      —Ebert

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