Harriet Tubman (c.1820 - 1913)
When she was about 12 years old, the young slave girl who would become known as Harriet Tubman was ordered to help tie up a captured slave. As was often the case, the man had attempted to flee north, only to be snared by a posse before he reached freedom. In due course, the fugitive was returned to the Maryland plantation where he and Tubman lived. Realizing the escapee was about to be whipped, she refused to secure him for the pending punishment. The slave master angrily responded by hurling a two-pound weight at the girl, hitting her in the head. Tubman sustained an injury that resulted in a lifetime of throbbing headaches and unexpected episodes of narcolepsy, which caused her to fall into a deep sleep with little warning.
Tubman’s early act of defiance against the overseer and the system he represented served to strengthen her resolve that she would one day attempt her own flight to freedom. It was not until 1849 at about age 29 that the determined woman was able to escape up the eastern seaboard to Pennsylvania. Unlike most runaways, however, Tubman did not remain on free soil. For the next several years, she repeatedly returned to the South, spiriting other slaves out of bondage (Photo from the Library of Congress) by way of the Underground Railroad.
As part of the Underground Railroad, she made 19 trips into slave holding states, leading some 300 individuals to a new life in the areas that had banned slavery. To help support her efforts, Tubman worked in a Philadelphia kitchen. She eventually became one of the Railroad’s best “conductors,” earning the dubious distinction of a having a $40,000 reward posted for her capture or death.
For all the recriminations directed at her by displeased plantation owners throughout the South, Tubman was never caught and never lost a “passenger.” As part of the Underground Railroad network, she successfully employed a variety of escape and evasion methods to help aid fleeing slaves. Disguise was a favorite. If it was announced that a group of male slaves had bolted from a plantation, she dressed the fugitives as women for the trip north. On another occasion, Tubman came dangerously close to being identified during a stopover at a train depot. To confuse her pursuers, she quickly purchased a ticket for the southbound train, believing, correctly, as it turned out, that few would expect an “outlaw” of her notoriety to venture further into Dixie in such a public manner. For one of her more brazen missions, she convinced a light-skinned fugitive to pose as a white master transporting a group of slaves to a town further up the road.
Moving “passengers” along the Underground Railroad, Tubman became very familiar with the different towns and transportation routes characterizing the South. This information proved extremely valuable to Federal military commanders after the Civil War began in 1861.
Poorly drawn and outdated maps coupled with soldiers who had little knowledge of the United States beyond their own village made individuals like Tubman vitally important to the Union war effort. Utilizing the extensive knowledge of the South she had obtained while working for the Underground Railroad, Tubman was able to provide accurate intelligence data to Northern troops.
Tubman also took an active role in the conduct of the war, serving as a valued Union scout, spy, and nurse. Recalling the times she had disguised “passengers” for their trip on the Underground Railroad, Tubman often transformed herself into a aging woman in failing health, who wandered the streets of numerous towns under Confederate control. While doing so, she encountered slaves still held in bondage. These men and women willingly provided a wealth of information concerning troop placements and supply lines. Of special interest to Union commanders were the increased fortifications constructed to repel invading Northern armies. Tubman ’s contacts had intimate knowledge of these crucial defenses: they had built them.
Tubman also became a respected guerrilla operative for the Union Army’s, waging unconventional warfare against a variety of targets behind enemy lines. For one mission, she led a raiding party through dense woods and swamps, harassing Confederate positions along the way.
Encountering homeless slaves during her different forays into Rebel held territory, she helped find many of these displaced men and women food, shelter, and even jobs in the North.
In addition to her role as a scout and spy, Tubman was respected as an able and caring nurse. At a time when more men were dying from infection and disease than from actual combat, Tubman’s healing powers were welcomed in military camps and hospitals by both black and white Union soldiers.
Moving from bedside to bedside, she dispensed various herbal and holistic remedies, most of which she learned trying to survive on the plantation and later as a “conductor” for the Underground Railroad. To the surprise of military doctors, a good number of her patients actually improved and were able to return to battle or be shipped home in something other than a coffin.
Following the end of hostilities, Tubman continued her service to others, particularly the aged, sick, and destitute. Late in life, she was awarded a monthly pension of $20 for her contributions to the Union war effort . When she died in 1913, the person called “General Tubman” by her admirers was laid to rest with military honors. Today, she is considered the first recorded African American woman to serve in the military.
- Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York: Time Warner Book Company, 2004.
- McGovern, Ann. Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman. Scholastic Paperbacks, 1991. [for ages 4-8]
- McMullan, Kate. The Story of Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad. New York: Parachute Press, 1991. [for ages 9-12]
- Petry, Ann. Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad. Harper, 1996. [for ages 9-12]
- This article is excerpted from “Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage” Exhibition, Annandale, Virginia: NWHM, 2002.