Harriet Tubman is famous for leading slaves north to freedom in the decade prior to the American Civil War: acts that required courage, daring, stealth, and organizational skills.* After the Civil War began in 1861, she used the skills she developed as conductor on the Underground Railroad on behalf of the Union Army.
In the early months of war, there was little Tubman could contribute. That changed when Union forces captured Port Royal, South Carolina, which became the headquarters of the Army’s Department of the South. It served as a depot for the South Atlantic Blockading squadron and as a base from which to stage attacks on Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville. It also became, by default the largest safe haven for escaping slaves, known as contrabands.
In May 1862, Tubman traveled to the Sea Islands of South Carolina at the request of Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts, who was a rabid abolitionist. She understood that she would be working as a scout. Tubman later reported that someone “changed the program” before she left. When she first arrived in South Carolina, she worked with a group of abolitionists from Boston and Philadelphia, handing out food, clothing, and medical supplies to former slaves. Tubman also helped newly freed women to earn a living by sewing, doing laundry, and baking for Union soldiers—running classes to provide marketable skills for women who had been field hands. At first she drew rations, like the Union soldiers and the female nurses of Dorothea Dix’s Army nursing corps, but she later gave up the privilege because other freedmen saw it as preferential treatment. Instead she earned her own living in much the same way as the women she trained, baking pies and making root beer to sell to soldiers.
Major General David S. Hunter, commander of the South and a fervent abolitionist, had another use for Tubman’s skills.** Although the Union controlled the Sea Islands themselves, they did not control the area on the mainland. Hunter needed intelligence about the terrain and enemy troop movements. Tubman had the skills to provide it. She not only worked as a spy and scout behind enemy lines, she also built a network of informants and put together a valuable team of scouts and pilots drawn from the local black population.*** Hunter gave her a pass allowing her to travel freely and claim passage on all government transports.
Tubman’s work as a spy and scout provided the information for one of the most dramatic incidents in her dramatic career: the Combahee River Raid.**** In the early morning of June 2, 1863, three gunboats steamed twenty-five miles up the narrow, meandering tidal river, carrying Tubman, 300 black soldiers, and their commander Colonel James Montgomery.***** Working with information provided by Tubman and her informants, their primary task was to destroy the plantations and warehouses that lined the river, thereby depriving the Confederate army of much needed supplies.
At the end of the raid, the steamboats sounded their whistles–by now an established signal that the area was being liberated. Slaves swarmed out to the boats, carrying as many of their belonging as they could manage. Tubman latter said, in a letter dictated to Franklin Sanborn, the editor of a Boston newspaper, “I never saw such a sight. Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders; baskets on their heads and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chicken screaming, young ones squealing.”
Montgomery sent small boats to the riverbank to ferry the slaves on board, but they soon became overloaded. People clung to the sides of the boats, fearful of being left behind.
Montgomery told Tubman to calm “her” people and assure them that no one would be left. Tubman later told journalist Emma Telford, they “wasn’t my people any more than they was his–only we was all Negroes–’cause I didn’t know any more about them than he did. So I went when he called me on the gunboat and they on the shore. They didn’t know anything about me and I didn’t know what to say. I looked at them about two minutes, and then I sung to them.” Unlikely as it seems, the unusual crowd control method worked. The crowd calmed down, joined Tubman in song, and released the boats. They rescued 756 slaves without losing a single soldier or slave.
Tubman ended the war working as a nurse in a freedman’s hospital.
In 1895, after several years of petitions by Tubman and others, Tubman received a monthly pension of twenty dollars a month–for her work as a nurse, not for her priceless service as a scout and spy. Thirty years after the end of the war.******
*An often under-valued talent
**Hunter was a controversial figure at the time. Soon after his appointment, he issued an order on his own authority freeing all escaped slaves in the Department of the South. He then attempted, also on his own authority, to organize male slaves into military units. When they didn’t volunteer as readily as he hoped, he forcibly inducted them into military units—raising the question of just how free they actually were.
***Isaac Hayward, Mott Blake, Gabriel Cahern, Sandy Sellers, George Chisholm, Solomon Gregory, Peter Burns, Charles Simmons, Samuel Heyward and Walter D Plowden–in case you’re wondering.
****Tubman is often described as commanding the raid. Although it broke my heart, I came to the reluctant conclusion that this is not the case.
*****Another hot-blooded abolitionist, Montgomery was one of the most famous “jayhawkers” during the unofficial warfare between abolitionists and pro-slavery activists across the the Missosuri/Kansas border in the eight years before the first southern state seceded from the United States in February, 1861.
******It is only fair to put this in context. No nurses received pensions until the 1890s. And that twenty dollars is the equivalent of $2630 in today’s dollars.