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The Life of Harriet Tubman

The Underground Railroad



Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad, Nurse, and...Military Heroine?

Becky and I go exploring at Port Royal, South Carolina

I knew that Harriet Tubman was a remarkable woman. I remember learning that she was the liberator of hundreds of slaves. I have vague memories of her being a nurse. But I had no idea that she led people in combat. In fact, Tubman was the only woman to lead men into battle in the Civil War. Pretty impressive.


I was definitely intrigued. To find out more, Becky and I headed towards Beaufort and Port Royal, South Carolina, where we heard Tubman was stationed during the war.

We didn't know what we would find there… a lovely statue of Harriet perhaps? A museum exhibit? At the very least, one of those fun little historical markers we seem to encounter everywhere we go.


Neda and the Giant Peach

Oh, no sir, none of the above. We searched high and low. We went to the museum, the visitor center, the library…we got many blank looks. Nobody seemed to have any ideas about Harriet's time in that region. Until finally, we found one librarian who led us to another librarian who knew exactly what we were looking for. She was quite helpful and directed us to an article about Harriet in Beaufort. But in general, it seems to be a forgotten issue.

Hanging out in Beaufort

Well, I am here to help it be remembered. I think it is a fascinating piece of history. I think that Harriet Tubman kicks some butt. So after some further research, here is what I have learned:

Okay, first off, the sea island region of South Carolina (which includes Beaufort and Port Royal) was an important base for the Union. When Union troops advanced, the Southern planters fled the area while the now ex-slaves remained on the land. The military wanted these newly freed people to support themselves by working the land and raising money for the federal government through cotton production. Not everyone, however, could survive on the abandoned fields. Refugee camps were set up to help provide the poor and sick with the food, clothing and medical care they lacked. Volunteers were needed to help run these camps.

When Harriet found out about this need, she of course wanted to join the effort. This was definitely not a woman who could ever sit still. So, in May of 1862, it was arranged for her to head down to Beaufort.

Beaufort is quite beautiful

Here, she acted as Super Woman. No, she did not leap buildings in a single bound or melt Confederate soldiers with her X-ray vision, but I swear she seemed to do everything else. Harriet was a nurse. Her experience caring for the sick on the Underground Railroad helped her in nursing wounded soldiers, both black and white.

Harriet was a cook. Not only did she cook for the troops, but she also spent her "spare time" making pies, gingerbread and root beer. Since she was not getting paid as a nurse she would sell these yummy goods to help provide for herself.

Harriet was a teacher. She opened up a "wash-house" and taught freed women how to support themselves instead of depending entirely on government aid.

Harriet was a secret agent. Her detailed knowledge of the southern area and keen observation skills made her an invaluable scout and a spy. The troops would have questions. "Where were the enemy camps? How many men did they have? How well were they armed?" Harriet would go out to find the answers. She could go around disguised as a frail old woman, and nobody would suspect a thing. The unsuspecting fools did not realize that this woman was anything but frail.

I can just picture Harriet leading the troops up this river

One of the times that Harriet was investigating the area, she realized that the rice plantations all around the nearby Combahee River were not well protected and could be invaded. It was June of 1863. Harriet planned an attack. From Port Royal, she headed out with Colonel James Montgomery and three gunboats carrying 150 African-American soldiers. She directed a raid up the Combahee River, taking the Confederates by surprise and destroying millions of dollars of property. They damaged mines, storehouses and fancy homes. They flooded fields of rice and corn. When word spread that the Union gunboats had come, hundreds of slaves rushed to the riverbank, shouting and crying and singing and laughing. Harriet recalls it being quite a comic scene as people scrambled for the boats, carrying crying babies, squealing pigs and squawking chickens with them. One woman had a smoking pot of rice on her head. Another brought aboard two pigs that were nicknamed Jeff Davis and Beauregard after two Confederate war heroes.

Harriet helped free 756 enslaved African-Americans  near this river

In all, nearly 800 slaves were freed during the raid that Harriet planned and executed. Humiliated Confederate commanders, instead of admitting that an African-American woman could have beaten them, blamed one of their own officers for not being watchful enough. Maybe they did not realize that they did not stand a chance against Super Harriet.

Harriet herself was a bit offended, saying "Don't you think we colored people are entitled to some of the credit for that exploit…?" The part she was proudest about though was not the raid itself but the fact that nearly every able male she helped to free that day enlisted in the Union Army.

Harriet was involved in other raids besides the one up the Combahee. She was with Colonel Montgomery when he steamed up St. John's River and captured the city of Jacksonville, Florida. She was with Colonel Shaw when the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (famous from the movie Glory) led the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Although she may not have been fighting in battle, Harriet was always there, cooking dinner the night before and helping bury the dead and nurse the wounded afterwards.

Harriet reportedly lived across the street from this arsenal in Beaufort

Despite all she did, Harriet was never commissioned or officially appointed as an officer or spy. There are no official records of her military activity. Yet she was greatly admired and respected by military officers, soldiers and everyone else who had heard of her remarkable deeds.

When General William T. Sherman reached the coast of Georgia in his March to the Sea, the Union was in pretty good shape. Harriet's services were not needed as much anymore so she went home to Auburn, New York to be with her family. After the war ended, she married Nelson Davis, a Union soldier she had met in Beaufort.

Super Harriet saves the day

She petitioned Congress for a pension of $1800 for her three years of service as a nurse, cook and commander. Being the selfless super woman that she was, she intended to use this money to establish schools and homes for freed blacks and their families. The government refused to pay in full.

When her husband Nelson died, Harriet finally received a pension, but not for all of her hard work. The government paid her for being the widow of a war veteran. They paid her for being a wife, not for the incredible contributions that she made herself.

Thousands of women served in the Civil War as nurses. As many as several hundred actually saw combat (mostly by pretending to be males). Harriet Tubman did it all, and then some. It's just a shame that more people don't know about it.


Quotation from Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Bradford

Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - General Grant and a dozen grisly ways to die
Rebecca - If it takes every chicken in the Confederacy…
Teddy - How easy is it to assassinate the President?
Stephanie - The role of African Americans in the Civil War