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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 great woman. I remember learning that she freed hundreds of slaves. I also remember that she was a nurse. But I had no ideas that she led people in battles. In fact, Tubman was the only woman to lead men into battle in the Civil War. Pretty impressive.

To find out more, Becky and I headed towards Beaufort and Port Royal, South Carolina, where we heard Tubman was during the war. We didn't know what we would find there... a lovely statue of Harriet maybe? A museum exhibit? At the very least, one of those little historical markers we find everywhere we go.

But no, none of the above! We searched high and low. We went to the museum, the visitor center, the library…we got many funny looks from the folks of Beufort and Port Royal. Nobody seemed to have any ideas about Harriet's time there. Until finally, we found one librarian who knew exactly what we were looking for. She directed us to an article about Harriet in Beaufort. After some further research, here is what I have learned:

Hanging out in Beaufort
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 leaving behind their slaves. These freed slaves formed communities made of tents called "refugee camps". They were set up to help provide the poor and sick with the food, clothing and medical care they needed. Volunteers helped run these camps.

When Harriet found out about this, she of course wanted to join the effort. So, in May of 1862, it was arranged for her to head down to Beaufort.

Beaufort is quite beautiful
Harriet was a nurse. Her time caring for the sick on the Underground Railroad helped her in nursing wounded soldiers, both black and white, and working at the refugee hospitals.

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 knowledge of the southern area made her an very good scout and a spy. The troops would have questions like, "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.

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 the excited African-Americans scrambled for the boats, carrying crying babies, squealing pigs and squawking chickens with them. One woman had a steaming 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
After the war ended, she married Nelson Davis, a Union soldier she had met in Beaufort.

She petitioned Congress for a pension of $1800 for her three years of service as a nurse, cook and commander. She wanted to use this money to make schools and homes for freed blacks and their families. The government refused to pay it.

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


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - General Sherman mows down the South
Teddy - Abe Lincoln's last night