Harriet Tubman

Posted: September 12, 2008 in Civil War, Covert Operations, First in Her Class, Whom You Least Suspect

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) is most often recognized for her skillful navigation of the Underground Railroad, but too few people seem to know that she was also a highly successful Union spy.

What is a long and worthy life story to know is unfortunately going to get the Reader’s Digest treatment here and then I’m going straight for the spy stuff.

Born in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was a slave until she escaped to Philadelphia in 1849. Slowly, Tubman returned to Maryland and helped smuggle her family to freedom. Suffering from seizures and “visions” that can be attributed to a head injury at the hands of a slave-owner, Tubman heeded to what she felt was a calling to aid other slaves through the secretive network to freedom. Known only in those circles as “Moses”, Tubman never lost a passenger. The South knew someone was smuggling escapees into the North but had no idea a five-foot-tall former slave woman was heading the operations. When the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, Tubman then went to great efforts helping former slaves into Canada where they could be better protected.

On a side note: prior to the Civil War, John Brown even tapped her extensive geographical knowledge of Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia in his failed attempts at Harpers Ferry though Tubman did not support Brown’s ideology of violence.

Okay, now the spy stuff: when the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army as a cook, nurse and teacher on the Carolina Sea Islands. The year following, Tubman lent her skills in setting up a very sophisticated network of intelligence gathering for the Union Army.

Later, when it came to be known at the top of Tubman’s special skills, she became an armed scout. Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition into war along the Combahee River and liberated over 700 slaves along the way. She disrupted Confederate supply lines and helped troops navigate mines planted in waterways.

All this and apparently the Union Army considered her services a donation. For years following the war, Tubman applied for a pension and was routinely denied. Although she had the support of Secretary of State William Seward, Colonel T. W. Higginson, and General Rufus, she was still denied. She supported herself during the war selling baked goods and root beer (all items she had to make in her non-existent “off-time”). It wasn’t until 1899 that Harriet Tubman received her first pension check, as widower of a soldier, her second husband.

Somehow, I just don’t think his war efforts match up to hers.

Tubman spent her last years as a suffragette but died in 1913, failing to see to yet another freedom come to pass.

  1. […] this leads to very different views of Ruth and her activities. One, is that Ruth is a sort of Harriet Tubman in leading Jews to freedom during a decidedly horrific time in history. The other view is that the […]

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