GOOD MORNING PRAGOBOTS!
Oh, yeah…Happy 4th of July
We continue our series on African-American Civil War Spies…
(1820 – March 10, 1913)
When people think of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad immediately comes to mind. But there was another occupation on Ms. Tubman’s resume — Union Spy!
When Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Tubman considered it an important step toward the goal of liberating all black men, women, and children from slavery. She renewed her support for a defeat of the Confederacy, and before long she was leading a band of scouts through the land around Port Royal. The marshes and rivers in South Carolina were similar to those of the Eastern Shore of Maryland; thus her knowledge of covert travel and subterfuge among potential enemies were put to good use. Her group, working under the orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, mapped the unfamiliar terrain and reconnoitered its inhabitants. She later worked alongside Colonel James Montgomery, and provided him with key intelligence that aided the capture of Jacksonville, Florida.
Later that year, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. When Montgomery and his troops conducted an assault on a collection of plantations along the Combahee River, Tubman served as a key adviser and accompanied the raid. On the morning of June 2, 1863, Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters leading to the shore. Once ashore, the Union troops set fire to the plantations, destroying infrastructure and seizing thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies. When the steamboats sounded their whistles, slaves throughout the area understood that it was being liberated. Tubman watched as slaves stampeded toward the boats. “I never saw such a sight,” she said later, describing a scene of chaos with women carrying still-steaming pots of rice, pigs squealing in bags slung over shoulders, and babies hanging around their parents’ necks. Although their owners, armed with handguns and whips, tried to stop the mass escape, their efforts were nearly useless in the tumult. As Confederate troops raced to the scene, steamboats packed full of slaves took off toward Beaufort.
More than 700 slaves were rescued in the Combahee River Raid. Newspapers heralded Tubman’s “patriotism, sagacity, energy, [and] ability”, and she was praised for her recruiting efforts – most of the newly liberated men went on to join the Union army. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at the assault on Fort Wagner, reportedly serving him his last meal. She described the battle by saying: “And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
For two more years, Tubman worked for the Union forces, tending to newly liberated slaves, scouting into Confederate territory, and eventually nursing wounded soldiers in Virginia. She also made periodic trips back to Auburn, to visit her family and care for her parents. The Confederacy surrendered in April 1865; after donating several more months of service, Tubman headed home.
Tubman returned to Auburn at the end of the war. During a train ride to New York, the conductor told her to move into the smoking car. She refused, explaining her government service. He cursed at her and grabbed her, but she resisted and he summoned two other passengers for help. While she clutched at the railing, they muscled her away, breaking her arm in the process. They threw her into the smoking car, causing more injuries. As these events transpired, other white passengers cursed Tubman and shouted for the conductor to kick her off the train.
Despite her years of service, she had never received a regular salary and was for years denied compensation. Her unofficial status and the unequal payments offered to black soldiers caused great difficulty in documenting her service, and the U.S. government was slow in recognizing its debt to her. Tubman did not receive a pension for her service in the Civil War until 1899. Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and her difficulties in obtaining a government pension were especially taxing for her.
But the students at the Albany Free School weren’t trying to hear that!
In 2003, after students at the Albany Free School brought the issue of Tubman’s remaining pension to the attention of New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, Congress authorized a payment of $11,750 to the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn.