Harriet Tubman: Conductor, Nurse, Cook, Spy, and Scout
Harriet Ross Tubman Davis (c. 1822 -- 1913) was best known for her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad prior to and during the American Civil War (Sernett 22). What many people may not realize is that she was actively involved in the war effort as a Union nurse, cook, spy, and scout (Sernett 75). A remarkable woman in many ways, not only because she engaged in these activities in spite of social norms dictating that women should be passive participants, but also because she was very effective in what she was able to accomplish. This essay will examine the myths and facts surrounding Harriet Tubman's efforts to end slavery in American and reveal that the truth is much more remarkable than the myths could ever be.
Escape from Slavery
Harriet Tubman was born to Benjamin Ross and Harriet "Rit" Greene in late February or early March in 1822, based on a record of slave owner Anthony Thompson paying $2 to a midwife during that period (Sernett, 15). Born Araminta Ross and called Minty, Tubman was born into slavery on the Thompson farm in Dorchester County, Maryland. Prior accounts based more on myth than fact pegged her birth to 1820 or 1821 and in Bucktown County on the farm of Edward Brodess. Tubman's African ancestry more recently has been suggested to be West African on her grandmother's side, possibly Ghana, rather than Asante.
Minty began to take exception to the duties assigned to her from an early age (Sernet 16). When just six years old she was sent to the Cook farm to learn the weaver trade, but became so homesick that she refused to drink her favorite beverage -- milk. She was returned to the Thompson Farm to recover, but when she was returned to the Cook farm she refused to learn weaving, wanted nothing to do with her mistress, and was forced to wade into streams in the winter to check muskrat traps even when she was suffering from the measles.
As a teenager between 13 or 15 years of age, Minty was struck in the head with a two pound weight when she and other slaves tried to intervene in an argument between an overseer and a slave (Sernett 16-17). Accounts of this incident suggest that Minty almost died from the blow. Based on Tubman's own words in 1905, the blow was so severe that it fractured her skull and drove a piece of her head shawl into her head. It took two days of bed rest to recover. Many myths surround this incident (Bradford 74), but Tubman's own words reveal that she was caught in the crossfire between an overseer and belligerent slave when working in a field, rather than the incident occurring in a store.
Minty was later sent to work for John T. Stewart (Sernett 17) and worked in the house and later in the fields and forests performing the same tasks expected of men. These tasks included plowing and driving teams of oxen. Her father, Ben Ross, had her cutting and hauling logs. It seems obvious that Tubman would have shed any shyness she may have had about taking on labors normally assigned to men, such as being a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
In 1844, Minty Ross married John Tubman, a free black man in Maryland, but she remained a slave (Sernett 17-19). In 1847 Harriet Tubman was sent to work for the son of Anthony Thompson, but when he died two years later Tubman escaped before she could be sold and separated from her family and husband. An ad for the return of an escaped slave was circulated by Eliza Ann Brodess, which would explain why many myths claim that the Brodess' owned Tubman. In the ad, Tubman was referred to as Minty, about 27 years of age, fine-looking, and about 5 feet tall. In her company were Harry (Henry) and Ben, two of Harriet's brothers. The date of the escape was Monday, September 17, 1849; however, the brothers changed their minds and all three returned. About two weeks later Harriet decided to go it alone.
Underground Railroad Conductor
Lucretia Mott, a Philadelphia Quaker and women's suffragist, was reported to be the first person to help Tubman after her escape from slavery (Larson 10). Through Mott, Tubman became connected to the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia. Mott's sister, Martha Coffin Wright in Auburn, New York, was the connection through which Tubman became known to some of the most famous and powerful abolitionists active in America at the time, including Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. One of the letters written to the biographer Sarah Bradford was from Frederick Douglas, in which he declares himself inferior to Tubman by virtue of her greater contributions to ending slavery (Bradford 6-8).
For eleven years following Tubman's escape she worked tirelessly to bring her family members north to freedom in Canada (Larson 7-8). One of the myths circulated at the time was that Tubman was personally responsible for helping over 300 slaves escape north to freedom (Miller), over the course of 19 trips (Larson 7-8); however, Tubman's own words reveal that no more than 13 trips were made and no more than 60-70 slaves were helped north by her personally. Contrary to a number of other accounts, Tubman only traveled to Maryland to help friends and relatives escape, not to other states in the South. This distinction is important because it reveals that Tubman's motives are deeply personal and her family and friends are the direct benefactors of her convictions. Still, the fact that an African-American woman during the pre-Civil War period personally helped close to 60 slaves make their way to freedom in Canada, without ever being captured and with a price on her head of $12,000 (Bradford 21; equal to about $360,000 today), is a remarkable feat indeed and worthy of the many myths surrounding her deeds.
Additional support for Tubman's contributions as a conductor on the Underground Railroad comes from historians who recently began to pore over the many detailed records kept by stationmasters on the Underground Railroad (Larson 13-23). William Still in Philadelphia helped over 1,000 slaves make their way to freedom during the 1950s and Thomas Garrett in Wilmington assisted close to 2,700 headed northward during a 40-year period. The records kept by these stationmasters document encounters with Tubman and the escaped slaves who were being guided by her. The money, food, clothing, and shelter given to Tubman to aid her efforts were documented in great detail. There is no reason to assume that any of Tubman's contributions to the Underground Railroad are fabricated, since these stationmasters documented all encounters with escaped slaves and their conductors, not just the encounters with Tubman.
Much less is known about Tubman's contributions to the war effort, although a signed general affidavit in her own words revealed that she worked as a nurse, cook, and scout commander of eight to nine men during the Civil War (Tubman). In the affidavit Tubman petitioned for a one-time pension payment based on her service to the Union Army separate from the pension she was receiving as a widow of the war veteran Nelson Davis. Congress enacted HB 4982 granting Tubman $25 per month in addition to the war widow pension and President McKinley signed it into law (United States).
In Bradford's biography a number of letters from Colonels, Generals, and cabinet members were presented in their original form, which provided confirmation of Tubman's wartime contributions (64-71). Brigadier General Saxton wrote a letter to Tubman to support her petition to Congress for a pension and in it he confirms that she was both nurse and spy in Florida and South Carolina, often conducting raids behind enemy lines. The letter also confirms that General Hunter made use of her talents and possibly Generals Stevens and Sherman. Based on a letter by Major General Hunter, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts recommended Tubman to Hunter for service in the Army. Henry K. Durrant, Acting Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army, confirms that most of the nation is aware of Tubman's contributions and adds his own recommendation. The Surgeon General of the United States wrote to the Medical Director at the Department of Virginia to confirm Tubman's appointment as nurse in the Colored Hospital in Fort Monroe, VA. The Secretary of State, William H. Seward, states he has "… known her long, and a nobler, higher spirit, or a truer, seldom dwells in the human form" (65).
Such high praise for someone from very humble beginnings is hard to ignore. These adulations and recommendations would be more easily dismissed if they were fueled by political ambition or connections, but no such opportunity existed between these men and Harriet Tubman. The credibility and import of these letters, carried to Bradford by Tubman herself, cannot be easily dismissed and therefore provides considerable support for Tubman's roles as a Union…