Harriet Tubman

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Harriet Tubman
One of the most influential women in American History

Harriet Tubman
(1822 - March 10, 1913)
From Slave, Abolitionist, Underground Railroad Conductor, Union Spy, Humanitarian, Author to Women's Rights and Civil Rights Activist

Frederick Douglass said, "Excepting John Brown -- of sacred memory -- I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."
Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad's "conductors." During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she "never lost a single passenger."

Tubman was born a slave in Maryland's Dorchester County around 1822. At age five or six, she began to work as a house servant. Seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she suffered an injury that would follow her for the rest of her life. Always ready to stand up for someone else, Tubman blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight at the field hand. It fell short, striking Tubman on the head. She never fully recovered from the blow, which subjected her to spells in which she would fall into a deep sleep.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1880)
Harriet Tubman (c. 1880).jpg
Harriet Tubman (c. 1880)

In 1844, she married a free black named John Tubman and assumed his last name. (She was born Araminta Ross; she later changed her first name to Harriet, in honor of her mother.) In 1849, in fear that she, along with the other slaves on the plantation, was to be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She escaped during the night on foot. With some assistance from a friendly white woman, Tubman was on her way. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Pennsylvania, where she found work and saved her money. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister's two children to freedom. Afterwards, Tubman made the dangerous trip back to the South soon to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third return, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North.

The The Fugitive Slave Act 0f 1850 left most refugee slaves vulnerable to recapture, and many fled to the safety and protection of Canada.

Tubman returned to the South numerous times. She devised clever techniques that helped make her "forays" successful, including using the master's horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn't be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, "You'll be free or die."

By 1856, Tubman's capture would have brought a $40,000 reward from the South. On one occasion, she overheard some men reading her wanted poster, which stated that she was illiterate. She promptly pulled out a book and feigned reading it. The ploy was enough to fool the men.

Tubman had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents. Of the famed heroine, who became known as "Moses,"
Frederick Douglass said, "Excepting John Brown -- of sacred memory -- I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than [Harriet Tubman]."
And John Brown, who conferred with "General Tubman" about his plans to raid Harpers Ferry, once said that she was "one of the bravest persons on this continent!"

Becoming friends with the leading abolitionists of the day, Tubman took part in antislavery meetings. On the way to such a meeting in Boston in 1860, in an incident in Troy, New York, she assisted a fugitive slave who had been captured.

During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman worked for the Union as a cook, nurse, and spy. After America's bloodiest conflict, the American Civil War, Tubman settled in Auburn, New York, where she would spend the rest of her long life. She died in 1913.

Sources: PBS, photo courtesy National Archives.

Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton. Publishers Weekly: Clinton has an extraordinary knack of compressing complex history into an informing brief paragraph or a single sentence, making this "first full-scale biography" of Tubman (18251913) a revelation. To the task of illuminating the "difficult to document" life of the woman known as "Moses," Clinton brings her deep immersion in Southern history, women's history and African-American history. Continued below…

Succinctly, she sets the stage upon which Tubman moves, offering just enough biographical detail to give less well-known figures vitality (Mary Shadd Cary gets more space than Frederick Douglass; Union general David Hunter more than William Lloyd Garrison) and just enough historical detail to render Tubman's milieu meaningful (unfamiliar Canadian history gets more space than the familiar Fugitive Slave Acts). Although she often posed as an old woman, Tubman was in her 20s when she began her rescues, and in her mid-30s as the Civil War broke out. Clinton is meticulous (without being annoying) in distinguishing the speculative from the known in Tubman's private life. Of far greater consequence is Clinton's revelation of Tubman's public (though usually clandestine) work. In distinguishing between "runaways" and "fugitives," between "conductors" and "abductors... those who ventured into the South to extract slaves" ("all of them white men" before Tubman), in detailing the extent to which she "never wavered in her support" of John Brown, in chronicling her role in the Combahee River raid, Clinton turns sobriquets into meaningful descriptors of a unique person. In her hands, a familiar legend acquires human dimension with no diminution of its majesty and power.

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Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad. Description: Born a slave, Harriet Tubman dreamed of freedom. And through hard work and her willingness to risk everything-including her life-she was able to make that dream come true. But after making her escape, Harriet realized that her own freedom was not enough. So she became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and devoted her life to helping others make the journey out of bondage. An invisible threat to plantation owners, she served as a symbol of strength and inspiration for her people. She was the legendary "Moses," delivering hundreds from the desert of slavery. With indisputable narrative skill, Ann Petry recreates the life of a woman of great strength, bravery, and unshakable moral fiber.


Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life. From Publishers Weekly: No escaped slave's story grips the American imagination as deeply as Harriet Tubman's, with the melodrama and near mythic grandeur of her frequent returns to slave territory to rescue her family members and scores of others. Since Tubman (1822–1913) never learned to read or write, her story comes second or third hand, offering researchers a challenge and creative nonfiction writers an opportunity. Continued below…

Lowry, a novelist and author of a re-creation of the life of the first African-American woman entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker (Her Dream of Dreams, 2003), "reimagined" Tubman's life in four parts: her childhood as a field slave called Araminta; her marriage, escape and early "rescues" when she was known as Harriet; her legendary Underground Railroad years when she was called Moses; the Civil War years when she was scout and courier for the Union army (John Brown dubbed her "the General"); and her postbellum work with emancipated slaves. Lowry carries the reader through the milestones without slipping into a morass of detail, through legal thickets (largely created by treating persons as property) and Tubman's encounters with many abolitionists without meandering. Tubman's life invites imagining, and Lowry's reader-friendly book, which "does not pretend to be a work of intense scholarship," presents her story with a novelist's sense of pace, suspense and speculation.


Recommended Reading: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. From Publishers Weekly: Few American historical figures are as familiar in legend as Tubman (1822?-1913), and as little known in fact. Although at least 30 juvenile biographies have treated her, Larson's is the first adult biography to appear since Earl Conrad's Harriet Tubman (1943). This pedestrian (in the neutral sense) account presents new investigative sources, utilizing court records and contemporary local newspapers, wills and letters, along with legal and illegal transactions. Continued below…

Larson directs tangled traffic as Tubman and her relatives are "passed down through several generations"; she traces the lives of the white owners as well the black "blended community of free and enslaved people" on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where Tubman grew up in slavery and where she returned time and again to spirit slaves to freedom. In recounting Tubman's routes and ruses, as the figure known as "Moses," Larson freshly identifies many of the escapees as she delineates the solid role of free and enslaved blacks in the Underground Railroad. She identifies Tubman's "sleeping spells, periods of semi-consciousness," as temporal lobe epilepsy. With Tubman's support of John Brown and her activities during the Civil War, Larson arrives where the Tubman legend usually ends with Tubman immortalized "forever as an Underground Railroad Agent and Civil War spy." As in the only other adult biography, Sarah Bradford's Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), Larson follows her subject into her post-Civil War life supporting freedmen in the South and tending to a large household, including a young woman Larson speculates may have been Tubman's daughter.


Recommended Reading: Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) (Hardcover). Publishers Weekly: Conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, Harriet Tubman famously boasted that she could say what most conductors couldn't: "I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." The quote fits with the popular image of Tubman as the courageous, inspired "Moses of Her People," yet Humez, a professor of women's studies and scholar of African-American spiritual autobiography, argues that the edifice of Tubman iconography has concealed the woman herself. Humez has assembled a trove of primary source documents-letters, diaries, memorials, speeches, articles, meeting minutes and testimonies-that create a more intimate portrait of Tubman. Continued below…

But instead of interpreting the rich materials she has collected, Humez offers a biography of Tubman and then includes a scholarly article asserting that since Tubman was illiterate, and her stories and correspondence have been recorded by others, "such texts cannot be read at face value" and must be understood to have undergone at least minimal changes from the author's original statements. Although Humez's prose lacks narrative flair, she aptly places Tubman in a broad historical context, documenting her relations to John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass, Northern abolitionists and the nascent women's movement. The book is at its best in the last two primary-source sections. Through Tubman's documented words and the observations of others, "Aunt Harriet" emerges as an even more charismatic figure than American history has allowed: profoundly spiritual, irreverent, witty, wise, impoverished and ultimately neglected by the Union she defended.

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