February 01, 2005

General Tubman

Who doesn’t know of Harriet Tubman?

Born into slavery in 1820, she boldly fled that “peculiar institution” in 1844. Shortly thereafter, she became the much-heralded “Moses” as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In 19 “raids” into the South, she helped to liberate over 300 slaves, each time risking her life for the freedom of her charges.

Yet, who knows of the complete story about courageous Harriet?

Who knows of her complicity in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry? Or her own raid in Troy, New York where her efforts freed a runaway and dealt a serious blow to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850?

Indeed, who knows of her total commitment to the Union for more than three years of service (a period during which she received only $200 — a sum she used entirely to open a washhouse with which poor, freed Blacks, usually runaways from the secessionist South, could earn a living) during a bitter war?

Born in Bucktown, Maryland, she — like her parents Harriet Green and Benjamin Ross and her 11 brothers and sisters — was “owned” by Edward Broadas, a supposedly “gentle” slaver disposed to Christian benevolence “to those of an ignorant conduct towards life.”

Even as a youngster, Harriet exhibited signs of a rebellious nature.

At the age of 15 or 16, she followed the overseer of the Broadas Plantation who was looking for a slave away from the fields too long. The overseer cornered the renegade man in a local grocery store and ordered Harriet and other slaves to grab hold of him.

Instead, Harriet blocked the overseer as the renegade slave went for the door. The overseer grabbed a two-pound weight and aimed for the escaping man. Unfortunately, he hit Harriet on the left temple, knocking her out and putting her in a coma-like state for several days.

Fearful of losing a profitable young slave, Broadas desperately tried to sell Harriet, contemplating her apparent demise.

Yet, she survived against great odds with a large mark over her left temple and occasional spells of dizziness and sleepiness. This episode in her life appears to have given her the resolve to dedicate her life to disobedience, rebellion and courageous struggle.

She survived near death to become a strong, hard worker. In her early 20s she decided to leave her husband, John Tubman, who ridiculed her desires for freedom and even went so far as to reveal her plans to her owner (he being free from birth, could never understand her desires to exercise her God-given rights).

At the beginning of her escape two of her brothers became fearful of capture and punishment and returned to the plantation and slavery, while Harriet continued onward alone and with little aid.

She made it safely to the North and forever resolved to return to the South as long as there were others so situated as she had been under a brutal and severe system as American slavery.

Her first passengers under her conductorship on the Underground Railroad was one of her sisters, her brother-in-law, and their two children. She would later free several of her other siblings and slaves on plantations neighboring the Broadas plantation. Even her reluctant parents were eventually persuaded to escape to freedom.

So great was her success that a $5,000 bounty was placed on her head: dead or alive!

In 1850, while searching for funds to pay a mortgage on her new home (to be used by her parents and other runaways), she met John Brown, a strict abolitionist with plans to arm Blacks and whites in forcing a conflict to end American slavery.

Brown admired Harriet’s tenacity and bravery so much he called her “General Tubman.” The admiration was mutual and Harriet called him the true martyr for Black freedom and equality, not Lincoln.

For that reason she helped Brown to develop a plan for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Federal arsenal in Virginia.

She suggested the Fourth of July for the assault to ensure the ultimate surprise and a quick takeover. Moreover, she planned to recruit many of the “passengers” she had helped to escape slavery in America to freedom in Canada.

It’s quite possible that Brown’s assault failed because of Harriet’s lack of input in the insurrection during the actual implementation.

At the time of the first date for the attack (July 4th), she was very ill in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her absence forced Brown to delay his plans, for he greatly admired her skill in planning the raid. He also admired her ability to recruit “soldiers” for the initial battle of what was hoped to be the war to end slavery.

No longer able to wait for Tubman, Brown’s group of about 50 raided Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859. His band was able to hold off Federal and local troops and militia for a few days before the authorities regained control of it.

Brown laid down his life in order for Blacks to be free. At the same time the he was being hung on the gallows, Harriet was in hiding in Canada (as were several other prominent anti-slavers, most notably Frederick Douglass), to escape scrutiny, prosecution and certain death for complicity in Brown’s raid.

Less than a year later, Tubman would mount her own “raid,” this one in Troy, New York with the objective of freeing an escaped slave. Charles Nalle was captured by bounty hunters and in the process of being sent back to his master under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
At the courthouse where Nalle was being prepared for a return to the South, a large group opposed to the idea of his re-enslavement protested outside. Tubman worked her way inside the closed courthouse disguised as an elderly woman. After receiving a return decree, Nalle tried to escape through the large windows in the courthouse, only to be stopped short of freedom.

The authorities rushed to have him taken to the police station before being sent back to the South.

Harriet encouraged the crowd to seize Nalle and take him to the riverbank and onto a steamer. However, the police once again captured him on the other side and took him to Police Justice Stewart’s office.

The crowd, several times larger by now, followed and rushed the office with many (mostly women of color) being severely beaten, injured and even killed (reportedly two). They were finally able to get Nalle back and put him on his way to freedom in the West.

General Tubman Commands

Most history books, historians, and — most tragically — students would relegate the great work of Harriet Tubman during the Civil War to that of just a cook or spy/scout. And while she did fulfill these roles, her service went well beyond such light stuff.

Those roles would hardly begin to account for her heroic endeavors and leadership in obtaining victory for a unified nation and the liberation of a race (even if that liberation was partial) so long accustomed to hate, debasement, fear, and inequality.

Indeed, Harriet was one of the first persons in a military or nonmilitary role to go to the war-front. She followed General Butler’s army as it marched through Maryland on the way to the defense of Washington during the months of April and May, 1861.

Under Surgeon Durrant’s orders, she became a field nurse attending to Black and white soldiers in the early stages of the war.

She accepted no pay for her involvement, fearing the disruptive jealousies of newly freed or runaway Blacks who were not used to wages and earning money.

At an early stage of her involvement, military personnel quickly recognized Harriet’s abilities to greatly aid them in their struggles. The area in which they were fighting was greatly known to her for it was not far from her birthplace and it was the general area of many of her “freedom runs.” Therefore, she first became a scout and then a spy, supplying the Union side (that portion being called the Army of the South) with vital information with which to plan and execute campaigns. In the capacity of her several jobs, Harriet was in effect a liaison between military men and Blacks organized in espionage and scouting with special emphasis on experience in the immediate area.

With those tasks in hand, Tubman organized nine scouts and river pilots: Walter Plowden (generally seen as her chief assistant), Issac Hayward, Gabriel Cahern, George Chisolm, Peter Burns, Mott Blake, Sandy Sellers, Charles Simmons, and Samuel Hayward. All of the men had become “contraband” captured from the secessionist South. They all lived or worked in the area of the Department of the South (as far north as Charleston, South Carolina; as far south as Jacksonville and Palatka, Florida) and like her, could easily slip behind enemy lines and gain valuable information.

Her small brigade of spies organized, Tubman planned a quite successful raid on Confederate strongholds along the Combahee River. This was so even though a white officer, Col. Montgomery, officially (if not actually) led 300 Black soldiers in that campaign.

During her services for the Department of the South, Harriet ceased her conductorship on the Underground Railroad. Yet she either solely or as a component, freed slaves or influenced 756 of them to escape to the Union side.

Despite such loyalty to the very Union she helped preserve, she received treatment greatly opposite that afforded to the once disloyal Southerners once Reconstruction ended.

She would fight unsuccessfully for the remainder of her life to be paid the money she justly claimed owed to her for more than three years of service to the Union: $3,800.

The same anti-slavers she had so earnestly worked with and for had given Garrison $50,000 at the end of the war, yet many of them raised not one penny for her cause as she tried in spite of her own poor health, both physically and financially, to provide a home for indigent Blacks. Through it all she never gave up hope, instead preferring to live her life in accordance with one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous quotes from his North-Star newspaper: “We have a future. Everything is possible for us.”

Even when she died on March 10, 1913, she did so courageously and bravely as she invited her friends to her home the night before to sing “Glory Hallelujah.”

copyright © 1992, 2005 ronn taylor/Black Lion Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

Posted by ronn at February 1, 2005 07:42 AM

Wow, Ronn! Thanks for the very inspirational read. Posted by: JW Richard on February 3, 2005 10:14 AM
Thanks JW. I originally wrote that about a dozen yeras ago for "The Shield," the Black Student newspaper at Hunter College. I should have made more edits and cut it down, but... Posted by: ronn [TypeKey Profile Page] on February 3, 2005 10:36 AM
I am working on a book about Harriet Tubman for the National Geographic Society. I very much admire your piece on her. I would greatly appreciate knowinv your source for her going Southj with Gen. Butler.Unlike the well-documented river raid, I fnd little on her work earlier in the war. Thanks in advance for your help. Posted by: Thomas B. Allen on February 18, 2005 03:00 PM
Mr. Allen: I'd be very, very interested in reading the bio once it's complete. Do you tackle any new ground on Tubman? Unfortunately, the above essay was reprinted from a tear-sheet from The Shield, the Black Student newspaper at Hunter College (CUNY). I don't have any of my source material at hand after more than a dozen years. I do remember that all of the info was gathered in an all-day session at the Schomburg. The early work was mentioned in little known and rare to find bio put written by a white women not too long after the Civil War concluded. And some of it may have been mentioned in Harper's. I know it's not much to go on, but that's is the most I can remember. Good luck in tracking down this vital info and if I can be of any assistance, I'll be in touch. Posted by: ronn [TypeKey Profile Page] on February 18, 2005 06:12 PM
i am writeing a book about Harriet Tubman, i thought your version was good and it covered most of her exiteing life, do you know anything else? Posted by: tayla plett on April 25, 2005 02:07 PM